Our day started relaxed with a later breakfast of French toast and bacon – but accompanied with tragic news. The girl who was cooking our breakfast at Whitsha House had just lost a very close family friend along with 2 young boys and another friend who was home visiting from the Yukon. They were out in the afternoon for a fun boat ride but when they failed to return home in the evening the rescue teams were sent out. We did not hear the helicopters, but several of the other guests did hear them. The one boy was found around 2:30am and 2 other bodies today. The other boy’s body and the boat have not yet been found – and likely may not be. It’s national news understandably, and to be there in the local community with the people impacted was profound.
We left a bit later today with the weather quite cool but promises of turning warm. So with t-shirt and shorts we started with a tour of the Fishing Museum in Boyd’s Cove. It was a very fortunate stop. We paid the$7.50 – $2.50 more for the guided tour. And wow was it worth it! Our guide was a local retired school teacher – taught at the school we had been at it for the wine tour for 22 years. So he is not a fisherman which gave him a unique perspective on the industry. We had a mix of local history with stories from the “uncles”, and a full education on the local life and fishing village persona.
We started with a description of the “legal” bottom trawling that is currently done for shrimping – now the biggest catches locally – which totally destroys the ocean bottom and all habitat for basically all ocean life. If it doesn’t live on the bottom itself, or depend on the seabed plant life for protection, then it would probably be dependent further up the food chain – so everything is effected. We also saw how the crab traps work – and that they are much less destructive in their impact so long as the numbers are controlled.
But then we moved to an education on life before refrigeration. Until then, cod fishing was dependent upon salt curing of the fish, so the numbers manageable by each family were dependent upon what they could process. A smaller family could not really make a living at fishing – so they would do other jobs. A family of up to 6 would perhaps run lines of hooks and try to fish for a living that way. But a family of say 9 could run a whole net system. A village area may have 30 families and perhaps 9 would be large enough to manage the nets.
Each village would have its own method of determining who gets which berth (area for netting). There would be a draw where the names of the berths went into a draw and each family would draw their berth. There was always a prime berth of course – and depending upon the local rules, it may or may not be forced to be rotated.
The winter was spent making the nets – done in the kitchen since it was the only warm room. Mostly the men, but some women who had spare time (yeah right) also helped out. When the season opened, there were 2 ways to catch the fish –depending whether they were eating or not. If fully fed, they became lethargic and came into shore. Then they were jigged – drop a line with a 2 prong hook and snag the fish and toss them into a bucket. There were so many fish that Bill remembers the sensation of bump, bump, bump as the line went down into the fish. Now it just goes thump as it hits the bottom – no fish. (although the shore cod may be recovering in recent years and locals are now allowed to catch 5 fish per day and the numbers seem to be stable.)
If the cod were hungry, that’s when the nets came into use. The assigned berth would be where a family would drop their net – and they would leave it there for a day or 2 or more if bad weather. There was then a systematic way to pull in the nets. Once the fish were all brought to the surface, they were scooped into the boat until either the boat was full – and surplus may be offered to the others line fishing in the area (or returned for pick up on another day depending how much you liked your neighbor!)
Back on shore, the work of processing began. The fish were transferred into the stage – which sat over the water – from the boat by the kids. The kids also ‘fed the table’ to make sure there was a constant stream of fish. One man snapped the head, sliced the belly and gutted the fish – all scrap dropped into a hole in the floor to feed the fish below. As the guts were removed, the very important liver was dropped in a bucket. This became the cod liver oil which was so important in helping to avoid scurvy – a good spoon or mugful was all you needed!
Then over to the splitter who took out the balloon bone – which is the back bone with a hollow allowing the fish to raise or lower in the water by filling it with air – and splayed the fish fully open for salting – very important that it was fully split.
These fish were then laid out off to the side in an alternating pattern and layered with salt – an extremely important step. If any of the skin was exposed, fly eggs would survive into maggots and ruin an entire section of fish (fish here means only one thing – cod). The hut would be filled until the weather was right for drying. If it was to get wet, the fish goes yellow and quality goes down (hence the price too). If it is out in the hot sun, it gets white and powdery – called burnt – and the price goes down. Both result in the salt being drawn out of the cod and ruining the storage life.
It would take about a week for the fish to dry – weather dependent and during that time they had to come in and out each night and every time there was a chance of rain. So the family could never stray far from the flakes – no trips to the cottage!
Once dried – into the fish store until the late fall when they were sold to the merchant – and it was all at his mercy as to what they were paid. In a small town there would only be one merchant and he owned it all – the supply store, the blacksmith, the cooper, the price of fish. So the fishermen never got wealthy even in a good year.
And then the later day was net mending – over the fish store the men would congregate and with the net hung over a beam they would mend the holes – and it was important that the pattern was maintained or it would not hang right in the water.
We also saw the barrels for treating the cotton nets – they used spruce gum and salt water; cod liver oil being used to calm the water, and being mixed with ochre for red paint for the boats and the huts – that is why they are red – and the white comes from lime whitewash to purify the walls of the huts. There were lots of relics including motors for the boats – single drive. And a very unique cheese cutting wheel which would likely have been owned by one of the merchants I’m guessing.
But after refrigeration, it all changed – there was no longer a need to process the fish – so the hut for processing, the flakes and the fish store along with the net mending loft (nylon ropes now too) were no longer needed. That’s when the fishermen starting catching more and more and moving out to deeper waters. Then the big cod started to be caught by the 70’s – and that was the start of the end. They were catching 5 ½ feet cod up to 105 lbs – but these were the oldest mature fish and once they were depleted, the numbers really declined. Add to that the destruction of habitat and the fisheries collapsed.
To this day however, you may still see the odd killick around – a homemade anchor as seen at right – a big rock framed and strung which serves the purpose quite well in a pinch.
There were many more stories from Bill but that’s about it for now….
Also at the museum was an entire whale skelton. The owner of the museum heard about a beached whale in a nearby town and offered to take it away. He towed it to a nearby island and after protecting it from drifting away (caged it in sort of), he left it for nature to take care of. Now several years later it is finally on display. The most interesting part for me was the baleens. I had seen small pieces before, but never the entire set of them intact. They were actually furry – as you can see – and much softer than I expected. But they were still pretty ripe – not an overly pleasant smell :-).