Who are we now? 20 years without cod

The fishery dilemma, family style

Essay by Megan Coles

Megan Coles
Megan Coles is a writer and former lobster fisherman living in St. John's.

My parents are in town visiting because my middle sister has had her wisdom teeth removed.

We are all sitting on the couch with arms braided over legs braided over laps talking when conflict breaks out between dad and I. Some might diplomatically refer to the five-hour conversation that follows as a father-daughter debate, but in all honesty, we are having a racket.

Another version of the same racket we've been having off and on for over a decade.

I think dad should give up lobster fishing.

The crux: my father is the only person still fishing while based on a deserted island in the Strait of Belle Isle. He's the only person aboard his small open boat. I think this incredibly unsafe.

Offhandedly suggesting he might give up fishing sets off a familial bomb. My mom is suddenly quiet and my sisters retreat after pleas for us to "give it up" go unacknowledged.

The fishery is why Newfoundland and Labrador exists. It gave us a home. To fathom a future without it feels like a sort of betrayal. Our provincial identity is so tangled up in our own perception of ourselves as fisherpeople that it is impossible to recognize ourselves otherwise.

We waste ourselves wondering about the fishery's viability. Politicians exploit us with it, we wound each other because of it and no amount of scientific evidence will convince anyone of anything. Our devotion to our shared heritage acts as a gag. We can hardly talk about it and we can't stop talking about it because we are too emotionally connected to it.

My father's determination to pursue a livelihood and my concern for his welfare make us irrational. Think "if I can't make my own father understand, I'll never make anyone understand." He likely thinks the same about me. We punctuate our sentences with an abundance of finger-pointing and arm waving. I worry that we'll never be able to hear each other because our hearts are too high in our throats.

It is the same for every Newfoundlander and Labradorian trying to discuss the fishery. We're all half hysterical about the depletion of the cod stocks even now 20 years on. We have a lot of resentment mixed with a fair share of guilt whether we are willing to admit it or not. Because we had something amazing and it was destroyed. And we're all implicated. I'm implicated. I've fished and I'd fish again if I felt I had to.

Many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians of my father's generation feel they have to fish. And we want them to fish, the rest of us. We need someone to fish because that is how we self-identify. There is a reason everyone owns a picture of a half-rotten outboard boat hauled ashore.

The image of a desolate dory decomposing on the land-wash hauls my guts out. Imagining a day without a fishery makes me sick, but I do so anyway because I have to. We all have to. We have to give up the romanticizing. We have to put our emotions aside and think rationally about who we are.

Who we are used to be one and the same as what we did, but that's no longer true. Which is not to say that the characteristics we have long associated with working in the fishery no longer exist.

We are still hard working, determined, friendly people who exhibit great pride and intelligence in the face of great adversity. Our creativity and sense of humour enabled us to build a home on this rock. We are passionate and we have heart. We are all of these things whether we're in a boat or not. Our enduring devotion to our home and each other is one of the reasons we haven't yet worked it all out.

It's admirable in a way.

And it's also why we sometimes spend Friday nights having rackets, I mean debates, with our fathers.