Resilience and Change on Fogo Island

Guest contribution by Amanda Barney.

According to the flat earth society, Fogo Island is one of the four corners of the earth. It also boasts a rich history intimately linked to the North Atlantic cod fishery which contains a series of events that set it apart from the rest of Newfoundland and which fueled my desire to investigate the social fabric of the island.

Approaching Fogo Island

Approaching Fogo Island

These events began with a series of films produced in the late 1960s as part of the National Film Board of Canada’s Challenge for Change. The films helped the people from the different communities on Fogo Island recognize they were more alike than they were different, and that they hoped for some of the same things – namely the chance to maintain their inshore fishery and stay in the place that was home. In 1967, following the production of the first Fogo Island films, the Fogo Island Co-Operative Society was formed allowing the inshore fishery to remain competitive with the ever-growing offshore industry. Over time, the use of film and participatory video to help people share their stories and make collective community decisions became known as the Fogo Process.

In the years leading up to the 1992 federal moratorium on the North Atlantic cod fishery, Fogo Islanders had continued to adapt to changes in that and other local fisheries. I wanted to go to Fogo Island and see if the legacy of the Fogo Process and their co-operative had made communities there any more resilient than other Newfoundland communities to after effects of the moratorium. I also wanted to see what changes they anticipated on the island with the major investments in tourism and the arts led by Fogo Island native and tech-boom multimillionaire Zita Cobb.

Fogo Island

Fogo Island

As often happens when you head off somewhere with a certain set of expectations – or when you start a project with outcomes in mind – I was caught completely off guard by Fogo Island and its people. Simply put, it was an eye-opening and heart-breaking experience in one of the most incredible places I’ve visited.

I knew that people had struggled following the collapse of the inshore cod fishery, but because of their fishing co-operative and ability to engage in other fisheries, I went to Fogo thinking that the shock of the moratorium would have somehow been less destructive than in other places. And while this has been true to some extent, the stories I heard were still tragic: stories of fishermen with severance packages and time on their hands suddenly being able to leave the island to do their shopping and in doing so causing the closure of corner stores and markets; stories of third and fourth generation fishermen watching their sons and daughters leave the island because their way of life – the fishing life – couldn’t sustain an entire next generation; stories that shed some light onto the true value of small scale fisheries to communities.

A fleet of small boats working the grounds is worth way more than the landed value of their catch, fishing is more than an industry or economic cornerstone, it is a way of life, a culture, and a type of work that ties a person so tightly to place that it touches and shapes all parts of a community. I have found this to be true of all the fishing places I have had the good fortune to live in and visit – my hometown of St. John’s, the outport communities of Trinity Bay Newfoundland and those of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, the coastal towns all along the West Coast of North and South America, including my adopted home of Prince Rupert, British Columbia. And all of these places face the same challenges as fisheries become industrialized and different industries take root in communities traditionally grounded in the sea.

But this is not meant to be another sad story of traditions lost or communities unbound from the ocean and set adrift on land. This is the story of how in the midst of hearing some of the sad truths about life on Fogo Island after the moratorium, I was also bolstered by the resiliency of the people that I met, filled up by their connection to place and moved to tears and big laughs by the honesty and generous nature of folks unable to even fathom a life without a working fleet of fishing boats.

The Long Studio

The Long Studio

As the Shorefast Foundation and Fogo Island Arts began building various art studios on the island, and plans for the now complete Fogo Island Inn were shared, people were curious about what it would mean for their home. Would tourism development try and turn them into a more palatable, consumer-friendly version of themselves – marketable fishing villages rather than working harbours and communities? To the credit of the investors and developers on Fogo Island they seemed then, and from all accounts still are, genuinely committed to introducing visitors and the arts world at large to a raw and authentic Fogo Island. To have residents of the island be engaged with visitors, to host them and be ambassadors of the place and of their ways of life, whether it be through visits to fishing stages, walks along rocky shores or sharing a cup of tea while hooking a rug.

Rugged Fogo coastline

Rugged Fogo coastline

Fogo Island is a rare place, one that because of its physical geography (an island off an island), and its centuries long fishing tradition, cannot ever truly ignore or forget its ties to the sea or how the inshore fishery has shaped its culture. And so even in the face of major changes to fisheries and the development of a new economic sector, the communities on the island have been resilient to change – they have adapted and survived without having to abandon or ignore the fishing culture that has so firmly connected them to place. I hope that other coastal communities are able to also highlight the true value of their small scale fisheries in the face of attempted industrialization of fisheries and introduction of new industries. Much like a flat earth needs all four of its corners, our round earth needs small boat fisheries and the communities they support.

Amanda Barney is the Manager of the Marine Monitoring Initiative at Ecotrust Canada, a nonprofit organization based in British Columbia. This writing however is about work done as a Master’s student at the University of Washington’s School of Marine Affairs and represents solely the opinions of the author.

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