In the early 1970's prairie humour was evident on a sign on the Alberta - Saskatchewan border. Added to, "You are now leaving Saskatchewan" was "Last one out turn off the lights.”
Nowadays, the lights are shining pretty bright in Saskatchewan as it is in the top tier of provincial economies with theirs driven by oil, potash, crops and livestock.
Last one out seemed to be the case in Newfoundland following the cod moratorium of July 2, 1992. Our population fell from 568,474 in 1991 to 505,464 in 2006. Luckily, it climbed to 514,536 in the 2011 census which meant the hemorrhage of outmigration had halted. How many more people would have gone if not for the crab and shrimp fisheries filling some of the gap left by - no cod?
For those who think we haven't done too badly, they are whistling past the graveyard. The 1991 population of 568,474 will not be reached again until almost a half century later in the 2041 census (the present growth rate must be maintained to get there).
As for managing cod stocks, if there was a Medal for Stupidity there would a long line of recipients (in no order of fault) be it fishermen, its union, fish plant owners and companies and the federal and provincial governments. And we must not forget the foreigners who pillaged fish stocks - legally and illegally.
In the good old days of plenty of fish, stupidity was often seen in summer "fish gluts,” that is too much fish caught the same day with plants unable to process it all. Thus, tons of fish were dumped in the ocean creating offal with good fish. Hideous!
Stupidity was also displayed with capelin, a food supply for cod. In St. John's, around 1990, we saw a beehive of activity as trucks lined up, waiting for their capelin cargo to be hoisted aboard ships (now the offshore vessels tie up spot) bound for Japan. Japanese buyers only wanted females ripe with roe - a delicacy in Japan that commanded top price.
Even the village idiot could figure out - if you eat all the females that haven't spawned - some day you will have none left. That practically happened with the collapse of capelin stocks by 1995. It's only in the past two years that the capelin spawning cycle is showing signs of normalcy. Will healthy new stocks mean a repeat of the quick buck ruinous fishery of the past?
The summer before the moratorium, I and some of our children were on the St. John's waterfront watching a fishing boat unload. The cod coming ashore were huge. I asked one of the hands where the fish were caught. "The Virgin Rocks"(120 kms east of St.John's) said he. Quite an appropriate name as the fish we saw that day may have been some of the last stock of large fish left in the ocean.
It was also in St. John's in early 1974 that I saw the new funny troupe Codco (the Cod Company) debut "Cod on a SticK.” Oh what fun they would have had with the idea of catching a few fish during the allocated time of the so-called Food Fishery. What a silly name! Was cod used for non-food before the moratorium?
Being not able to freely catch fish was one of the dire warnings of those who opposed Confederation in 1949. Our leaders of the day made an dreadful error by not insisting on joint management of fish stocks like offshore oil and gas is govern by the Canada Newfoundland Offshore Petroleum Board. Thus, the fishery has been managed by nincompoops in Ottawa. Some may wonder if nincompoops in St. John's would have done any better?
Maybe if such a joint fish board had existed we would have been as daring as Iceland in the 1972 Cod War with Britain. Perhaps an early aggressive protection of species would have prevented the need to seize the Spanish trawler, Estai, on March 10, 1995 for over-fishing turbot with illegal size nets.
Even if the cod stocks and other species recover, there is a whole new quintal of fish on the table now - the China price.
In the frozen fish section of stores many big brands products are identified with "Product of China.” Even companies here want to ship bulk fish to China for processing. China's costs are pittance compared to ours, thus the lure of big profits is too much for companies to resist.
In the winter of 1964 in the pellet plant lunchroom in Labrador City I listened to co-worker from Catalina describe the scene at night off Bonavista...a floating city of foreign trawlers, just three miles offshore, lit up, zig-zagging, scooping the fish of the sea.
Little did we know back then that our fishermen would join the foreigners in the rape of fishing stocks when the limit was increased to 200 miles. Plundering nature repeatedly gets you your just rewards - no fish - a moratorium! Pity we could not manage a bountiful sea with sustainable catches and provided a good living for many people in perpetuity.
Who cares about cod? We've got oil! Revenue from it skyrocketed quickly and in Brian Peckford's words "one day the sun will shine" as we became a "have province.”
However, the present low price of Brent crude is killing the provincial budget and the glow of our have status. The present price dive of oil could be temporary or indefinite. The latter could mean not just a cut in revenue - but a cut in jobs.
And in that case there could be another exodus to the mainland with the "last one out, turn off the lights" back on the front burner.
Andy Barker at firstname.lastname@example.org