Madeline Butler says that a trip to her summer cabin in Mackinsons, Nfld., about 90 km southwest of St. John’s, earlier this month was like travelling through a foreign land. Because of the unseasonably cold weather that has gripped Newfoundland for much of the summer, Butler said that she and her husband, David, filled their suitcases with winter clothes. She added that because of the late spring, lilacs, which normally bloom in May, were just beginning to bud. Said Butler, who sells advertising space for the weekly Sunday Express in St. John’s: “Nothing had come to life yet.” Then, the Butlers were forced to cut short their visit to their cabin because of a July 1 hailstorm. “It was freezing,” she said. “We put on our winter parkas to load the car for the trip back.”
Newfoundland’s wintry weather, which was marked by an unusual concentration of icebergs and pack ice off the island’s coasts, disrupted ferry service to the island, kept tourists away and threatened the province’s fishing industry. John Anderson, vice-president of operations for the St. Andrews, N.B.-based Atlantic Salmon Federation, said that the coldest summer Labrador currents of at least the past 50 ydars had driven away salmon and other fish. As well, fisheries experts said that cold temperatures in some areas had driven away cod and other species that normally prefer cold water because the smaller fish that they feed on were not there. Referring to the freezing currents, Anderson said: “It’s almost like a wall of death.”
Because of the unusual weather conditions, federal fisheries officials announced in mid-May that fishing seasons for most species would be extended in the hardest-hit areas of Newfoundland, Labrador and some other parts of the Atlantic provinces. In addition, Ottawa will pay more than $19 million in aid under the federal Special Ice Compensation Program, announced on May 15, to 9,500 fishermen in Newfoundland, Labrador and Quebec’s Lower North Shore. Experts said that the icy conditions may have almost eliminated the fishing season for many species. Said federal Fisheries Minister John Crosbie: “We hope we don’t get another combination like this for another 100 years.”
Marine experts said that abnormally cold and deep ocean currents and unseasonably cold air temperatures contributed to the unusual conditions in the area. As a result, icebergs and pack ice, which the Labrador current carries downstream every spring, have stayed at least six weeks longer than usual off Newfoundland’s coasts and extend at least 100 miles farther south than usual to Cape Race. Said Richard Harvey, a meteorologist with Environment Canada’s Ice Centre in Ottawa: “I have never seen the ice stay this late.” By mid-July, the mean monthly temperature in St. Anthony, on Newfoundland’s northern peninsula, was 6.8[degrees] C, or 44.2[degrees] F–more than 5[degrees] C (9[degrees] F) below normal. In St. John’s, temperatures during the first two weeks of July averaged about 2[degrees] C (3.6[degrees] F) below normal. Last week, temperatures reached normal levels in most parts of the province. But persistent ice cover and icebergs continued to choke coastal waters.
Provincial government officials said that one of their principal concerns is the alarming absence of the fish that are a vital source of income in hundreds of Newfoundland outports. As well, the dangers posed by icebergs prevented many larger fishing vessels from seeking catches farther offshore. Fisheries authorities said that the cold offshore waters had affected the inshore migration of cod, which normaly feed on schools of caplin, tiny fish that spawn during the spring on Newfoundland beaches and in shallow waters. This year, ice and chilly waters had led to severely reduced numbers of caplin and retarded their growth. As a result, schools of cod stayed too far offshore for inshore fishermen to catch them. Even the silvery caplin is a valued commodity. They are usually caught in June, with the eggs sold to the Japanese bar-snack market. Said Crosbie: “If we don’t get caplin and codfish during July, it’s very unlikely there’s going to be much of a fishing season.”
Fishing and travel companies, which take tourists fishing in Newfoundland’s inland and offshore waters, said that they, too, are feeling the financial strain. Vincent Burton, owner and manager of Labrador Sports Fish, a tour outfitter in Goose Bay, estimated that salmon levels were down by as much as 80 per cent in some parts of Labrador. Said Burton: “It’s too soon to hit the panic button, but we sure hope the levels pick up soon.” For their part, some fishing-boat and fish-plant employees who have been unable to work this summer said that they feared that, as a result, they would not be able to qualify for unemployment insurance later in the year. Some fishermen were so desperate for catches that they threatened to fish in two zones without the required permits.
Still, many Newfoundlanders remained optimistic, particularly with the arrival of warmer weather last week. Karl Wells, who prepares weather reports for the regular evening news program Here and Now on CBC-CBNT in St. John’s, two weeks ago promised sunny skies across the province. When the weather turned even colder, Wells wore a paper bag over his head the next evening. Said the forecaster: “I guess if there’s nothing you can do about it, you can treat it with a bit of humor.” For many Newfoundlanders, that is becoming extremely difficult.