At 5 A. M., the landline rang twice—Bob’s signal that the winds were light enough to get out on the water. With the sun peeking through the fog, we made our way downhill to the harbor through the village of Bay de Verde, on the northeastern tip of Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula. Bob Sutton and his brother Gary were waiting in their skiff to take us cod ﬁshing. The engine sputtered and then smoothed to a low hum as we accelerated past the breakwater and into the Atlantic Ocean. The sheer, rocky cliffs and inland terrain—subarctic tundra with scattered wind-blown stands of stunted spruce and gnarled balsam ﬁr—revealed a harsh, unforgiving climate.
European exploration of Newfoundland was tied to the island’s rich ﬁshing grounds, especially on the Grand Banks—a continental shelf roughly two hundred miles off the southeast coast. As early as 1500, migratory ﬁshermen from England, France, Portugal, and Spain made the arduous six-week voyage across the Atlantic each spring. At the end of the ﬁshing season in autumn they sailed back home. Another century passed before Newfoundland saw its ﬁrst permanent European settlement. Ironically, the ﬁrst stretch of North America’s coastline to be explored by Europeans was one of the last to be settled by them, although aboriginal Inuit, Beothuk, and Mi’kmaq had inhabited the island for millennia.
As waves lapped at the gunwales and a chill sea air bit into us, Bob asked, only half joking, “You don’t get sea sick, do you?” A few hundred yards off a rocky headland, Bob slowed the boat, and Gary dropped a weighted ﬁshing line over the side and soon began pulling his arm swiftly up and across his body—he was jigging. After a half dozen ﬁshless attempts, Bob revved the motor and headed to a new location. Almost immediately, Gary hooked a large Atlantic cod. Before long we had caught our quota—ﬁve cod each. Who would think that Newfoundland’s cod ﬁshery had collapsed just three decades earlier? Once the most productive ﬁshery in the world, it was decimated to the point that the Canadian government declared a complete moratorium. The ban remains today with the exception of a small commercial catch and a recreational and subsistence “food ﬁshery,” from July through September, in which we were taking part.
The island of Newfoundland and mainland Labrador comprise Canada’s most easterly province. This vast stretch of land, an area only slightly smaller than California, had been a British dominion. In 1949, it residents voted by the slimmest of margins to join Canada. Today, the province has a population of just over 500,000. Over half live on the Avalon Peninsula, with most residing in and around the capital city of St. John’s.
Outside of St. John’s and a few regional centers, most Newfoundlanders live in small, coastal villages called out-ports. The English term “outport” was originally applied to all ports outside the city of London. Newfoundland’s outports sprang up in coves and bays along the coast near good cod ﬁshing grounds, sometimes in places only accessible by boat. Originally, outports were intimate communities of close-knit, extended families who lived in simple, two-story square salt-box houses perched near the water. Scattered among the houses and along the shoreline was the material culture related to ﬁshing: boats, nets, sheds, stages, and ﬁsh ﬂakes for drying cod.
The outport economy depended upon ﬁsh, supplemented by kitchen gardens, small livestock, and such subsistence activities as berrying, hunting moose, and cutting timber for wood and fuel. “Every season,” explained Bob’s wife Pauline Sutton, “brought forward its own bounty—whatever was needed to survive.” Settlers sometimes gave their communities fanciful names, which reﬂect the humor and sense of fun that is still characteristic of Newfoundlanders today. In the region of our research site on the Avalon Peninsula are the outports of Come by Chance, Heart’s Content, Heart’s Delight, Heart’s Desire, Red Head Cove, Cupids, and Dildo.
Outport life changed abruptly on July 2, 1992, when the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans an-nounced its moratorium on ﬁshing for Atlantic cod, end-ing a 500-year-old ﬁshery and set of traditions. Newfoundlanders had only one week to remove all their traps, nets, and other gear from the water. The primary culprits in the cod collapse were large foreign trawlers or dragger ﬂeets—which scoured the sea ﬂoor, including spawning grounds—and high-tech ﬁshing equipment like sonar which enabled ﬁshers to make such large catches that cod stocks were decimated.
“You could see the ﬁsh coming down, down, down,” Bob told us while sitting at the kitchen table with Pauline. “We had to use more ﬁshing gear to catch the same amount of ﬁsh. Common sense would tell you something’s going wrong. I was on the wharf listening to the radio when the announcement was made. We were expecting a reduction ‘cause we knew something had to be done, but not a complete closure. My god, I didn’t know what to say.” Pauline added, “Bay de Verde went down to a dead stop.”
