It’s illegal, dangerous, and it still goes on.

Poaching eggs is one thing but poaching on the sea has been a long time problem in Newfoundland. There are air and sea patrols to monitor, prevent, and eventually arrest the violators. It is not something taken lightly. But and not surprisingly it is a global issue. Wherever money, however small, can be made, theft is sure to be right behind it. And as often as not, too many thieves get away with it at the cost of those trying to eke out a living.

This is an article from the May 15, 2014 New York Times about poaching off the coast of Spain.


Trading Danger for Delicacy

On Spain’s Galician coast, generations of licensed divers scrape gooseneck barnacles in roiling surf to serve eager gourmands who pay up to 100 euros a kilo for the cherished crustaceans. Credit Samuel Aranda for The New York Times


A CORUÑA, Spain — Roberto Mahia, 44, was leaning against his car waiting for the sun to rise before pulling on the frayed wet suit at his feet when two vehicles pulled up not far away.

“Those are poachers,” Mr. Mahia declared, staring hard in the direction of their headlights. “We know those cars.”

On this morning, however, there would be no confrontation. The poachers soon moved on, apparently unwilling to tangle with Mr. Mahia and the other men gathered here who were trained and licensed to scramble among the crashing waves of the rocky Galician coastline in the country’s northwest corner, prying loose and collecting a rare prize for epicures — gooseneck barnacles.

The work has always been dangerous. All the men waiting for daybreak had scars to show. Avelino Mosteiro, 54, once got 36 stitches in his thigh. On another occasion, he got 18 stitches under his arm. But the work also used to be highly paid before the economic crisis, when restaurants clamored for the rare crustaceans.

These days, however, the men and women who do this for a living say it is hard to make ends meet. Certainly, there are fewer Europeans able to afford expensive treats of any kind.

But worse, there are the poachers, many of them out-of-work citizens, trying to make money any way they can. Their scavenging brings prices down further and depletes the area of barnacles, forcing the licensed collectors to work in more remote and difficult areas, often for a poorer haul.

“Fifteen days ago, we were on those rocks,” Mr. Mahia said, pointing out a jagged outcropping in the distance. “Two of us were legal collectors, and 11 were poachers.”

In the heady days before Spain’s economic crisis, barnacle collectors, many who learned the art of dodging waves from their parents, could earn more than $800 in a few hours. But on a recent morning the men here had collected only four or five pounds of barnacles each, most of them small and of less than ideal quality. Perhaps, they said, they could get $135 for them, maybe less.

In the past, the men said, they would not even have tried to go out on a day with such choppy seas. But lately, they could not afford to let any opportunity go by.

The barnacles, known as percebes in Spanish, can be collected only under certain conditions, including the point in the lunar cycle when tides are lowest.

Along the coast here, some restaurants offer barnacles for as much as $80 a serving. In Madrid, the price can be much higher. Cooking them is simple. They are generally boiled for just a few minutes. Aficionados compare them to oysters, not for their texture, which is chewier, but for their subtle sea taste.

Spanish officials agree that the unemployment rate has prompted more and more untrained people to take their chances in the rocky inlets here, occasionally paying with their lives.

“If from time to time you hear about someone dying doing this, it is almost always a poacher,” said Rosa Quintana Carballo, Galicia’s regional minister of the rural environment and the sea.

On Spain’s Galician Coast, the Hard Life of Barnacle Hunting

Lala Gonzalez, left, and her sister, Susana Gonzalez, collecting barnacles on the coast of Baiona, in the northern Spain region of Galicia. Considered a luxury seafood item, the barnacles, known as percebes, provide a livelihood for many families.  Credit Samuel Aranda for The New York Times

In some areas, as in Baiona, a village farther down the coast, the licensed collectors have grown so frustrated that they are paying private security guards to patrol the area on land and on sea. The government splits the bill with them.

One morning, one of Baiona’s guards, Darío Freire, guided his S.U.V. up a hill so he could use binoculars to scan the coastline. He said confronting poachers was a dangerous business.

“I have been punched, threatened with a stick,” Mr. Freire said. “They have thrown things at the car and smashed the windows. It isn’t easy.”

Mostly, he said, he just alerts the police, who give the poachers summonses. But like José Do Val, 62, who readily admitted that he had been collecting barnacles that morning, most of the poachers are far too broke to pay the fines, so they are not a deterrent.

