Nfld. & Labrador

Land and Sea: An Icelandic experiment arrives as the fishery collapses

Frustration and hopelessness loomed large in 1992 in Burnt Islands, as the hook-and-line fishery came up empty.

A look back at Burnt Islands in 1992

These boats were typically be out on the water in wintertime, but in 1992 they were tied up at the wharf in Burnt Islands. (Land & Sea 1992)

Things seemed bleak in Burnt Islands when Land & Sea filmed there in the winter of 1992. 

The southwestern Newfoundland town's hook-and-line winter fishery had collapsed over the past five years. The previous year had been the worst one yet.

Fishermen were left standing around on shore instead of working year-round, with their boats tied up at the wharf.

This fish plant once operated seven days a week, and employed 200 people. But by 1991, dozens of employees didn't get enough work to qualify for unemployment insurance. (Land & Sea 1992)

As the fishermen and fish plant workers struggled to get their stamps and find make-work projects, a new experiment arrived in town: a 30-foot fibreglass boat from Iceland, full of top-of-line equipment.

Some saw the boat as the future of the fishery but many others were skeptical — and had begun to believe there was no future for the fishery at all.

'It's enough to make you worry'

The lack of work had left many in the town struggling to make ends meet, and at a loss for how to fill their empty time.

Fisherman Kenny Voltaire made about $35,000 in 1987, he said, but would be lucky to get $10,000 to $12,000 in 1992.

With both her and her husband struggling for work, Debbie Voltaire wanted to go back to school but couldn't afford the $700 fee for a correspondence bookkeeping course. (Land & Sea 1992)

His wife Debbie hadn't made enough that year at the once-busy fish plant to qualify for employment insurance. She said her husband would happily work 12 months a year if he could, and was "not the same person" now.

At age 45, after 30 years in the fishery, Gideon Courtney had sold his 52-foot boat and given up. 

"I don't know where to turn to next and I don't know what's going to happen to us," he said.

"If you sit down and think about it, it's enough to make you worry."

Courtney wasn't alone in his concern. A recent survey in the area had found that 85 per cent of residents believed there was no future in the fishery. 

The Innovate, on the left, had proved successful in Norway and the United Kingdom, and some hoped it would in Newfoundland as well. (Land & Sea 1992)

A European experiment

The town itself was also struggling, as many residents simply could not afford their property taxes.

Burnt Islands' annual budget was about $150,000, said Mayor Kevin Barry, and for 1991 the town was about $50,000 behind in tax collection.

Some were attempting to take their situation into their own hands, protesting at the unemployment office in Port aux Basques to ask for make-work projects.

Boatbuilder Harvey Humby was upset that the Innovate was brought in instead of designed and built in the province. (Land & Sea 1992)

Others were looking for high-tech solutions.

A new 30-foot fibreglass boat had arrived in Burnt Islands: the Innovate, a three-year, $1-million project to see if the vessel could be adapted for the inshore waters around Newfoundland.

But many on shore were skeptical that the boat would work, because they didn't believe there were any fish out there to catch.

"I'm so discouraged and I feels let down by our people, our powers-that-be so to speak, that we wasn't given the chance to design this boat in Newfoundland and built it here and make work for us," said boatbuilder Harvey Humby.

"We don't know if this is going to work, but we don't see anything else happening," said Western Community College President George Anderson, who was involved with the project.

"We'll put the boat out over the fish and we'll see what we can do."

For more archival Land & Sea episodes, visit the CBC Newfoundland and Labrador YouTube page.

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