The cod moratorium produced the single largest worker layoff in Canadian history. No other industry in rural New-foundland could absorb the newly unemployed. Although the government provided some initial relief and retraining programs, many families of ﬁshermen who had lived in the outports for generations were forced to pull up stakes and leave. Some made their way to the capital city of St. John’s, others left the province entirely. Once-thriving ﬁshing communities were shattered—piers and sheds abandoned, boats neglected, and houses boarded up. The province’s rural population declined by a staggering eighteen percent during the 1990s. A few outports disappeared altogether.
While some Newfoundlanders migrated and some retired, others entered the world of “mobile work,” which ranges from long daily commutes to extended-stay, re-gional and international travel. In Newfoundland these laborers include truck drivers, who are constantly on the move, as well as mariners and offshore oil workers, who spend weeks at a time at sea before returning home. Bob and Pauline Sutton joined the several thousand “turn-around workers” who travel more than 2,500 miles each way every few weeks to work rotations “out west” in the oil sands of Alberta and British Columbia. Collectively, these Newfoundlanders are following in the footsteps of the continent’s ﬁrst mobile workers—the early Europeans who sailed across the Atlantic seasonally to ﬁsh for cod.
In 2013, we joined a multidisciplinary team of researchers investigating different types of work mobility across Canada. Known as the “On the Move Partnership: Employment-Related Geographical Mobility in the Canadian Context,” this collaboration is a project of the Safety-Net Center at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Our speciﬁc research, among the former ﬁshermen who now work in Newfoundland’s offshore oil ﬁelds, aims to understand the impact of mobile work on individuals, their families, and outport communities.
We observed a striking consistency in how workers describe their state of mind—the emotional cycles they undergo. Two days before leaving home to go offshore, workers say they mentally switch gears, getting psychologically prepared to leave. The last few days at home are usually spent trying to tie up loose ends, which may include, in the words of one offshore worker, “cleaning the chimney, changing the winter tires on the car, ﬁnishing up little projects…making sure everything is ready.” Many spouses told us that their partners get irritable their last few days at home. When “crew change day” ﬁnally arrives, both workers and their partners are ready for the change. As one wife said about her husband leaving: “Him going back to sea is the secret of a good marriage.” However, not every worker is eager to leave. “No matter how much you enjoy your job,” one tankerman reported, “when that phone rings and they say, ‘Crew change will be Wednesday’…it’s as if someone kicked you in the stomach.”
After arriving on the vessel or rig it takes a day or two to get your “sea legs,” and to “ease back” into the work rou-tine. At the halfway point, workers begin to look forward to getting home, and start making plans for their upcom-ing downtime. “A change in mood is very noticeable as the shift progresses,” observed the captain of a supply ship. “You see it in yourself and you see it in the crew.” One rig worker equated the anticipation of going home to a child’s excitement before Christmas: “There’s no day like crew change day!” Most are deeply disappointed if they are delayed by weather, which is not uncommon since fog often makes it impossible for helicopters to land offshore.
Once home, most workers say they like to kick back and do nothing for the ﬁrst few days. But then they want to make the most of their time onshore by seeing friends, spending time with the kids, doing odd jobs around the house, and enjoying themselves camping, hunting, and ﬁshing. Many claim they spend more time with their partners and children during their three- to six-week stretches at home than onshore workers, who only have every weekend off. As one rig worker put it: “You have to live your life when you are home. Time at home is your time, time to choose to do whatever you want to do. Time at sea is the company’s time.”
The long absences of off-shore work can, however, strain relationships. “Not everybody is cut out for it,” noted a chief mate. “I’ve seen many of my friends through divorce, separations, and re-ally rough patches because of the pressure on the person at home.” The partners of offshore workers must manage many responsibilities and activities while their husbands, and in some cases wives, are at sea: childcare, food provisioning, snow-clearing, and taking care of household ﬁnances. “If the washing machine breaks down,” said one wife, “you don’t wait till he comes back to buy a new one; you do it.” While extended kin often help out, most partners juggle household tasks while also holding down jobs of their own. It’s no surprise that most become very independent. “I can do anything,” one wife told us during an interview. “That attitude,” her husband added, “allows me to be able to do my job.” “My wife is not just a nurse,” said deckhand Aiden Brwn. “She is also a plumber, an electrician, a snowplow operator, a ﬁnancial manager and what-ever—you name it.”