Mr. Do Val, who said he was once an executive in a food distribution company and dined regularly on barnacles, estimates that he has collected more than $135,000 in fines for poaching. “I’m not really sure how much it was,” he said. “It’s not something that really interests me.”

Galicia has struggled in the last few years with an unemployment rate of about 27 percent, one of the highest in the country. It once had a thriving shipping industry. But that is in shambles now, and there are few jobs that pay much for anyone. Police units assigned to stop the barnacle poachers are stretched thin and have perhaps more pressing business, keeping an eye on those who dig for clams in polluted areas, for instance, and then bleach them to make them look right.

“After what I have seen, I am finished with eating clams,” said Juan Da Rocha, who heads a regional police unit that concentrates on illegal fishing.

In Baiona, many of the barnacle collectors are women. Susana González works with her three sisters, who like her went to school for other professions, but ended up in wet suits instead. Though collecting barnacles is difficult, most of the people in this business find being up at dawn in the sea, without a boss, an attractive way of life. “You are free,” Mrs. González said. “I like that.”

After a successful morning collecting, the women gathered at the local auction house hoping that all the talk of economic recovery coming out of Madrid would mean higher prices. But that was not the case. Even the biggest barnacles sold for about $40 a pound, less than half the opening price.

“We really thought we would do better,” Mrs. González said with a sigh.

Cowboys from Newfoundland.

I really hope this comes to Discovery Channel in the US.

‘Cold Water Cowboys’ puts the spotlight on Newfoundland


Cold Water Cowboys
(Cold Water Cowboys/Facebook)

It says something about Newfoundland’s legendary hospitality that when fishing boat captain Richard Gillett is talking to a reporter from the mainland – as those on the Rock refer to the rest of Canada – he does his best to tone down his accent a bit.

“I’m talking to you right now, and I’m trying to do the best that I can,” says Gillett with a laugh, on the phone from his home on Newfoundland’s northeastern shore.

“I can tell you, if you were here now with me and my dad, and we were into a conversation, you’d be looking at the two of us sayin’, ‘What kind of language is this?’”

Viewers might be asking the same thing when they tune into Cold Water Cowboys, a new reality series that follows the captains and crews of several Newfoundland-based fishing boats. Think Deadliest Catch, but with smaller vessels, more bleeped-out swearing and accents so delightfully thick that sometimes subtitles are needed.

“One of the producers told me, ‘Speak English, speak English!’” recalls Gillett, who captains the Midnight Shadow, based in the scenic coastal town of Twillingate. “But when we get out and everybody gets excited and a bit of fish is on the go… it’s understandable they got subtitles on us. Because some people do have a little bit of trouble understanding.”

Premiering Tuesday on Discovery Canada, Cold Water Cowboys follows six boats as they ply the waters of the North Atlantic in search of crab, mackerel, herring and more. After the 1992 cod moratorium that devastated Newfoundland’s fishing economy, the fishermen who have stuck it out must voyage much farther from home than their fathers and grandfathers did.

It’s hard and dangerous work, as seen in the show’s first episode when a stabilizer snaps off one of the boats and threatens to puncture its hull.

“In the blink of an eye, it went from a boring steaming trip to the dangers of a stabilizer breaking off and piercing the boat and the boat going to the bottom and the guys ending up in the drink,” says Gillett.

Gillett, a fifth-generation fisherman, says he and the other captains were initially a bit wary about having camera crews on their boats. “When it first started off, I expressed my views that I didn’t want anything staged,” he says. “I told them I’ve been at this long enough now that you’re going to see stuff break and you’re going to see trouble and you’re going to see dangerous situations.”

But the final product is an accurate look at the captains, crews and their communities, something else Gillett says sets it apart from Deadliest Catch.

“This show is not only about fishing,” he says. “This show shows the communities and the families and the relationships between the fishermen and the communities.”

Because really, Newfoundland is as much a star of the show as the fishermen are, b’y.

“As far as I’m concerned, the beauty of Newfoundland is second to none,” says Gillett. “In the summertime I can sit down on my bridge and watch the whales feed on small capelin. I’ve had times there have been 21 icebergs out in front of my place. Where else in the world can you do that?”

Twitter: @stevetilley

I don’t want to say I told you so, but…

This is from an article on the Discovery Channel’s website. It underscores what is a still growing problem in over-fishing already decimated fish stocks.

