When the viability of the north Atlantic cod fishery started to crumble, there was little holding together many Newfoundland families financially.
Once the moratorium was declared, families that had, for decades, simply fished – and that was enough – were forced to try and make ends meet.
In order to help struggling families in a province so inextricably linked with the fishery, the Federal Government introduced The North Atlantic Groundfish Strategy (TAGS). The program provided income support for displaced fish industry workers, and worked with unions to help provide career diversification to help fisherman make a living in other ways.
Gerald Thompson is now the directorof the Exploits Regional Chamber of Commerce, but for nearly two and a half years in the mid-90s he worked as what was called a TAGS Referee.
Thompson was contracted by the federal government to review the cases of individuals that had applied but didn’t qualify for the TAGS program, and decide whether or not they met the criteria for eligibility. He would travel throughout the island meeting with the people most affected by the collapse of the cod fishery and subsequent moratorium.
“The thing is about the inshore fishery, a lot were families; father-son or husband-wife, so a lot of times I would sit down with two or three people,” said Thompson. “They would bring their information, where they sold their fish to fish plants, what their catch was, and all that stuff, to tell me why they should qualify to get the TAGS program.”
According to Thompson, in order to qualify for the income support part of the program, applicants had to be a full-time fisherman and catch 3,000-pounds of groundfish, such as cod, in the allocated qualifying period.
During a time of such volatility between those involved in the fishery and the government, Thompson said he often got the brunt of people’s frustration.
“In the beginning, everyone thought my job was to make sure these people didn’t qualify and let them say what they had to say and get rid of them…you know, get them off the governments back,” he said. “But that wasn’t it at all.”
Thompson had the difficult position of listening to the stories of dozens of displaced fishery workers, doing research on their cases, and making a recommendation to the federal government on the eligibility of each case.
“In the two-and-a-half years I did that, there was some pretty heart wrenching stories.”
Thompson recalls one story, in particular, about a young couple he met in Harbour Breton.
“(The man) was probably less than 25, and they hadn’t been married all that long,” said Thompson. He went on to explain the story as told to him by the couple.
The young man had been a fisherman that, due to medical reasons, had to take a break from the industry.
“Here’s a young fella, his life was fishing and working and providing for his family, and all of a sudden, he’s got no livelihood,” said Thompson.
According to Thompson, the man became depressed because he couldn’t fish, and his doctor suggested the young man do something to occupy his mind, so he went back to school and did a mechanics course.
“The year he was able to go back to the fishery, he went right back, but because he was only back for six months, he wasn’t there long enough to get the 3,000-pounds of groundfish to qualify for TAGS,” he explained, adding that the man was also told he couldn’t qualify because he left the fishery for mechanics.
During Thompson’s meeting with the couple, he noticed the woman get up from her chair.
“She went over by the window in the room and she started to cry,” he said.
Thompson stopped and asked if there was anything she could do, or if she wanted to take a break.
“She looked at me and said ‘no, but why are you wasting our time? You’re not going to qualify us, so just tell us and we’ll go home,’” he said. “And there was such desperation in her voice, I said ‘nope, that’s not my job, my job is to sit down with you and make sure you understand and have used all your options.’”
In the end, the man did end up qualifying for income supplement, according to Thompson, and all it took was some verification from his doctor.
For each story of helping honest people, Thompson said, he has another about people trying to abuse the system.
“People would come in and give me a song and dance about how they didn’t qualify (for TAGS),” said Thompson. As part of his job, he had to verify the information given to him. Often he would go home and do his research only to find that some people may not have qualified for the TAGS program, but were by no means in rough financial shape.
“When I’d look it up, Joe Blow on the Marianne already made $90,000 from the crab fishery and another $30,000 from the lobster industry, and they come whine and cry to me about how much he might suffer because he didn’t they didn’t get the 3,000 pounds needed to qualify.”
Thompson also said there were a lot of people he felt were left out when the government devised the TAGS program.
“Many people in the fish plants weren’t eligible, because back then there were a lot of really small plants,” he said. “They were sort of left out altogether, like they weren’t part of the fishery.”
While Thompson said he knows there were many flaws in the TAGS program, he does think it was a fundamentally good idea that did help a lot of families during uncertain times.
“Like a lot of programs, it wasn’t the end all be all, but it did serve a purpose to a lot of people,” he said. “I was pleased I was able to play a small part in it.”
Thompson said when he looks back at the 20 years since the cod moratorium, he gets disappointed.
“We’ve been fishing for 500 years, and we just can’t seem to get it right, we go from feast to famine,” he said, adding that while Newfoundland and Labrador’s new wealth in oil and mining is great, when those things run out, there’s nothing left.
“The oil is great, Voisey’s Bay is great, Muskrat Falls, it’s all great – but we need long term-sustainability. Our renewable resources are the future of Newfoundland and Labrador,” he said. “That’s all there is to it.”
Pick up a copy of Monday’s special edition of the Advertiser for more coverage on the impact of cod moratorium 20 years later.