Welcome to Port Au Choix, Canada, a small fishing village of less than 700 people. Despite its size, this tiny Newfoundland town has a lot going on. As you’ll read, its story traverses many of the core issues that rural communities throughout America are facing, among them:
- The blame game
- The human toll of declining industry
- The role of government
- Tourism as savior
- Little victories
- Bittersweet endings
The blame game
During my eight weeks following the fishing industry along the Atlantic, I stumbled upon this out-of-the-way fishing village. With water temperatures rising rapidly in the Gulf of Maine, many on our side of the border are pointing fingers at Canada. Are Canada’s fishing regulations looser than America’s? Is their industry responsible for polluting the region waterways? Are their fishing practices contributing to the declining stock of many aquatic species along the Atlantic seaboard?
A senior official at the Canadian Visitors Bureau sent me to this tiny town. After hearing about my quest, they put aside the tourist maps and pulled out a road map. Circling the village, she said, “It’s two hours from any major road, but if you really want to know about Newfoundland’s fishing industry, you’ve got to go to Port Au Choix.”
During my short stay I was struck, yet again, by the vulnerability and truth many shared with me. Everywhere I go, I’m learning how to sit amid contradictions while gaining compassion for those who dwell in them every day. Here I am reminded how hidden economic devastation can be if you are simply traveling as a tourist. The coastlines are stunning, the vistas are breathtaking, the people are proud.
On a grey, rainy July day in a village of less than 700 people, my car bounced across the lumpy pavement as I swerved to avoid massive potholes.
If you’re hoping I magically found the fix for the environmental crisis that resides deep within our seas, you will be sadly disappointed. If you want to gain a deeper understanding of the impact on families and communities who have depended on these uncertain waters for generations upon generations, read on.
The human toll of declining industry
Earlier in the day, driving along the edge of town, I stumbled upon a halibut processing plant. I got out and took a picture of my van for my sponsor, RAM. The owner, curious about my actions, came out and introduced himself. It turns out that he too is a RAM owner. Impressed that a woman would take this solo journey to the hinter regions of America, he offered me tour of the plant. He then sent me to the docks to talk to commercial fishermen.
The tide was receding. Boats floated six feet below the pier. As I walked the plank, looking down into the boats, I asked two men if I could take their picture. Not only did they say yes, but they invited me aboard the five-man commercial halibut boat for coffee. I climbed down the ladder. They chuckled that a woman my age would be so “spry.”
They brought me into the tiny 8′ x 6′ galley/common room and invited me to help myself to instant Folgers with tin milk (a staple in Newfoundland). As we sipped the dark, bitter brew, the captain and his son came on board and slid into the bench at the table. Just back from five days at sea, the captain was exhausted. He leaned back against the small, fogged-up window, his eyes nearly shut. The son snapped open a tin of Vienna sausage.
Three of the men were brothers. The other had worked with them for years. The easy banter of thick Irish brogues felt like a lyrical tale of the sea. “Livin’ so close,” the captain said, “Yee got to have a guud crew. We’ve bin together for life, except this guy” (the only man not related to the others). The two brothers chimed in about him snoring. Everyone laughed.
The son, in his late thirties, forked a Vienna sausage and pointed it at me. “Me? Soon as m’ dad retires, ‘m done. ‘m stay’n for ‘m.”
In rural communities, life priorities are family, faith, place and, finally, purpose. (Quite a flip from city life.)
The cabin was still for a moment.
I looked at his dad, visibly wrought.
He looked me straight in the eye, “Other places get fish, we get tourists.”
Then someone joked about the young guy’s wife. Everyone laughed and the conversation slid away from work and to the past, when they were kids. Coffee cups were empty. Sausages were eaten. It was time to leave.
I climbed back up the wobbly ladder to the dock, now one foot steeper than when I arrived. They laughed and graciously invited me back any time.
As I wandered off the wharf, I wondered, “Is life really as desperate as the captain made it sound?”
The role of government
To find out, I drove into town, pulled off on the side of the road and called the Canadian ministry. (They actually talked to me!) “Yes,” I was told, “The industry is shifting” (AKA collapsing). “To protect our seas’ resources, we are working to help ease this transition from reliance on fishing to other sea-related occupations like whale watching and iceberg tours.”