Tasty Fish Grow Smaller in Warming Ocean by Tim Wall

Fish sandwiches may be skimpier in the future as the planet’s oceans continue to warm.

Biologists measured progressively smaller average lengths of edible fish in the northern Atlantic Ocean between 1970 and 2008. Six economically-important fish species — haddock, herring, Norway pout and plaice — declined in length by an average of 23 percent.

The fish lived in different environments from bottom-dwelling plaice to surface-skimming herring. The range of habitats suggested that some common factor was altering the entire ocean community in the North Sea, a section of the Atlantic rimmed by Scandinavia, Great Britain and Germany.

ANALYSIS: Climate Change Could Shrink Animals

During those same 38 years, the average seafloor water temperature increased by 0.2–0.6 degrees Celsius per decade, for a total of one to two degrees C, in the North Sea. Besides the increasing water temperature, no other factor, such as commercial fishing, affected the fish universally, noted the authors of the study published in Global Change Biology. The biologists concluded that climate change may be shrinking economically important fish species.

“We would anticipate that synchronous reductions in length across species could be occurring in other regional seas experiencing a strong degree of warming,” study leader Alan Baudron of the University of Aberdeen, told the Guardian.

However, not every fish measured by the study declined. Sole and cod both approximately maintained their sizes. Haddock and whiting, on the other hand, decreased in length by approximately 29 percent in parts of their ranges.

ANALYSIS: Animals, Plants Shrinking as Climate Warms

North Sea fisherman’s commercial success may decrease along with the shrinking fish. The weights of individual fish caught declined by between three and 48 percent between 1978 and 1993, noted the biologists. Plaice and haddock suffered most serious declines in weight.

As the ocean warms, less oxygen dissolves into the water. Fish depend on that dissolved oxygen to breathe. Smaller fish in the North Atlantic may survive better in oxygen poor waters, wrote the study’s authors, since the animals need to intake less of the dissolved gas.

Canary in the global coal mine.

Currently indigenous to Newfoundland are moose, caribou, salmon, and some remaining cod. There are no naturally residing canaries on the island. However, in this case, the island itself was the canary.

Why is Newfoundland important? In much the same way the canary in a coal mine is important. That bird is an early warning of impending trouble. Ignore it at your own peril. In 1992, that is what happened in Newfoundland. Heard, seen, and ignored – just the opposite of the military phrase HUA(!) – Heard, Understood and Acknowledged. They (the government) heard the canary, saw it laying there, and essentially said, “Don’t pay that any attention” until it was too late. It was mismanagement writ large.

So, what was this canary? It was the disappearance of cod stocks. Stocks that had been fished for over 500 years and sustained Newfoundland throughout that time. Then in 1992, the government realized that the cod stocks had plummeted to perilously low levels and imposed a 10 year moratorium on cod fishing. Historically, they knew if left alone for 5-6 years, the stocks should return to previous levels. They didn’t. In actuality, they were in worse shape than before.

In those first 10 years, because there was no fishing, 20% of Newfoundland’s population left the island. It was an out-migration the likes of which had never been seen. And the lack of fishing created much hardship throughout the province. Newfoundlanders continue leaving the island in search of work returning occasionally for vacation. The Newfoundland musical group Ennis addresses this beautifully in their song, “Fortunate Ones.”

Now 20 years later, the moratorium is still in place. But then in 2006, 14 years after the original moratorium was put in place, Professor Boris Worm of Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia published a paper that received world-wide notice. In this paper he predicted that by the middle of this century, the entire global stock of wild fish will be in total collapse. This is certainly the result of over-fishing; there is also growing evidence that ocean acidification may be contributing to this as well. Either way one looks at it, both of those causes are man-made.

The “canary” was laying there, gasping for breath and people essentially just walked on by. It has taken too long to realize what this means.

In the short term, forget about your seafood dinner, that isn’t going to happen unless you’ll be willing to take out a mortgage on it. Any fish we’ll have will come from farmed stocks and their purity is suspect.

In the long term, your guess is as good as anyone’s. No one knows what will happen to the seas themselves because of this shock to its eco-system.

So much for Red Lobster!

It’s hard out there for a…fisherman.

OK, if I was to start a new career, I don’t think it would be as a fisherman. No, that requires real work, long hours, danger, a tremendous amount of uncertainty, harsh weather, roiling seas, low wages, and oh, did I mention danger?

In a line from the film “The Shipping News”, Billy Pretty explains to the film’s protagonist Quoyle, “…there’s more people down under these waters than are killed on the roads.” True that! The life of a fisherman is dangerous. There are monuments to those lost at sea and they number quite a few. And their families left behind are sometimes not mute testimony to this. But still, when they can, they fish. There’s very little in commercial cod fishing, but in appropriate season, crabbing, lobstering, and shrimping have filled some of the void.

Still, trying to make such a living is difficult. In an interview I conducted with a fishing fleet owner, he described the hardships faced each year, getting harder with every passing year. For him, that life was more in the past than in the future. He did not feel hopeful of the future in the least and wondered how his grandchildren would get along were they to stay.

Yet, their culture, their love for their home and the life that went before them, holds them in an almost magical way. Many people with whom I spoke, had left Newfoundland for work or school only to come back as soon as they could. All too often, wherever I’ve traveled, people talk about getting out, to somewhere else, somewhere better; no saying home for me, nossir! Grass is always greener I guess. Not in Newfoundland. they know just how green their grass is and they like it just fine, thank you very much.

But they know they’re coming back to a different land. One where the fish are gone and where their culture is disappearing if they don’t act to preserve it: that culture that has been so informed by fishing for over five centuries.

“Arn? Narn.” Any fish? No fish. It is hard out there for a fisherman.

In the rearview mirror…figuratively.

A sportscaster once said of his departure from ESPN’s Bristol, Connecticut studio that the best thing about working there was seeing it in his rearview mirror. That is exactly the opposite of how I felt as I prepared to return home after two incredible weeks in Newfoundland. I wished it were still before me through the car’s windshield.

Those two weeks of traveling and photographing the people and the land had been an unbelievably transformative experience for me. As I got ready to leave, I was filled with joy, sadness, laughter, music, new knowledge and wisdom, cod and scrunchions, caribou, and the anticipation of seeing what I had photographed. Since this was shot on black and white film, I didn’t have the immediate luxury and instant gratification of digital photography. I had much work in front of me and several months in the darkroom before I knew what I had.

As I write this, looking at my notes, I see that I was already feeling a need to return…and I hadn’t even left yet. I was leaving new friends and a place that felt more like home than any other place I’d ever been. If I could, I would most definitely return. Maybe Thomas Wolfe had it wrong: maybe you can go home again.

Man Cave by the sea.

New Year’s Eve in a shanty sounds a lot worse than it really is. Shanty doesn’t have the same connotation in rural Newfoundland as it does in the States. A shanty is the small building/house/cabin on the coast used by fishermen as a residence when going to and coming from the sea. It is for the most part a home-away-from-home. And oftentimes the subject of cute and quaint calendars and post cards of lands far-away.

But come the holidays and New Year’s Eve, all that changes. The shanty becomes the Newfoundland equivalent of a man-cave by the sea for the duration plus. And one can only speculate on behaviors conducted. The good news is that it’s usually far enough away from the children and pets.

Celebrations – oh, yes. Singing and dancing – yes b’y. Eating and drinking, why the hell not? Fishing – probably not much. But when it’s cold, windy, wet and/or snowy, and more, and the holidays to boot, why would you want to do anything but the aforementioned activities? Consequently, inebriation is often the result. A common comment then heard might be “Goin’ on a tear, me son?” translated as “partying with enthusiasm are we?” Count on it. After all, it is the new year.

There’s a fjord in your future.

There used to be only the Big Three automakers – Ford, GM, and Chrysler. That was it. None of the others that populate our driveways today were in sight back then. Life it seems was much simpler then.

This is a Ford.

So imagine my surprise when I heard about fjords. I was certain some under-educated person misspelled the ever-oh-so-easy name of Ford. Never mind that its usage in the sentence was peculiar, I figured they just spelled it wrong!

But noooo, I was the ignorant fool. Every Norwegian child worth their salt (and much salt is used to keep and preserve cod and other delicacies – don’t even mention Lutefisk to me!) knew what a fjord was. No Ragnar, a fjord doesn’t have four wheels! Yes, Bruce (the teacher said patiently), a fjord is a u-shaped valley carved out by glaciers a long, long time ago. Pay attention!

This is a fjord.

