Tuesday, February 12, 2013

On Futility

There is no longer a Newfoundland fishery.

It existed for centuries and employed thousands of people, with many more engaged in processing, exporting and transporting the catch.

Then it got overfished. It collapsed in the early 90s, and it crashed hard: in some areas, stocks declined 99% over 50 years.

The fisheries have been under a moratorium for exactly 20 years now. There has been no improvement. Instead, the ecosystem is changing: invasive species are moving in, predators are devastating the remaining populations, and there is little to no evidence of a recovery. The Newfoundland fisheries are, for all intents and purposes, dead.

Large numbers of Newfoundlanders refuse to accept this. They demand that the fisheries be re-opened, as if the fish are merely hiding: the second a boat hits the water, the cod will come leaping out of the surf by the thousands, eager to be caught.

Others have accepted that the fisheries are dead, but insist that the jobs need to find them: they’re going to sit tight and wait for the government to find an industry for each and every teeny, tiny dot on the map. Even the towns with only a dozen residents. Even the towns accessible only by sea. Even the towns without reliable electricity or running water.

The hinky thing is that the young people seem to get it.

Those who graduated high school in or before 1993 (the year in which the fisheries were closed) have some of the lowest rates of educational attainment in their cohorts, and successive attempts to launch “second career” programs for laid-off fisheries workers haven’t so much as made a dent in these figures.

Those who graduated in or after 2003 have some of the highest.

Young Newfoundlanders are graduating from university, moving into the information and service sectors, finding full-time jobs, moving for economic opportunities, saving, starting families, and otherwise living lives very much in line with those of their off-island counterparts.

Old Newfoundlanders aren’t. They’re staying put. And every election cycle, some politician or another is accosted about how the local fisheries are still closed. The person jabbing the finger in the Premier’s face is never under 40.

These are people who lost their jobs decades earlier, but still cling to the idea that if they just pressure the government enough, if they just sit tight a little bit longer, if they just keep their noses down, if they just let their sore feelings fester a little, then everything will be reset to the year 1960 and you won’t be able to swim in the Atlantic for all the cod.

In short, these people are deluding themselves.

But the Premiers go along with it, and so do the federal politicians. The only thing keeping rural Newfoundland from backsliding to a state normally associated with war-torn third-world countries is what amounts to government-backed defrauding of the employment insurance system. Provincially, every election we hear about the exciting new industries which the incoming government will bring to rural Newfoundland (but which never appear).

To governments, it’s far easier to ensure that these people have broadband internet and cell phones than to tackle anything head-on. (Any sort of active confrontation would be political suicide.) Besides, Newfoundland currently has revenues from offshore oil which allow for such programs of frills and distractions, and in typical oil-money fashion nobody is paying too much attention to what’s going to happen in a decade or so once that income runs out.

In the long term, this problem will sort itself out. The Old Newfoundlanders are dying off, a process which will accelerate greatly in the next two decades as they begin to hit their 60s. Many of the communities to which they cling will be ghost towns within their lifetimes.

That’s probably the most tragic part.

No matter what these people do, their communities are doomed. Some small number might be salvaged as tourist destinations or seaside resorts, but the vast majority will simply fall off the map.

And all this anger, rage, political distortion, finger-pointing, denial and isolation will have been meaningless. Nothing will have been saved or preserved.

The cod aren’t coming back. No industry will ever replace it. And all that remains is the long wait as the stragglers slowly die off. A dozen residents this year, eight by 2020, five by 2030, one by 2040. Then, poof: gone forever by 2043.

A 100% decline in less than 50 years.


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