Controversial artwork portrays death of cod fishery
Ben Ploughman wants people to know why recovery of the cod should be a priority
the Northern Pen - Monday July 11, 2005
I recently created a piece of folk art entitled 'Crucifixion of the Cod'. I displayed this piece at a local restaurant in Port au Choix, as I've done with other works over the past number of years throughout the tourist season.
One day the telephone rang and the owner of the restaurant asked me if I could come to the restaurant and take the picture down. Apparently, a CFA (Come From Away) wearing a sweatshirt with the words 'Newfoundlanders club baby seals don' t they?' became offended and angry when she saw my picture on the wall.
She tried to start an argument with one of the waitresses over the meaning of the picture and went on to say, "I wouldn't hang THAT picture on my wall." The waitresses just ignored her and went about doing their job. A couple of days earlier, another person eyed the picture and passed a few disapproving comments to one of the waitresses.
That's the negative response to my picture!
Fearing the picture would be bad for business during the short tourist season, the restaurant owner, who's a close relative of mine, asked me to remove it and replace it with another. I gladly removed the Crucifixion of the Cod and replaced it with 'Ten Angry Fishfolk'. I returned to my studio and proudly hung it on the wall in the work area, where I can look at it and enjoy its beauty every day.
On the other hand, here's the positive response I've received from Crucifixion of the Cod, Two tourists showed up at my studio after seeing my picture at the same restaurant before I removed it. They went on to tell me that they could not leave town without meeting the man who came up with Crucifixion of the Cod. They said it was one of the most powerful and beautiful pieces of art that they've ever seen and shook my hand. They wanted to know where I got the inspiration for such a picture. I told them the inspiration came to me in a flash while munching on popcorn and sipping on soda while watching Mel Gibson's Passion of The Christ in a movie theatre.
An important story
They told me they were only ordinary tourists and hadn't budgeted that much money for a three-dimensional wooden picture. Before they left they told me that once they returned to British Columbia they were going to try to find a way to come up with the money and phone or e-mail their order in.
Little do they know, the price of Crucifixion of the Cod has since tripled in price.
Two other gentlemen visiting from Toronto saw the picture in my studio just recently and fell in love with it. It was their favourite of all the pictures in my studio. They too said they couldn't afford to buy the piece. Instead they bought a less expensive picture.
Since then I've been explaining and telling the story of Crucifixion of the Cod to the few tourists who are dropping by to see my picture.
Recently, on my new and first computer, I sent my first e-mail. I sent it into cyberspace to christ@ heaven.universe.
I asked Him if I could borrow His wooden cross to tell a very important Newfoundland story. I kept checking my e-mail every day, but there was no reply. I figured He was so busy dealing with poverty in Third World countries and wars in the Middle East that He just didn't have the time to reply.
With time running out, I went ahead and borrowed His wooden cross and recycled it to tell the story of the Crucifixion of the Cod. I don't think He would have said no.
The question being asked by many is. "Why did I nail a salt, dry cod to a wooden cross?"
For some 13 years now I have been labelled a new wave folk artist, or, in other words, a modern- day self-taught, outside the norm artist. As an artist I have an artistic licence to express myself freely - whether it be in pictures or in print.
A lot of outport people know, but can't express in writing how we crucified the cod. I truly and honestly believe in my heart and soul that I am writing on their behalf. So I'll do my best to hold a pen for the greater majority of outport people. It's a story that needs to be told and tell it I will.
It all began years ago when foreign draggers and factory freezers showed up just off our shores, bringing with them a fishing technique known as Otter trawl technology. The otter trawl gets it's name from the first boat to drag the bottom using this type of fishing gear. Its name was The Otter. Newfoundland fishermen were inshore catching cod using the traditional methods of jigging, cod traps, hook and line, and gillnets.
Someone got the bright idea that we should start doing what the foreigners were doing. Adopt this Otter trawl technology and start scooping up cod in huge bunches. It seemed, and later proved to be, the fastest way to catch
large volumes of cod. It seemed so simple. So, we went about adopting the otter trawl technology. We outfitted our own fleet of offshore draggers with the otter trawls and we outfitted our own inshore fleet of smaller draggers with otter trawls. All of a sudden we were dragging for cod in coastal water.
With our own Canadian fleet of draggers and the foreign fleet of draggers we dragged for cod offshore, inside and outside the newly-named 200-mile limit. Not all Newfoundland fishermen adopted this new technology. Most were content to stick with the traditional methods of harvesting cod.
Under Confederation, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) was handed the right to manage our fish stock. They went about issuing licences to the inshore and offshore Canadian fleets to use the otter trawl technology to catch cod. That was the beginning of the end.
Row a dory around the rugged shores of Newfoundland and call into the coves, bays, harbors, inlets and tickles. Ask this question to the fishermen you meet: "In one word, what happened to the cod?" 99.9 per cent of them will reply, "Draggers" Well, what then is a dragger? A dragger catches cod and other species by dragging a huge net, called an otter trawl, along the bottom.
An otter trawl is a cone-shaped net consisting of floats at the top to keep the net open vertically. On the bottom of the net is the footgear consisting of cables, rubber or iron rollers, spacers, chains and other gadgets designed to keep the net weighted and in direct contact with the bottom.
