Land & Sea

Fishermen blame draggers as the inshore fishery fails

The inshore fishery around the Bonavista Peninsula was bleak for the second summer in a row, and fishermen placed the blame on deepsea draggers.

From Land & Sea in 1986, an episode about a bleak season on the Bonavista Peninsula

Were deepsea draggers, alleged to have wasteful practices like the dumping of bycatch seen here, responsible for the poor inshore fishery on the Bonavista Peninsula? (Land & Sea 1986)

The inshore fishery on the Bonavista Peninsula was showing signs of failure in 1986.

The fishery had failed the previous year as well, and fisheries scientists had blamed it on colder water temperatures — the chilliest in 20 years — keeping fish offshore.

But even though the water temperature was normal the next summer, the fish hadn't returned. Scientists said at the time that they didn't know why the cod weren't returning as expected, but some area fishermen thought they must have more information than they were letting on.

Tom Best of Petty Harbour believed that scientists were being kept from talking about the impact of dragging on fish stocks. (Land & Sea 1986)

"It's our suspicions that they happen to believe strongly in what many fishermen are saying, that their evidence points to the same problem areas, and that we've got a major problem in the offshore right now that relates to the big companies and the big draggers depleting the stocks," said Tom Best, a fisherman in Petty Harbour.

The demands and constraints of their political bosses wouldn't allow scientists to say aloud what was obvious to many on the water, Best believed, and he wasn't alone.

The problem of draggers

The big companies and their draggers were still catching northern cod, taking more than 90 per cent of their quotas on the Funk Island banks.

Inshore fishermen in Labrador were having a big year, their best in a long time, but things were different for those further south who depended on fish migrating from around the Funks.

Northern cod could be found from Hopedale to Cape St. Mary's, but the deepsea draggers caught 90 per cent of their quota around Funk Island. (Land & Sea 1986)

In towns like Bonavista, which lives and dies by the inshore fishery, people were hurting. Sales were down at the Riff's department store, for example.

"The economy now, it's bleak. People are coming in and they haven't got the money to spend. They're only going to buy the things that they really need right now," said store manager Elwood Fisher.

Fisherman Mercer Cullimore of Little Catalina had worked on the trawlers and seen the huge amounts of fish hauled in, as well as the waste when small fish and unwanted species were dumped.

Mercer Cullimore had worked on draggers and described the waste he saw on board. 'The draggers got it all caught up. What they haven't got caught up, they've got killed and everything else,' he said. (Land & Sea 1986)

But he acknowledged that just like him, those in the area who relied on those trawlers for work — such as people working in fish plants — just wanted a decent day's work. Cullimore figured things would get rough before they got better.

"It's going to be a racket. There's gotta be a racket before she's straightened out."

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

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador