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Boats at rest on Sunday
1990-2000
Main--Dieu, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia


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Lobster of bust: Peter Lahey waiting to unload lobtser traps
1980-1990
Main--Dieu, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia


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On dry land
1980-1990
Main--Dieu, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia


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Fishing boat in Main--Dieu harbour
1990-2000
Main--Dieu, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia


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In earlier eras, the operative term to describe fishing would have been "the catch"; today, not unlike the oil industry, it's more likely "exploration." Increasingly, the ocean is becoming the object not just of fishing but of fishermen themselves, as they gain more and more control over her, as more and more they attempt to tame her.

The ocean resists this move, perhaps most famously in its rebellion against the over-fishing of cod: the ocean simply refused to hand over any more fish. Cod haven't been fished in Cape Breton since 1992.

The decimation of the cod stocks is in some ways a grim reminder that part of the fisherman's life is knowing there may come a time when it will become necessary to struggle through the lean years - when a 5000-pound weekly catch suddenly becomes the haul for the whole season. In today's scientific climate, though, the modern fisherman has the benefit of trying to, and perhaps succeeding in, discovering why a particular stock is falling (or why it might, even if it hasn't yet) and take steps to reverse a negative trend. For example, seals, unchecked in recent years, have been known to eat the mackerel right out of the fishermen's nets: "I caught a hundred heads today!" one fisherman was heard saying, upon reeling in what was left of his catch.

The Lord Giveth, and He Taketh Away: After the cod fishery collapsed, the crab fishery exploded: cod eat small crab.

No such gifts resulted from the over-fishing of swordfish. Not too many years ago, swordfishing was so popular, lucrative, and downright enjoyable, that there were close to a hundred boats in the area carrying harpoons.

An average swordfishing boat might be 55-feet long, with a raised "ring" (from where the watchman would look out) above the spar (where the harpooner, or "striker," would stand). The ringman would holler down to the helmsman when he saw a swordfish underwater. (It was another man's job to spot the fish when they were "finning," meaning when they came up to the very top of the water, presumably to enjoy the warmth of the sun on their backs.)

The harpoon itself was on a 12-foot pole, attached to 100-150 feet of rope. Alternately, when the boat came right up on the catch, the striker might "hand jab" the fish, meaning he wouldn't need to throw the harpoon at all - but the fish would just as often "twitch," meaning as soon as the boat got too close the fish would run off.

A good striker could catch two dozen swordfish in a day; a boat could bring in 400 in a season.

It didn't take much - least of all a great amount of technology - for the swordfish to disappear from the area. It's an irony of the business, nonetheless, that every innovation in fishing that makes the catch an easier one, poses, at the same time, a threat to the fishermen's livelihood, by virtue of their utter dependence on the continued existence of a resource of which they are always trying to improve their sourcing. Indeed, it would be wrong to think of fishing as exclusively taking fish out of the water, when so much of the fisherman's concern, nowadays at least, is in keeping fish in it. An acute failure to remember this rule can lead directly into what's been termed the "progress trap." As the tools of the trade improve, each fisherman's catch improves, and with it his ability to afford more and ever better gear. With better traps, and more of them, on bigger boats; with more and more fishermen on the water, answering the echo of a market boom; and especially with smarter computers involved, the industry runs the risk of creating an underwater Easter Island. In Main--Dieu, this increasingly unlimited capacity to expand is moderated by the fisherman's old-fashioned reverence for the sea, resulting in much-needed conservation efforts.

The most obvious conservation method is the fishing "season," meaning that, for example, lobster fishing is only permitted for two months in the summer. (When that season starts, though, can be a bone of contention. Lobster fishermen are constantly fighting to get their season to start on the 15th of May instead of the 1st, in order to ensure they don't lose valuable fishing time due to the stubborn ice that might delay their launch.)

Within the season, there is a total ban on spawning lobsters, which when caught are gently released back into the water ("Thrown back?! No, put back.") to ensure the continued survival of every next generation of lobsters in the area; and there are restrictions on the minimum size of the catch, the absence of which would mean lobsters being caught before they've matured and had a chance to reproduce, thus causing a rapid decline in the stock. The lobsters deemed too small according to these rules don't even make it aboard, as they are allowed to escape through specially designed hatches in the traps.

Conservation efforts exist to protect the ocean from what would be, in the event of unbridled hunting, in essence clear-cutting. It's an apt metaphor, given that, just as no one who lives off the land would clear-cut his own backyard, no fisherman would purposely rid the waters of fish. The self-regulating conservation efforts of the fishermen are, in a way, about protecting them from themselves; but a broader conservation regime is needed to protect them from large corporations whose trawling nets can basically dredge the ocean of sea life, destroying the ocean floor - and, in the process, local fishermen's livelihoods.

The fishermen are discovering ways to combine modern scientific findings with old-fashioned agreements in order to avoid taking the fish out from under the man.

It's not just science and protectionism that determines the nature of the hunt. A "gentlemen's deal" exists in Main--Dieu & area that keeps the fishermen at home, and generally off the water, every Sunday. Most area residents are Christians, for whom Sunday is the "day of rest." (The exception being if a fisherman left his gear in what was about to become harm's way as a freak storm approached, and he needed to move it into safer waters.)
Always in fear of the "bad year" - and in mortal fear of over-exploitation - the fishermen know the only way to safeguard their own future is to limit their present behaviour. But charts-and-graphs solutions are nothing without the policies to back them up; the market, which many take at face value as a benevolent guiding hand, is myopic, and at best ambivalent. Today's boom may directly cause tomorrow's bust.

A bust was narrowly averted when, in the 1970s, there was little money in the lobster fishery and the fishermen "banked" their licenses, meaning they put them in safety deposit boxes or hid them under their pillows, took their boats out of the water, and went at something else.

In their absence, the oceans rebounded, so that by the 1990s, the fishery was a huge money maker.