Upper Access, Inc., Book Publishers, 2004

242 pages
US $24.95/Canada $33.95

Where the “Fish” are Gone

Myron Arms has sailed the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador at least nine times, researching other books and training new sailors in the art of ocean voyaging in northern waters. Shocked by the changes in he observed during this relatively short period of time in the province’s all-important cod fishery, he felt compelled to write Servants of the Fish.

During his earlier trips, Arms became aware of the economic and cultural importance of codfishing to the tiny harbors he entered. Often he entered the same harbors and again encountered people he came to consider friends. As he watched the fish decline in subsequent years and the fishing boats disappear from the docks, he decided to tell the story of the cod’s demise and its effect on the fishermen and all other residents of the province that owes its very existence to cod.

The title comes from a Newfoundland term, defined before the book’s start using the Dictionary of Newfoundland English, as “men or women indentured or engaged on wages or shares for a period in the (cod) fishery…. sharesmen … usually paid very low wages.”

Another quote, this one anonymous, points out that “Salmon is salmon, trout is trout. The same with herring, capelin and the rest. But to a Newfoundlander cod only is fish.” In his introduction, Arms leaves no doubt about his reason for writing the book: “Newfoundland is a victim, both of her own and the world’s excesses. Newfoundland is a warning signal, a microcosm of the planet itself.”

The tale Arms tells is threefold. It’s primarily the story of Newfoundlanders, the old friends and recent acquaintances Arms interviews and quotes extensively, allowing their voices to speak in their own words, pointedly and poignantly, as they chronicle a disaster that might have been averted had others heeded their voices earlier.

“Funny thing is, we seen it coming. Long time before they told us anything, we little fellas seen it. Starting in `eighty five, maybe `eighty six, we seen the fish getting smaller, the catch dropping every year,” said Tobias Foley, a fisherman from Cow Head, a tiny town at the start of the Northern Peninsula. “But the big boys in St. John’s, the bureaucrats the scientists, they wouldn’t listen.”

Alongside the sections where Arms describes ports and quotes the Newfoundlanders he encounters in them, are sections where he records the history of the island itself, and the unprecedented collapse of the cod fishery, citing statistics and catch records, documenting the plummeting stocks and the probably causes for the crash.

As part of the island’s history, he tells of its settlement by the English, the French and Irish — the original fishermen came from Europe each spring and returned in the fall, settlement being forbidden so the European countries could prevent settlers from assuming `ownership’ of the fish.

A third tale is that of BRENDAN’S ISLE, his faithful 50-foot fiberglass cutter and its crew of young students. Sailors will enjoy the descriptions of entering tricky ports, being fogbound and stuck for days, the threat posed by a sudden storm in a spot surrounded by inhospitable granite cliffs, the challenges and joys of shipboard cooking and the crew’s learning experiences, some never to be repeated.

Interspersed through all three tales are the author’s musings, thoughtful and informed, on the plight of the fishery and its implications for the province, the residents and the greater world. Throughout, he queries fisheries scientists and managers about the theory that increasing numbers of seals are eating the juvenile cod and therefore preventing a return to a commercially viable biomass. He also questions managers about the higher quotas for northern shrimp and snow crab, fisheries that have assumed great economic importance since the collapse of the cod, asking if the lesson of the cod might be repeated in these other stocks.

Answers to many of his questions are ambiguous, as he portrays a community of scientists and managers torn between the need to conservatively protect fish stocks and the desire to help small communities survive. He interviewed former federal fisheries minister, John Crosbie, who had the dubious distinction of announcing the shutdown of the fishery in July 1992, while radio news equipment recorded the sounds of angry fishermen banging on the locked door, screaming at him. Arms also talked to scientists who wrote a dissenting scientific opinion from within the Department of Fisheries and Oceans just prior to the collapse. The three had determined the DFO’s assessment of the cod stocks was much too high. But their minority report was ignored, a quota was issued, and soon after, the moratorium was imposed when fishermen failed to catch anywhere near the quota and the calamitous condition of the stocks became apparent.

Those dissenting scientists are still doing research on fisheries and their conversations with Arms are noteworthy. Another researcher, marine biologist Richard Haedrich, a transplanted New Englander who is a professor at Memorial University in St. John’s, also provides thought-provoking theories and proposals about the fishery. He puts forth the possibility of managing fisheries in a sustainable manner by setting up seasonal fisheries, no-fish zones and gear restrictions. He and other scientists also have proposed removing scientists from the DFO — taking them off the government payroll — and setting up an independent fisheries science board.

“Trouble is, even in a place like Newfoundland where we’ve experienced the problem firsthand, people are only paying lip service to ideas like these,” Haedrich told Arms. “In reality, very little is changing.”

Amid the stories of personal loss and family disruption, Arms also finds the flashes of courage and the stubborn resilience of people attached to their land who insist on finding a way to survive against all odds.

Arms is a lecturer with graduate degrees from Yale and Harvard. An earlier book, Riddle of the Ice, documents the effects of the icebergs that snap off the ice fields of Greenland and travel through “Iceberg Alley” along the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador, and the connection between the iced-in harbors and weather.

Although footnotes do not appear in the text of the book, Servants has a large section in the back annotating the sources for all the information and an eight-page bibliography. In the Epilogue, Arms quotes scientist Random Myers about the “shifting baselines” used by managers and fishermen who keep on redefining “normal” as they adapt to changing fish populations and increasingly degraded eco-systems, including the New England fisheries.

“Collectively we succumb to a kind of global memory loss, forgetting just how many fish once roamed the seas and how large they once were,” Myers told Arms. “What this means is that fishing’s impact on ocean ecosystems has been continually underestimated, so that even our best restoration efforts have been using targets that are way too low.”

Jeff Hutchings, another fisheries scientist, offers a ray of hope saying, “It’s not time to throw up our hands in surrender — not yet anyway.” He believes raising consciousness and bringing all the concerned groups together to understand the depth of the problems facing fisheries are the first steps toward implementing a long-term strategy to restore and then protect fish stocks.

All three of the tales Arms tells are straightforward and accessible. Servants is a combination of reportage, history, memoir and philosophical musing. “In a very real sense we are all Newfoundlanders,” Arms observes at the end. “The difficult choices that they face as they try to resolve the crisis in their fisheries are the choices we all face as we try to determine how to live sustainably on a planet that is fragile and finite and surprisingly small.”