Gerry Walsh, 57, is one of the last fishermen in St. Brendan’s and remembers the sense of prosperity on the island.
“It seemed like everyone was working. I’d say there was 100 per cent employment,” said Walsh. “Those that weren’t fishing were working in the fish plant.”
There are neither cod nor children in St. Brendan’s now.
St. Brendan’s, a community on Cottel Island, is a microcosm of the plight of outport communities. The island is only accessible by ferry and although the fishermen remain, the island is littered with the wooden corpses of old boats and abandoned homes.
Since the moratorium, the island’s population has dried up with the fish. Barely 120 people call St. Brendan’s home. The median age of residents there is 51.6 years old according to the 2016 census.
Len Casey, a retired cod fisherman, said the community— and the fishery to which he’s dedicated his life— is at an end.
“There’s not going to be (another generation). The community is dying,” said Casey.
During the ‘80s, the island boasted dozens of fishing vessels, but today only 11 boats work the waters around St. Brendan’s. They are almost entirely crewed by old men and their wives.
“There’s no generation behind us,” said Walsh. “The oldest fisherman now on St. Brendan’s is 62. I’d say the youngest is probably 50.”
Remnants of culture
Although the cod disappeared, the people of St. Brendan’s continued to look to the ocean for employment after the moratorium.
For a time, the state of the fishery pushed the island’s residents to the brink.
“Basically, everything came to a standstill. The people who went fishing fished for nothing,” said Walsh.
In 1995 the government introduced an experimental crab license and that is what fishermen turned to, although Walsh currently fishes lobster.
Today, St. Brendan’s is still a fishing community, albeit diminished.
Natasha Aylward, a teacher-administrator at the island’s school, said she relishes the sound of working boats.
“We can hear them up in the morning before we get up ourselves to go to work. Everything is alive. You measure your day to that sound,” she said.
Sadly, Aylward knows that the time is coming when no boats will be heard in the early morning.
“After this generation of fishermen, I don’t think it’ll be here anymore,” said Aylward.
The young people don’t stay in St. Brendan’s.
The school on the island, St. Gabriel’s, has only 10 students and once they graduate, they almost assuredly leave for university or other work.
“The youngsters go and they come back for the long weekends and Christmas and that’s it,” said Casey.
Patrick Kelly, aged 50, is the youngest boat owner-operator on the island. He said even if young people wanted to get into the fishery, starting up is too expensive given the cost of licenses and gear.
When he was young, Kelly himself had to decide whether to stay or go, having been accepted to university.
Kelly chose a life at sea, like his father before him, but after years of fishing, it wasn’t something he wished for his own son.
“He didn’t really have an interest in the boat and I didn’t encourage him,” said Kelly, also citing that it was the wishes of his deceased wife that their son go to university.
Kelly said although outport culture is still alive, it will only continue if traditions are passed on.
“It’s like when I pull firewood during the winter,” he said. “I feel like I’m going to be the last fella to do that. My son is in St. John’s. He’s not going to be cutting firewood to heat his home, or fishing, or whatever else is associated with outport Newfoundland.”
Jack White is another fisherman from St. Brendan’s. He too chose the fishery over university.
White said he simply couldn’t sit in a classroom all day, preferring to spend his time on the ocean or in the woods.
“Kids don’t grow up that way anymore. The culture’s changed,” said White. “They don’t fish or hunt.”
Although White’s two sons helped him fish when they were younger, he wasn’t surprised when they left for university.
“They had no intentions of staying around here,” he said.
White said although the cod have rebounded in the 25 years since the moratorium, things aren’t the way they used to be.
“You can’t even cut cod tongues out anymore,” said White. “If the plant buys the fish and the cod tongues are missing, they’ll dock you five cents a pound.”
A history forgotten
Old House Cove. Holloway’s Point. Burton’s Head.
These place names mean little to any one outside of St. Brendan’s, but for White and Kelly, these names are a part of their history and tradition.
With the island’s dwindling population, it is a history in danger of being forgotten.
“All these islands, and all the beaches, and all the coves, have names,” said Kelly. “And slowly, surely, they’re going to be lost.”
Recently, Kelly’s son called him from St. John’s to inquire about the name of an island.
“When he called me, it made me realize, ‘My God, you don’t know that island?’” he said.
After years of fishing around St. Brendan’s, White knows the area intimately.However, his knowledge is one earned by exploring the coves, something White tried to share with his sons.
“All these place names are passed from father to son, from generation to generation,” said White. “I passed it on to my sons but I don’t know how much they’d remember.”
For nearly 200 years fishermen have worked the waters around St. Brendan’s and passed on the island’s history.
However, as the last of the fishermen retire, there is no new generation to take their place in the boats; the places that they knew so intimately will only be half-remembered by their children who chose to live different lives than their fathers.