Crisis in the fishery on the Burin Peninsula

The closure of two fish plants left many people on the peninsula collecting employment insurance and wondering what would come next.

Land & Sea 1981: Fishery Crisis

Fish plant workers like these made good money and had work year-round in an industry that employed as many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians as the fishery itself. (Land & Sea 1981)

The Burin Peninsula was long regarded as one of the best and most prosperous fishing areas in Atlantic Canada, one that produced many of the province's best fishermen and seamen.

Things were starting to look very different in the area by 1981, with two of four major fish plants shuttered, and trawlermen and fish plant workers used to working year-round sitting idle.

Fish plants close

The closure of two of the area's fish plants hit many communities hard.

Out-of-work fish plant employee Harriet Hillier said her husband's income alone wasn't enough to sustain their household. (Land & Sea 1981)

Fish plant worker Harriet Hillier said she and the other fish plant workers were concerned about what would come next.

"I think everybody else feels the same, wondering and hoping that it will open," Hillier said.

Some people, like brothers and trawlermen Issac and Michael Slaney of Point May, were considering leaving the area for other work. Both men were trying to get work on oil supply boats in St. John's.

The summer was easier to get through when people were still collecting employment insurance, Michael Slaney said, but things would soon change.

The Slaney brothers were considering leaving fishing behind for work on oil supply boats, even if they would make a lower salary. (Land & Sea 1981)

"When it gets colder, people are really going to find it," he said.

"People are really going to feel the pinch here."

No longer a lifetime job

Some people on the Burin Peninsula were still doing well in the fishery, working full time, but they weren't ignoring what was happening around them.

The Fishery Products International plant, at the time the largest in the province, was still running year-round in Marystown, with up to 1,000 employees, some of the 15,000 people working in fish plants in the province.

Having to ramp down those operations would be a major blow to both the company and the workers, said plant manager Bawne Rea.

"The thought of having [the plant] sit here for two or three months of the year with no fish going through it, is totally out of the question," Rea said.

As a young skipper on a trawler, Phonse Warren was still doing well in the fishery but no longer thought of it as a guaranteed job for life. (Land & Sea 1981)

Phonse Warren, skipper of the Zurita, was still working full time as a trawlerman year-round and wasn't too concerned yet about the fish plant closures, but even he realized that he might not be fishing forever.

"Apparently at one time when you were at this job you had a lifetime job," Warren said, "but I don't think of it that way anymore."

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