New communication technologies—mostly the Internet—means that nearly all offshore workers now check in with home each day, often several times daily. The down-side for life onboard is the loss of camaraderie among the crew. “By 6:30 or 7 o’clock [p.m.],” one tankerman told us, “you don’t see a soul. Everyone’s gone to their cabin to shower up, call home, talk to the children, FaceTime, Skype, and do whatever they do.” Workers today spend far less time hanging out in common rooms—telling stories, playing cards, music, or watching television with their crew-mates—than they did in the past. Older seamen bemoan this loss of fellowship, although few would swap it for their new ability to stay in touch with home, especially since most mobile work means long absences away and the feeling of missing out—birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, and, worst of all, Christmas.
The trade-off is economic. Offshore oil workers earn at least double what they could make onshore. The money made through mobile work has helped to preserve outport culture by enabling Newfoundlanders to continue to live in rural communities—in the places where they were born and reared and would like to raise their own children. “The beauty in the offshore is you can live where you like,” explained one tankerman. “You don’t have to live in St. John’s to hold down a job. A person can live the outport life.” “From my perspective,” commented another oil worker, “[mobile work] is keeping my community alive ﬁnancially.”
Driving through rural Newfoundland, the material evidence of mobile workers’ hefty incomes is readily visible in remodeled homes, paved rather than gravel driveways, oversized trucks, and such luxuries as all-terrain vehicles, motorcycles, and pleasure boats. Invisible, but no less prevalent, are the family vacations on cruise ships, and trips to all-inclusive Caribbean resorts in the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Cuba, or U.S. destinations like Florida.
This new-found afﬂuence, however, is now threatened by the recent plunge in the price of a barrel of oil—down roughly seventy percent since 2014. The price collapse has clobbered the province’s economy along with that of other oil-producing regions of the world. Provincial budget surpluses have now turned back into deﬁcits; royalties from offshore oil revenue typically make up more than half of government spending.
For many Newfoundlanders, this slump is a reminder of the economic stagnation that followed the cod moratorium. Just as that downturn once threatened the outport way of life, so does the current oil-induced recession. There is an important difference, however. “The cod ﬁshery was our heritage and all of a sudden that life was gone,” noted one mobile oil worker. “The oil industry is mostly a paycheck.”
As uncertainty again clouds the future of rural Newfoundlanders, many outport families are searching for ways to adapt. As in many parts of the world, tourism provides a ray of light. Both heritage- and eco-tourism are cause for optimism. Annual tourism arrivals in Newfoundland now top 500,000 visitors who bring in one billion dollars (Canadian) in revenue. Bob and Pauline, who took advantage of the oil boom and spent four seasons employed in hospitality in the work camps “out west” (in British Columbia), have used their “oil money” to open a bed and breakfast in one of Bay de Verde’s old saltbox houses. But outports like Bay de Verde are shrinking. “There’s few youngsters here,” said one resident with resignation. “People are getting older and when they’re gone, there’ll be no one else to look after this place.”
But Newfoundlanders are resilient. Most communities will likely be sustained by a handful of local jobs, a mobile workforce, retired returnees, and a summer settler population. The latter includes both mainlander Canadi-ans and Americans, who have been attracted by affordable home prices, the quaintness of the outports, and dramatic coastal scenery. Newfoundlanders are ﬁercely attached to place. Many do not want to leave the communities in which they grew up, at least not permanently. Most families can trace their roots back generations—some to the ﬁrst European settlers. But their attachment to place is based on more than this.
The subsistence economy of rural Newfoundland tied people to the land and surrounding sea in a unique way. People dealt with the uncertainties and hardships of outport life and developed an unspoken pride in surviving it. The harshness of the climate and precariousness of the economy, as well as family members’ tight ties, bound the residents together. They helped one another to build houses, launch boats, and perform myriad other tasks. As a community, people weathered the ups and downs of outport life. “It goes back to the closeness of people,” Pauline reﬂected, as we sat once again at her kitchen table, “and the simplicity of life.” Although life has changed and things are no longer as simple, rural Newfoundlanders remain resilient.