On each side of the net and also located up front, some distance from the mouth of the net are two huge otter boards called doors. The purpose is to keep the net open horizontally when it is dragged along the bottom. These doors are huge on larger draggers and weigh thousands of pounds. They are in direct contact with the bottom just as the foot gear of the trawl is.
Scooping up large schools of fish
The doors are connected to the stern of the dragger by two long cables up to thousands of feet in length, attached to huge wenches aboard the dragger. This huge otter trawl is then towed along the bottom of the ocean, scooping up large schools of fish as it moves forward. That's the set-up. For a more detailed description, go to an Internet search engine, like Google, and type in otter trawl technology.
Here's where the trouble begins. As the otter trawl is being towed, the two large weighted doors in front of the trawl are in direct ground contact with the bottom. The two huge heavy doors partially embed themselves into the bottom sediment stirring up clouds of sediment and mud and they leave large marks entrenched on the bottom. The heavy weighted footgear on the other hand does the same, but causes even more damage to the bottom and to the inhabitants living there.
As the footgear tumbles, rumbles and rolls along, it also destroys and disrupts cod fish habitat and any other critters or plants living there. For pictures and diagram of otter trawl in use go to an internet search engine, like Google, and type in otter trawl and foreign draggers. Drag the bottom for 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, 30, 40, 50 years straight with a fleet of small. medium and large otter trawl draggers owned by Canada and foreign countries and guess what? You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure this one out.
The final results are the harmful alteration, disruption and destruction of fish habitat. That's in total conflict with section 35 of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Fisheries Act, which states:
Section 35: No person shall carry on any work or undertaking that results in the harmful alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat.
Section 34: Fish habitat means spawning grounds and nursery, rearing, food supply and migration areas on which fish depend directly or indirectly in order to carry out their life processes ...
Otter trawl draggers got, their licence to drag for cod from Ottawa. Therefore, DFO should be held responsible for the crucifixion of the cod in Newfoundland. In 1949, when Newfoundland joined Canada, or as some of like to say, when Canada joined Newfoundland, we gave over the responsibility of managing and protecting our fish stocks to Ottawa. Even today, 1,000-plus civil servants are employed in Ottawa to supposedly regulate Newfoundland's fishery. They've failed miserably.
No action has been taken because unlike clear cutting all land in British Columbia, the destruction of the ocean bottom is not visible unless you own a submersible, submarine or you are a deep water scuba diver. But there are a few videos out there that show otter trawls being towed and they are in direct contact with the ocean floor.
Where are the David Suzukis of the world?
The otter trawl technology is a problem all over the world, not just in Newfoundland and Labrador. For more info on the recent court case in Nova Scotia between the Ecology Action Centre (EAC) and DFO concerning the harmful alteration, disruption and destruction of fish habitat, go to Google and type in 'destruction of fish habitat court case'.
Recently we've had two Newfoundlanders who were federal fisheries ministers in Ottawa: John Crosbie and Brian Tobin. Both former ministers must have read and understood the Fisheries Act, especially Section 35, which outlines the government's rules on the destruction, disruption, and alteration of fish habitat. Yet, both issued licences to inshore and offshore otter trawl fleets that tore the living daylights out of the ocean's bottom.
Both ministers should be held accountable for issuing fishing licences to otter trawlers to drag the ocean bottom in direct violation of Section 35 of the Fisheries Act. No doubt, Mr. Tobin did a few good things, but there's a lot of things he didn't do. Tobin's Turbot War is a war he started, but did not finish.
The winter cod fishery years ago in the Southern Gulf of St. Lawrence saw large unreported catches of cod, cod sold for cash, and the use of illegal fishing gear (liners). Deckhands and skippers know what liners are. The public doesn't. Draggers dragged through spawning grounds, scooping up large volumes of cod. Deckhands stood on deck, cleaning the cod, up to their knees in spawn (the fish of the future). Things were out of control and DFO stood silently by.
Crippled for Life
The recovery of the cod has to go back on the table as the number one priority for both levels of government. Cod is and hopefully always will be the backbone of Newfoundland. Without a backbone, Newfoundland will be crippled for life. Offshore oil and tourism can fight it out for second and third place, but cod must be top priority. Cod was king in the days of John Cabot and cod must rise to be king again if outport people are to find our place, find our niche, in this marvellous, terrible place.
The Species At Risk Act (SARA) and the Re-entry Strategy for Otter Trawl draggers announced just recently by DFO is in total conflict with one another. On one hand, we are being told that the cod is at historically low levels and needs immediate attention so we don't wipe out a whole species. On the other hand we are being told it's okay for the draggers to go back dragging for a cod quota once again to destroy fish habitat, tear the living day lights out of the bottom and further cause the cod stocks to decline.
If the otter trawl fleet is entitled to a cod quota as set out by DFO, and if DFO is serious about helping the cod to recover, they should compensate the local draggers by buying the cod quotas back from them, but leave those cod in the ocean to go forth and multiply. Governments have to get draggers off the bottom before cod can be king once more.
