Outport Life

Newfoundlanders use whatever means available to hold fast to their cherished land.

Villages in Newfoundland look much the same as they did when the economy depended on cod fishing, although many inhabitants now travel off island--some for six months at a time--in order to preserve their communities and their ties to the land.


Photographs by Andrew Lincoln

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.

A local fisherman in 1973 hangs squid to dry before being sold in Asian markets. Fishermen have since abandoned the practice.

Salted cod drying in 1973 on platforms called flakes. Today, drying still occurs but on a smaller scale since  the cod collapse in the 1990s.

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 town of Trinity, on Trinity Bay, has a number of buildings designated by the Province of Newfoundland as Registered Heritage Structures. 

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.

Visible from both land and sea, St. George’s Anglican Church, built between 1876 and 1877, is a landmark in the town of Brigus, founded in 1612. 

“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.

The Brookings family offloads their crab catch in Old Perlican Harbour. One response to the cod collapse was a shift to harvesting snow crab.

Newfoundland’s offshore oil workers travel far to start their three- to six-week work rotations; longer rotations are for international destinations. Oil-rig workers may commute several hours from home to the helicopter termi-nal in St. John’s in order to catch a two-hour chopper ride out to the Grand Banks. Those working on international tankers must combine driving, flying, boating and/or helicoptering in order to “meet the ship.” We interviewed one worker whose journey takes him from St. John’s to Ottawa, then to Belgium, and finally to Angola to begin his five-week offshore rotation. Once at sea, workers put in twelve-hour shifts, seven days a week, until their rotation is up. Then, they have the same amount of time at home. Workers thus end up spending half the year offshore and half at home.

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.

Bay de Verde resident Tony Doyle discusses moose hunting, which provides subsistence to complement the dietary staple of fish. Moose—which are not native to the island and were first introduced in 1878 and again in 1904—have been hunted since 1935. The moose population grew rapidly between 1904 and the 1960s and now includes 120,000 individuals, the most concentrated population in North America.

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.

Grates Cove residents Courtney Howell and her daughter pick berries as another subsistence activity.


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.” 

This boat-building yard, shown in 1973, was one of two in Trinity at the time. Since the 1990s, wooden boat-building, a centuries-old tradition in Newfoundland, has diminished, due in part to the cod collapse and also because of new boat-building technologies. Both yards in Trinity are now closed.

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.

--GG, DR