by Sadie Beaton.
An original Canadian ten-part series, Discovery Channel’s Cold Water Cowboys follows six Newfoundland fishing captains and their crews into the swells of the North Atlantic. Belonging to the generation of the cod collapse, these fishermen still have love for the almighty cod fish their great province was built on but have maintained their livelihoods by focusing on new species from crab and shrimp to turbot, herring and mackerel.
While the show plays up the competitive side of fishing, one of the most compelling aspects is the rare glimpse it shares of a working life on the sea. The fishermen consider themselves not just “cowboys” but stewards of the sea, full of wonder and enthusiasm for the beauty and vulnerability of the marine ecosystem, even as they chase down their catch with amazing focus and skill.
The popularity of Cold Water Cowboys has been a testament to the fact that all Canadians are connected to the ocean and our fisheries. While it may be easy to forget if you don’t live in a fishing community, the oceans are a public resource. They are an important source of food, and key to our rural economies – but as the show reminds us, the ocean is also a powerful source of mystery, of excitement and stories, and part of our collective identity.
A few weeks ago Richard Gillett, captain of the Midnight Shadow in Twillingate, Newfoundland was kind enough to take a break from pre-season boat maintenance to chat with me about his experience as a working fisherman in Newfoundland and now as a co-star of a hit new reality series.
First of all, what made you want be part of the show?
“I just wanted to help document what we do here in Newfoundland and Labrador. The fishery has been going on for nearly 500 years – so just showing the rich heritage and culture, you know, and the history of Newfoundland because it was founded on fish. Also, you know, we’re not traditionally fishing like we’ve normally done, you know, we’re in bigger boats with more technology, and we’re catching different species than we’ve always done. So, you know, it’s a little bit of insight, and showing people how we have diversified in the fishery since the cod collapse.”
I read that you started out 30 years ago, baiting cod pots and handlines, fishing in smaller boats. How do those times compare to today, where you are the captain of a large herring seiner?
“Well, I’m only 43 years old. I started when I was 13, so I’m just going into my 30th year. So I can tell you, even in the little bit of time I’ve spent, I think that my generation has seen the biggest changes in the fishery.
Like, I can remember first when I started fishing with my dad, we had all the cod traps and that, and the salmon nets. We had the old make-and-break engines and the big wooden skiffs and those things – basically the whole traditional way. But then in the 80s, we got into outboard motors and fiberglass boats – and at the same time the fish started getting scarcer. So after a while you start turning to other things.
Where we’re at now, we did have the big boom with the crab in the early to mid 90s and everybody went into huge boats and invested millions of dollars. But now we’re in the downswing, there. People in my area now are just holding on by their fingertips.”
What are the current perceptions of the fishery in Twillingate now? Are younger people getting involved?
“Fishing now, there is no young people coming in to this anymore. My son, even, I’ve got to be honest with you, I doubt very much he’s going to be fishing.
I can tell you, it is a hard job to even keep the people you’ve got. Because when you can go to the oil sands and do one or two courses and make a damn good dollar – plus you’ve got every benefit, you’ve got medical, you’ve got dental, and pension plans and everything.”
We’re hearing that there’s all these Newfoundlanders watching the show from Alberta and it’s making them nostalgic to come home. Do you think that Cold Water Cowboys could help recruit young people back into the fishery again?
“Oh definitely, definitely. That’s the second most common comment I get. Like everyone’s saying to me, ‘Watching the show, I can remember going out with my dad or my grand-dad, I don’t want to be out here in Alberta. It is making me so homesick, you know’- but, when it comes down to the brass tacks of it, you know, you gots to have money to survive.
It is not the income so much that makes the difference though. But you see, there’s no benefits for fishermen. See, you got my dad and that there, he’s still fishing now. He’s going on 67 this year. Instead of retiring early or passing along his license to someone younger, he had to fish all his life because he didn’t have any money to put aside.
So if you’re looking for an avenue to fix this – you’ve got to get some benefits to fishermen and start treating fishing as a profession. If you don’t do something like that, you’re not going to attract any young people into this industry. And without any young people coming into this fishery, the processors are just waiting to buy all the licenses up. They’re just waiting.”
What do you think needs to happen to see the cod fishery recover?
“The saying is, the old fellers would have said before the cod collapse – we have just enough fish to make us poor. You know, again, now, we’re selling our cod fish for 50 cents a pound, and that’s if you can sell it because sometimes the companies didn’t even want it.
We’d like to see the cod come back – but we need to do it different this time. We need to manage it a little different – plus we need to get a marketing idea in place to give the top quality fish to market so you can get your top quality dollar. And one time Newfoundland was known for the cod block. That’s a lot of fish but it was cheap. We were known as the best place in the world to get cheap cod, so we have to get clear of that. And we have to market our product different to show the world we have a top quality product here.”
With all the troubles you see in the fishery, the way it is now, what’s kept you fishing?
“I don’t how to explain it but once you get out there, once you get it in your blood, you’ll never get it out. Whatever it is, you gets in the blood, it never comes out. And that’s what I got. Some people get it a little worse than others and I got a bad dose of it.
You know, my dad told me I never had any choice because it was literally bred into me. Like when I was thirteen years old, my dad got me at three o’clock every morning to get up. When I was on summer holidays, there was no going playing ball hockey or ball or soccer or nothing like that – it was fishing. And sometimes mom used to have to bring supper up to us up to the plant wharf when all the boats would be lined up to unload and we’d be waiting up there till after dark and we probably wouldn’t get home until ten-thirty or eleven o’clock and then three o’clock you’d be up again.
But there’s nothing like, I guess it’s a feeling of accomplishment. You set out to do something and you’re trying to outwit these fish and when you do it, when you bring back a full load of fish, when you got the tunes on, everybody’s ‘yahoo’-ing and feeling great and you got a good dollar made for everybody and there’s no other feeling in the world – the sun is shining, the water is sparkling and you know you got a dollar coming to your pocket. It’s just the freedom, you’re not in a traffic jam, there’s nobody behind you barking their horn, you’re your own boss and you just look at the seabirds flying by and look how graceful they are and jeez..
There’s so many times like that I say to myself, ‘you know, Donald Trump is not so rich as we are’. He may have the money, but he definitely doesn’t have the pleasures of life.”
We’d like to thank Captain Gillett for taking the time to talk to us! You can catch Cold Water Cowboys on the Discovery Channel. Visit their website for programming schedules.