Can rural Newfoundland survive?

By Ivan Muzychka

The cod stock collapse has done more than create severe unemployment in Newfoundland. It has threatened the very existence of many rural communities in Newfoundland and Labrador. Can communities survive this ecological crisis? The complexity of the question -- involving a difficult blend of marine biology, economics, ecology, social and historical issues -- prohibits a quick, clearly defined answer. In a search for possible solutions, Memorial University has assembled a 33-member research team, spanning disciplines including biology, earth sciences, sociology, education, history, and health sciences. So far the study has collected a large amount of data and has raised many complex questions about the sustainability of rural Newfoundland communities.

At the centre of the Memorial University project -- titled Sustainability in a Changing Cold-Ocean Coastal Environment -- is the concept of sustainability. This concept came to international prominence with the publication in 1987 of Our Common Future, the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development. That report underscored the need for countries and communities to balance economic development against the requirements of the natural environment. In doing so, the report also called for a redefinition of growth based on a realization that our environment is a balanced, finite ecosystem, one that cannot sustain a march of unlimited growth.

Dr. Rosemary Ommer, the project leader, likes to approach the problem from a commonsense point of view. "Let's take out the rhetoric and the academic jargon....On a fundamental level, sustainability can be defined as that which makes it possible for communities to continue from generation to generation..."

To get at how communities in Newfoundland managed from generation to generation, researchers are focussing on the Bonavista headland and on the isthmus of the Avalon Peninsula. The study has a strong historical component; the team will look at how these communities came to exist, how they interacted with the resources available to them, and how they coped with sustainability issues in the past.

Far-reaching implications

Despite the geographic focus, the lessons researchers learn here will have wider applications. "It throws into very stark light the problem that will face all parts of the globe," Dr. Ommer said of the fishery collapse. "What we have a chance to do here is to think about rural societies and economies in terms of how we are going to handle our fisheries resources.... We know it will not be possible to rebuild Newfoundland on the back of one resource."

Dr. Richard Haedrich, Biology, has spent many years studying the marine environment around Newfoundland. Dr. Haedrich is part of the project's management committee and is also working with a component of the project called Retrospective Monitoring and Traditional Ecological Knowledge, or TEK. This part of the study involves combining traditional types of fish data -- government surveys for example -- with sociological research, in an attempt to ferret out the knowledge of changes in abundance and size of the fish stock.

Dr. Haedrich notes that because the study is interdisciplinary in nature, it has changed the traditional, natural science perspective. "I guess what it has done mostly is resulted in the realization that human activities have to be included explicitly in ecosystem studies," he observed. "People are not outside the ecosystems and they have a major impact on what goes on in ecosystems."

Sociologists Dr. Peter Sinclair and Dr. Barb Neis have surveyed people in the study area extensively. Dr. Sinclair, who also sits on the project management committee, is trying to find out more about how people affected by the cod moratorium are dealing with the crisis. His research is leading towards a better understanding of how economic and social structures in rural Newfoundland are likely to evolve in view of the fishing crisis.

Dr. Neis and Dr. Larry Felt are the lead researchers of the TEK component of the ecosystem project. "The rationale for TEK comes out of an observation that fisheries science was weak on understanding the dynamics of the inshore fishery," Dr. Neis explained. "We also noted that people in the inshore fishery had been challenging scientists about the health of the fish stocks and for the most part their claims were dismissed."

Confederation: before and after

The research of Dr. Sean Cadigan, History, has entailed examining census reports together with historical accounts of the fishery. He has found that after Confederation, rural communities began to experience population instability.

"Before Confederation, people were forced to moderate their growth in terms of what was happening with local resources.... When resources were seriously impinged on or started to fail, people started to that communities could survive. After Confederation a series of long- and short-term government policies were implemented but most of those initiatives failed because they tried to override the local ecology," Dr. Cadigan said. "You have some that are like misbegotten transplants, and that led to a crazy zigzag pattern of population development...." As successive governments realized policy failures, he added, they attempted to combat unemployment and create growth by encouraging people into the fishery. Dr. Cadigan suspects that this growth was achieved at the expense of the marine environment. However, he doesn't believe the current fishery collapse is a result of such relatively recent events. Instead, he sees the current crisis as a culmination of a trend that was accelerated by foreign overfishing and innovative technologies. He said that rural Newfoundland's future is optimistic to the extent that people want to look at the truth.

"The future is bleak if we continue to deny a basic element of Newfoundland's history -- that this crisis in the cod fishery is an ecological crisis that has been in the making for about a century and a half. We are getting more and more evidence of this."

Other times, other failures

Dr. Cadigan's historical research is corroborating what natural scientists have suspected: that the fish stocks failed before. Dr. Cadigan says that the very existence of a Labrador fishery in the 19th century points to problems in the inshore fisheries on the island. "People don't go to the Labrador fishery for the hell of it; it is a poor fishery in terms of weather, the short fishing season, poor curing conditions.... People only go there because there is less fish to catch elsewhere."

So far there is some agreement among sociologists, natural scientists, and historians: the fate of rural Newfoundland will always be tied to fish. Certainly there is room for economic development in other areas, but true sustainable communities in Newfoundland will not be far from the fishing industry.

"Rural communities need to have a fishery base, one that uses the fishery in much more complicated ways," said Dr. Neis. "Without a fishery however, the future of these communities is questionable."