So, right about this time you’re asking yourself what does this have to do with Newfoundland? And my book “Arn? Narn.”? Good questions. As it turns out, a lot. On the western coast of the island is Gros Morne National Park. Gros Morne is French for the less than poetic sounding “large mountain standing alone.” And in this park is the Western Brook Pond fjord. It is your typical, everyday, run-of-the-mill, drop-dead, central casting beautiful fjord.

This is a fjord too. See the difference? – Western Brook Pond fjord.

The western coast is the final stretch of the Appalachian mountain range and it alone is worth the trip to Newfoundland. An area of unimaginable beauty, it is home to mountains, fjords, caribou (more on them at a later post), moose and the Tablelands. There was also very fine salmon fishing here, but it too like cod fishing is highly restricted. This is a problem that affects the entire island and it’s been learned a global one as well.

So if you go and I do recommend it, get yourself a Ford. It’ll give you a certain symmetry.

Lobsters and a screw cap.

On the western coast of Newfoundland, I drive through such towns as Cow Head, Sally’s Cove, Three Mile Rock, (not to be confused with the atomic town in Pennsylvania), and Spudgels Cove. (Who was Spudgels that he was important enough to have a cove named after him?) Each one of these has it’s own personality waiting to be discovered by an intrepid traveler such as me. But not now as I’m on a quest. I’ve learned fresh lobster can be had inexpensively here. I make a short stop to see The Arches Provincial Park. This is a natural rock arch formation acting as a gateway to the ocean. I think however, most people probably just go around it to get there. But it does form a wonderful backdrop for new photographs.

The sea is starting to kick up into what will develop on the next day into a pretty fierce storm. Unfortunately, most of the lobster traps on the western coast will be lost.

But for this day, the lobstermen are making the most of their efforts. No longer permitted to fish for cod, they’ve turned to lobstering and crabbing. The lobstering season is very short, lasting only 5-6 weeks. In this time, the lobstermen will catch enough to deliver to the fishery and also help feed their family throughout the year. However, according to the lobstermen, eating lobster all year long gets old fast. When asked what they do the rest of the year, his reply was, “Well, we just —- around.” OK, sounds good. But in the meantime, I’m told if I go down to the fishery which is conveniently located near the cabin in which I’m staying, they’ll cook me up some lobsters fresh and really cheap. This is getting better all the time.

Down to the fishery I go and place my gluttonous order of two(!) lobsters to be picked up at 7:00 PM. Back to the cabin, drop off my equipment, get a bottle of wine from the market, and then pick up my lobsters. I go to the counter and pick up my dinner and am charged the princely sum of $ 11.00! Cooked and ready to eat! And the wine has a screw cap! I’m in heaven.

Free Newfoundland!

from Living Planet, St. John’s, Nfld.

“Free Newfoundland” is not a coupon or a buy one, get one free deal. It was a light-hearted marketing piece that touched a few nerves. The “Free Newfoundland” (my quotation marks) movement isn’t a movement per se like the the very real separatist group in Quebec. Rather it is more of an attitude. Yes, there are those who still believe confederation should have never happened. And of course there are opposing views. The slogan itself was penned by Wallace Ryan in 1982 to promote and encourage Newfoundland nationalism. It is however currently seen on t-shirts, bumper stickers, and more around the island.

That the slogan has endured some thirty years is an indication of some still simmering dissatisfaction with confederation. It might just as well speak of a free Newfoundland or a freeing of Newfoundland from confederation.

In its history, Newfoundland has been an independent country and a colony of Great Britain. In 1949, Newfoundland voted to enter into confederation with Canada by a 51-49 vote. And culturally, it was probably closer than that. (Sort of like Gore-Bush.) Obviously, the suitors in this merger (not quite a blind date) hadn’t sought out the wisdom of a counselor – marriage or otherwise. This was the brainchild (hare-brained for some) of then Premier Joey Smallwood. Since then, it has been a source of friction between the parties – sometimes humorous, other times, ehhh, not so much.

Newfoundlanders believe that some of the source of their problems with the disappearance of fish is due to government meddling and mismanagement. Government is always an easy target and oftentimes correctly so. Being a fiercely independent people, there is an inherent skepticism about government and its efficacy. Funny how most people feel their country has a lock on those things. When things are beyond one’s control, it’s easy to see why the government is blamed – sometimes rightly, other times wrongly so.

But this is not really about government or blame, it’s about a Free Newfoundland.

Yes b’y!