My heart ached for the captain I’d met and all the other sea-based communities who understood that life as they knew it was coming to an end. That said, my inner environmentalist cheered the stricter protections. BTW, between the US and Canada, our northern neighbor seems to have far stricter regulations when it comes to protecting our seas.
I hung up the phone and felt numb. I sat there, on the side of the road, staring into the bleak town as rain pounded on my windshield.
Tourism as savior
I couldn’t shake the wave of grief that washed over me. I pondered the official’s tourist alternatives. I’d heard so many of these same stories in the last few months during my travels through rural regions in the US. As in Port Au Choix, their survival hinges on an increasingly desperate need to create tourist income.
My question: How lucrative is a tourist economy in these tiny towns?
Tonight, as I wrote this post, I researched Canadian statistics. The government projects that approximately 10,000 tourists come to Port Au Choix each year. The Canadian Visitor Bureau site recommends a two-hour visit to see “the sights.” That means a quick lunch, maybe a dinner and a walk along the block-long wharf.
If you do that math, you’ll see: Earnings are meager.
My wipers swiped across the glass. Two eight-foot plywood boards were nailed into posts pounded into the ground. Each had neon orange spray-paint writing. One said, “Finally, our streets are being fixed.” The other, “Come in, we’re open.”
To my left was an artist’s studio. I turned into the puddle-filled driveway. I pulled up my hood, dashed through the rain and slogged to the door.
I wandered through Ben’s small, three-room art studio. In the back corner of the front room, next to the window, were cardboard protest signs: “We want our streets.” “1000 potholes ahead.” Coming from the protest capital of America, Portland, I got curious.
I introduced myself and asked what the signs were used for.
They were their trophies, he told me—a celebration of a hard-won Samson and Goliath fight.
Last year, many of Port Au Choix’s citizens took to the streets with two demands for their government:
1. Fix the impassable roads, which kept tourists away.
2. Don’t take the fishing away by decreasing quota.
Some blocked roads and secured over 600 signatures demanding that the government repair them. Others set fire to crab and lobster pots in the parking lot of the Department of Fisheries office. They even placed a seal carcass in a pothole to show how dire the situation, of road and livelihood, was.
The government stalled. The tiny town’s endurance wavered.
Ben, the artist who owns the studio, went on a “hunger strike.” Every day he went on local news inviting (taunting) the premier to come to the town, hear the plight of the townsfolk, and share a slice of frozen pizza he had waiting in the fridge. (You have to understand Newfoundland humor and class structure to fully get the impact of this “invitation”).
In his thick brogue Ben laughed, “Y’ see diz belly? Each night a loaf ‘f bred would sail over m’ fence to make sure I d’n’t starve.” He patted his belly and chuckled.
Four days later, the government sent someone to Port Au Choix to negotiate.
Not the premier, though. In response, Ben sent out a press release letting him know he had eaten the pizza without him.
Today, a bit more than a year later, the roads are being paved, fully paid for by the provincial government. The protest signs stay in the window for the town to remember its hard-won battle.
This might seem insignificant to city folk, but it’s a HUGE success for this tiny hamlet.
Tourism? In Port Au Choix, tourists trickle in. Occasional buses, filled mainly with older couples curious about this proud town of meager means, come for local music and the tradition of “kissing a cod.” For real. They pay $30 to stand up in front of the group, take an oath and kiss a frozen cod. Will it sustain this town? I can’t see how.
For the fishing community, little has changed. A few, like the captain and his crew, still eke out a living. Most go to other provinces to get work. Much like rural communities in the States, it is common for Newfoundlanders to commute 4,000 miles for seasonal work in the mines and oil fields of Alberta province.
Bar none, everyone I spoke with would return home in a heartbeat if jobs were available.
It’s a big issue, in every town, in every country.
But there is good news: Little communities are pushing back. In Port Au Choix, as timid as it might seem to an outsider, the city is celebrating its victory in getting the government to take care of its people, even if it’s just making streets passable.