Outport Newfoundland is dying and no one in government seems to give a damn. Outward migration continues today after 13 years and it's getting worst. We have a brain drain of young, educated people occurring in outport Newfoundland, many of whom we may never see too much of again. Why is it that the friendliest people in the world have to leave one of the most beautiful places in the world to find work? They have gone, and are going, north, south, east and west, and little is being done by our so-called leaders to prevent it.
Outport Newfoundland is headed towards the bottom of a barrel - a barrel with no bottom. There 's more than one Harbour Breton in Newfoundland. This outward migration of our educated, and not so educated, must stop as soon as possible, or Newfoundland will- be nothing but one big old age home in the not too distant future. It's time for outport Newfoundland to rise up and protect their young from having to leave.
One of my buddies from around the bay just recently put his son on a plane for Fort McMurray, went home, sat on his son's bed, and cried like a baby.
DFO scientists just reported that the capelin stocks are on the rebound. Catches are returning to peak levels of the 1980s, so they increase the quotas in some areas by nearly 100 per cent. Outport people believe that to be a bunch of crap. The capelin don't roll on our sandy beaches like they used to. We remember back when the capelin, the main diet of the cod, used to roll knee deep, sometimes waist high, all along a five-mile section of beach between Port au Choix and Port Saunders. That doesn't happen anymore.
During certain times of the year, usually late spring, unwanted fish get caught in shrimp otter trawls. This unwanted fish is referred to as dirt. But the real definition of dirt for Newfoundlanders refers to all the little fish that were supposed to be the fish of the future. They never got the chance to grow up. They all died in early age. DFO called this accidental catch. We called it crucifixion of the young and the sad part is it is still happening today.
In the early stages of the otter trawl fishery, crewmembers on draggers have at one time identified numerous other species of fish and bottom dwelling organisms being destroyed while fishing for shrimp.
When the young of such fish species come to the surface mixed in with the shrimp at the cod-end of a shrimp otter trawl, most of them either died from suffocation or their livers blew up or their eye balls popped. In any case, only a few tough skinned species made their way back to the bottom after being sorted from the shrimp catches. In the past, skippers ordered deckhands to flush unwanted catches overboard with powerful water hoses or shovel it overboard using big, plastic snow shovels.
Deckhands from years past can be heard today saying: "We shovelled our future overboard years ago." The young cod and young redfish floated lifelessly on the surface, only to be eaten by flocks of screaming seagulls. The seagull population exploded due to the abundance of dirt, and the dirt's population declined drastically. Then came the Nordmore Grate, but it was too late, For more information on the Nordmore Grate go to a search engine, like Google, and type in Nordmore Grate.
Tons and tons of capelin have been and are still being seined by small and large seiners in Atlantic Canada. In the past, if the ratios between males and females were not at an acceptable percentage as dictated by the buyers, they were released from the seine. Many died and fell down through the water column, only to settle on the bottom, forming a huge white sheet.
Food fishery Justified
Under the Terms of Union between the Dominion of Newfoundland and Canada signed in 1949, it is understood that we did not give up our right to fish for a reasonable amount of cod for personal consumption within a three-mile coastal zone, from headland to head land. Therefore, we feel that there is indeed enough cod out there to have a food fishery all around the shores of Newfoundland and increase the quota for small boat fishermen and fisherwomen to catch cod using traditional methods.
Let fisherfolk do what they are supposed to do - fish cod for a living. Don't deny them that light. We can' t afford to.
The cod has had 13 years to recover since the moratorium was announced in 1992. The latest DFO scientific study says there are now only two percent of cod in the waters around Newfoundland as there were in the 1960s. DFO scientists have been known to be wrong. For example, they grossly overestimated the biomass of cod prior to the moratorium. They had the cod on their computers in Ottawa, but the cod were not in the waters here in Newfoundland.
Today, DFO has too many seals on their computers in Ottawa, but little is being done to control this exploding population. We have too many seals eating too many fish, but that's another story in itself.
What better scientific facts can one get than those supplied by fishermen themselves. In the past they were never listened to. Today fishermen tell us that there are plenty of healthy cod swimming in the harbours, coves and bays, all around Newfoundland, especially in areas where draggers didn't drag the bottom. We can't turn to under-utilized species to fish for anymore because there are no under-utilized species left. The snow crab, which was once considered an under-utilized species. is today going the way of the cod due to over fishing.
Part of the solution is to ban all groundfish dragging in the Gulf of St Lawrence. Let's get the destructive otter trawl off the bottom for good! DFO should immediately buy back groundfish otter trawl licences or have the mobile dragging fleet convert back to old fashioned cod fishing techniques.
In closing, Joey Smallwood once said, "Next to life itself, Confederation has been the greatest blessing under God to the people of Newfoundland." Some of us are questioning that statement today and thinking of the possibility of flying our own pink, white, and green flag once again if things don' t change real soon.
In God we trust, in cod we trust, as well.
That's my story and I'm stickin' to it!
(Ben J. Ploughman is a folk artist who operates ...
Ben 's Studio at Port au Choix. He can be
reached through his website at www.bensstudio.ca).