“To anyone starting over”: A review of Last Fish, First Boat

The film draws parallels between the 1992 cod moratorium and the realities of modern-day Newfoundland and Labrador.

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“To anyone starting over.”

This succinct but profound dedication is tucked into Last Fish, First Boat’s opening so subtly, it is easily missed on the first watch. Written by author, journalist, and fierce defender of Newfoundland and Labrador’s inshore cod fishery Jenn Thornhill Verma, and illustrated by visual artist Kat Frick Miller, the animated short is a force in and of itself.

It is an old story now with new meanings. The film is a nod to both the past and present circumstances in which the province’s people find themselves. Adapted from Verma’s 2019 book Cod Collapse: The Rise and Fall of Newfoundland’s Saltwater Cowboys, the film aims to draw parallels between the 1992 cod moratorium and the realities of modern-day Newfoundland and Labrador.

As we encounter a new crisis seemingly as often as the cod were once plentiful, Verma and Miller achieve much more than that.

Economic Collapse

An economic collapse is occurring—or so we’re told. Like a towering iceberg we’re watching from shore, it looms over the province like the reality of a shuttered fishery did—and still does. Every now and then words like “recovery” and “task force” echo across the frigid water as massive cracks form from the weight of it all. Perhaps, then, the dedication is actually meant for every Newfoundlander and Labradorian. We should all be welcoming a ‘starting over’ of sorts right now.

More than that, we should all be actively involved in creating it.

Yet the lessons from the cod moratorium, profiled in Last Fish, feel unnervingly unlearned—not only by those with political sway in the province, but also by those of us who believe we don’t have any. “Recovery” is a word that is not used near enough when it comes to the cod. But the idea that a secretive decision-making process will deeply determine the futures of the people who live here is hauntingly reminiscent of the moratorium itself. 

“They said there were too many fishers, and too few cod fish,” the narrator explains. But as the film’s subject, retired fisher Gene Maloney, says to Verma in an excerpt from the book, “[the moratorium] was all politics.”

Hold Fast, Newfoundland and Labrador

Verma herself has been dedicated to covering the politics of the fishery here both before and since the release of Cod Collapse. In another excerpt, Verma warns: “Operating a fishery—if even a limited stewardship fishery—without a recovery plan is like being in survival mode, rowing blind in a dense fog.” (In December 2020, the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans released the first-ever Rebuilding Plan for Atlantic Cod—a plan that Verma says doesn’t go far enough.) Survival mode is something the world has become accustomed to over the past year, as the Covid-19 pandemic has ravaged not only our plans but many of our lives and livelihoods.

This, too, is an experience reminiscent of the moratorium, when many in the province were “out of work overnight.” That summer, as Miller’s green-grass scene brightly depicts, everyone stayed home, so everything on land got a lot more attention.

Like the inequalities pronounced throughout the pandemic, not every hardship was experienced equally. An inevitable outmigration occurred for those who couldn’t afford to stay. But as for Maloney and others like him, a natural and skilled pivot toward boatbuilding allowed him to sustain a livelihood—in every sense of the word—here at home.

The Personal is Provincial

Miller’s early scene depicting Maloney overlooking the harbour in Bay Bulls from one of his sheds is beautiful; startling not only for the deep indigo water and rich but simplistic detail, but for what is missing as well. The present-day industrialized harbour is now home to the mechanical equipment necessary to service the offshore oil and gas drilling rigs which often obscure the same ocean view.

Lately, this industry has all but abandoned us in a similar way to how we’ve apparently abandoned the inshore fishery—excluded, for the most part, from budget talks and party platforms. History has been trying to tell us something. A pivot from the dying offshore oil and gas industry is badly needed. But it doesn’t have to be as painful as the moratorium was, with news of the closure blindsiding fishers like Maloney—who at the time was still out to sea. Instead, those who have been trained for the offshore should be given the opportunity now to pivot their skills and experience toward a new, renewable future.

We can decide that starting over will be on our terms this time.

Population Plummet

The lesson we literally cannot afford not to learn—and fast—is what happens when the people of this province are ignored. Or, if you prefer the more positive spin: what happens when we are all included at the table. As iterated in Last Fish, the population of Newfoundland and Labrador plummeted like the cod after the moratorium. We’ve bled our youth ever since. It doesn’t have to be this way, and the collection of short documentaries known as The Fogo Process hold all the proof in the world to convince us that nothing should be decided about us without us.

What came about through thorough community consultation alongside academics and artists is one of the only great examples of economic recovery following cod collapse in Newfoundland and Labrador. The resulting resistance turned the tides, forcing government to listen to the people. Arguably, the co-operative economy which emerged and diversified from an inshore to mid-shore fishery is the only reason there’s currently anyone or anything on that particular island for tourists to gawk at—old and new.

Standing to Lose

But what has worked for one small region of the province has not been the reality elsewhere. Rural fishing communities are still losing steam and resources, despite their prominent place in our tourism ads. Nor has the issue of overfishing by offshore trawlers been adequately addressed, as consolidated corporations scoop up our most precious resources—great deals of quota, but also public funding—shipping both away in the form of profit before anyone considered “local” can even get a taste.

Meanwhile, the province struggles to achieve a goal of so-called “self-sufficiency.” The percentage of food produced here to be consumed here is inching slowly—painstakingly—upwards. Investments in increased commercialization, while a “recreational” cod fishery misses the point and purpose of an otherwise incredible opportunity to subsist on the abundance that surrounds us.

Instead, we pollute our waters with lax environmental laws and farmed fish, fed with soy grown in the South. We refuse to put seal on the menu—leaving them to gorge on the capelin our cod could eat—lest we offend tourists trained to pick and choose which parts of ‘our heritage’ they’re comfortable with encountering while they visit. And with the effects of the climate crisis already warming our waters, we should all be pushing for a chance to truly start over. Whether we get one or not—and what it ultimately looks like—will depend largely on us.

And when starting over, we should remember fishers like Gene Maloney: his feet on land, but his heart forever at sea. Collectively, we can work to create a future where crisis is no longer the norm, but as preventable as the cod collapse—if only we’d choose to learn from what we already know.

All art by Kat Frick Miller.

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