By RYAN COOKE
Special to The Nor’Wester
It was a worst case scenario.
35,000 men and women out of work; many of them knew nothing else in the world except how to do what they had been doing for years.
Entire communities who survived on the sea for centuries were decimated by the collapse of an industry.
Twenty years later, our province has proved its resilient nature by surviving and prospering, despite appearing to be down and out just years before.
But today, concerns are growing over another industry which has proven to be as rocky as the seas it survives on.
Shortly after the collapse of the Atlantic Cod Fishery in 1992, many fishermen in outport Newfoundland communities took to snow crab as a way to remain on the seas. For many of them, it was their only option. Too old to retrain, too young to sit at home and do nothing, they had to do something. Coupled with the saltwater in their veins, handed down from generation to generation, they had no choice but to again search for a living on the waters off Newfoundland.
However, as the saying goes, history often has a way of repeating itself.
This year, quotas in the region off of northeastern Newfoundland (known as the 3K region) were cut by a whopping 22 per cent, leaving many people with a bitter taste in their mouths.
A familiar taste, similar to one they felt 20 years ago.
“It’s getting scarcer and scarcer every year,” said Wayne Welshman, a crab fisherman in Shoe Cove. “It’s going to get worse and worse.”
Welshman, 58, has never known any other way of life than that of a fisherman.
Handed down in his blood from his father, and his father before him, Welshman has grown up on the water. He began working on fishing boats at the age of 14, and has been at it ever since.
In recent years, Welshman and his wife have struggled to fill their quotas by themselves. A life of hard work has left them both with arthritis, which makes it difficult to work the long, hard days required.
Along with his health and penchant for the fishery, Welshman says the fishery itself is also declining.
“It won’t be much longer, I’d say. Everything is going.”
Prior to the moratorium in 1992, Welshman was involved in the cod fishery. He switched to snow crab after the cod disappeared, and now sees similarities to the way things were 20 years ago.
He said he remembers the desperate feeling of not knowing what the next move would be or whether or not he could ever fish again.
It was a desperation felt by thousands upon thousands of Newfoundlanders, from fishermen to truckers, to grocery store workers.
It was a desperation captured on national television, as fishermen stormed the press conference of Fisheries Minister John Crosbie, linking arms as they slammed themselves into the solid double doors that stood between the minister’s speech and those it directly affected.
It’s a desperation that many believe may be back again.
And the anti-Ottawa sentiments remain.
“We’re around 3000 miles away from those who rule us, and they’re all up in ivory towers and they don’t give a care for us,” said Leo Seymour, a lifelong fisherman from Harbour Round.
He sees all too well the similarities between now and 20 years ago, and holds nothing back when prompted to speak about his feelings on the issue.
“They don’t pay any attention to us at all,” he says.
“Look at what we’ve had for Minister of Fisheries. Crosbie, Tobin, Hearn, Ashfield… I’m not saying they’re not smart men. But when it comes to the fisheries, they’re dummies.”
Seymour backs up his talk by pointing out problems that he has seen firsthand throughout his years of experience on the water.
He points to the shrimp boats which he says drag the bottom of the sea with large steel doors, crushing everything in their path. Everything, including the snow crab he needs to fill his quota.
“It’s total destruction,” he said. “Shrimp dragging on the crabbing grounds should never be allowed. Never.”
Seymour believes that if the government doesn’t learn from their past mistakes, and step in before it’s too late, it will mark the end of the fishery in Newfoundland.
“If the crab fishery is gone, b’y, she’s all gone,” he said. “That’s all that’s left.”
If it is indeed a reality, it will be an extremely tough one to face for men like Welshman. 20 years ago, he was in his prime. He was able to adapt, able to accept the situation and go with the options in front of him.
Today he sits short of retirement, but finds himself unwilling to make yet another change.
“I’ve got no alarm to go anywhere,” he said. “I’m 58 years old, where is there to go?”
As for Seymour, his attitude is just as grave and hopeless, but his message comes with a warning.
“It’s going to be a big, big blow to the economy, and it’s going to be a major blow to Newfoundland and Labrador, I guarantee you,” he said. “I don’t see nothing replacing it.”
With those words barely out of his mouth, Seymour’s upbeat and passionate tone turns grave. He no longer rants about the provincial or federal government, but solemnly and soberly offers up what he believes could be a reality and a death sentence to the province he hails from, and to the industry he gave his life to.
“If the crab fishery fails on the coast of Newfoundland, and there’s nothing to replace it…if you think you’ve seen outmigration before, you ain’t seen nothing yet.”