Is industry the answer?

"I think a lot of rural Newfoundlanders know that their fate depends on fish, that there are not a lot of industries that can supplant that," Dr. Cadigan said. "None of these other areas have great track records for providing a full income for communities."

Yet in the past, Newfoundland leaders have often seen large industries as the road to economic development. Are such industries the key to a revitalized rural Newfoundland? Can the massive employment they sometimes provide be a route to sustainability?

Dr. Greg Kealey, history researcher and management committee member, is exploring Newfoundland economic development strategies. He is particularly concerned with the role of the so-called "mega-project" as a mode of economic development. The study area contains two examples of this type of activity: the Come- by-Chance oil refinery and the Hibernia gravity-based structure construction site at Bull Arm.

Dr. Kealey said that the Smallwood government saw its task as that of "modernizing" the province. That era saw many large industrial schemes, of which Come By Chance is one. "Certainly the Hibernia construction site is one of the ways that rural Newfoundland is being sustained," Dr. Kealey said. "The problem is that it's short term, and you would have to add mega-project after mega-project in order for it to continue."

Mega-projects pose another problem as evidenced by the history Dr. Kealey is studying. "The difficulty is, of course, that the province has historically been in a relatively weak position in terms of the kinds of bargains that maximize the benefits," the labour historian pointed out. "Obviously when you are dealing with large transnational corporations that have international options -- and if you are a relatively poor government -- these are difficult bargains to strike and are not often struck in Newfoundland's favour."

Health as a resource

On a completely different front, the health sciences component of the project is surveying the study areas to find out how the cod moratorium has affected individuals in terms of their health.

Economists have long known that the psychological disposition of the population plays an important role in the functioning of an economy. Just as an economy can falter when consumer confidence drops, the sustainability of rural communities will depend, to a certain extent, on the mental health of community members.

Kathy Stevens, a graduate student in nursing, draws connections between the health survey work her team is doing and what other parts of the sustainability project are exploring. "[Community residents] often don't know what is going to happen and the uncertainty is affecting people's mental health. We have people who are in crisis and they are trying to cope. I think we are an important piece of the pie, in terms of sustainability; health used to be seen as the absence of disease, and now it is viewed more broadly -- as a resource -- and from a sustainability point of view it is important. Poor water quality can affect people's health, and an economic crisis can impact on health," she said.

Environmental history

Earth scientists have been brought in as part of the research project to investigate and document -- on a very specific and specialized level -- the state of the natural environment. The goal is to try and create a sharper picture of the environment, both as it exists today, and how it may have existed in previous times. Researchers such as Dr. Moire Wadleigh are carrying out sulphur isotopic analyses on rain and vegetation in and around the study area. The data gained from these procedures will supply information related to the sources of this element in the environment.

"We are looking at present atmospheric inputs from the natural world, including nutrients like phosphorus and metals that may be there as a consequence of the refinery, or from things like burning wood," Dr. Wadleigh explained. "We are comparing the data with sediment cores to look at what happened in the recent past, to ask 'How has the ecosystem changed?' Pollen assemblages can also provide information on a change in vegetation that may indicate changes in climate and land use patterns."

There is also an historical component to the earth sciences research. Alexei Smirnov is working on a PhD in earth sciences. The St. Petersburg, Russia, native is working with core samples taken from bodies of water in the study area. His research is attempting to establish what the rural ecosystem was like in the past, while also considering the future possibilities of the community.

"To plan the future development of the area it is important to fully understand the scale of environmental degradation, as well as the current processes. So far research has shown that ongoing trends and other human-based influences may have influenced the water, having some relationship to the fish stocks in the surrounding areas."

Mr. Smirnov analyses core samples drawn from the ponds in the area, and eventually wants to study cores taken from the sea. "The absence of cod is attributed solely to human activity. I disagree with that, but at the moment I don't have too many facts...but I have a feeling that the environment may also have led to the decline of the cod stocks in the area. Some data I have seen has variability, and I am thinking that this variability might govern the fluctuation of the fish."

The chemistry connection

To understand more fully the environment and the various interactions with it, chemists are doing environmental analytical work. By analysing chemical biomarkers the researchers can assess what condition the environment is in. "We are looking at hydrocarbons that are present in the marine sediment," said Yvette Favaro, a graduate student in chemistry who is working on the team. "We choose certain markers and monitor them to get an indication of pollution or other natural inputs into the environment."

Certain hydrocarbons indicate pollution and can be traced back to their specific sources. If the levels are high enough, we can say that there is a problem and alert people to it. Our findings may also help to explain environmental conditions found in other ecosystems of the study area."

Ultimately, rural Newfoundland will likely survive, but it is more a question of the form this survival will take. There is a fundamental difference between growth and development -- Dr. Ommer sums it up with an analogy: "You can put a plant on a table far from a window, and that plant will grow -- long and scraggly -- but it will grow. On the other hand you can put a plant in the sunshine and it will grow and it will develop lots of buds and blossoms, and eventually seeds. That is the image I have, not so much growth, but development, a diversity of economics that will take us beyond one resource, but not damage the environment..."

Memorial's sustainability study has been funded with $1.4 million by Environment Canada through the Green Plan and is being administered by three academic funding councils: the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the Medical Research Council, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. It will be completed in 1997. The Eco-Research Project can be accessed on the World-Wide Web at