Change Islands

The field research for our project took place in the community of Change Islands, one of several historic outport fishing communities on the northeast coast of Newfoundland, once isolated in the winter, but now connected to the mainland by year-round ferry service. Most residents live on either side of a narrow, somewhat protected tickle between two islands connected by a bridge, with others found at the edge of nearby coves. The landscape includes mixed forest, inland marshes and small lakes, and bare rock outcrops. The coastline of the two main islands and the many smaller surrounding islands is quite rugged, with numerous coves, shallow rocks and shoals.

Early settlement began in the latter half of the eighteenth century, fuelled by the English Labrador floater fishery, and by the beginning of the twentieth century, Change Islands was a fishing community with over 1,000 residents, thriving but dependent upon the fish merchants who traded fish for goods and services. Change Islands was also until very recently, an important centre for seal hunting. For generations, local residents have also supplemented their livelihoods with gardening, duck hunting, berry collecting, and other resource use activities. The cod fishery was the life-blood of these coastal communities until the cod moratorium in 1992. The collapse of the fishery was a devastating blow, and has been a major factor in the outmigration of the younger generation – resulting in a population today of only about 250. However, while many have left the community for work opportunities elsewhere and others opted for “early retirement” when the moratorium came into force, today there are still about 35 residents who fish for a living, the majority core harvesters who own their own enterprises. Virtually all families also participate in the recreational fishery, and some have maintained traditional stages and stores that add personality to the picturesque setting. Towards the end of the 1990s in-migration of seasonal residents has brought new ideas and initiatives.

Today, commercial fishers harvest snow crab as a key species (as part of a broader shift at the provincial level from groundfish to shellfish), with many also fishing capelin, squid, mackerel, lobster, and other species when possible. Small quotas of cod were reintroduced in 2006, which while very limited, have been important in maintaining traditions and local knowledge associated with the fishery. Local residents are also employed occasionally in a fish processing plant that reopened in 2008 and that has licences to process several different species, mainly brought in from other parts of the province. Overall, however, the inshore fishery is struggling due to a flawed regulatory framework and the low prices for catches. Without significant changes the current generation of fish harvesters may be the last.

Their culture, history, and way of life have for many generations centred on fishing, and the loss of the inshore fishery would be a tremendous loss of an important part of Canada’s living heritage. It would also lead to the loss of valuable knowledge of the marine environment. Fish harvesters have recently seen signs of recovery of the cod, but are concerned with the lack of monitoring, in general and in particular for the recreational fishery. They have expressed a desire to return to a hook and line fishery that would be more sustainable and preserve the species. They have also seen how climate change – especially warming over the last decade – is affecting changes in availability of fish species and other natural resources, like berries.

Although the social capital in the community remains strong and the newcomers provide a welcome addition to the population, the aging population leaves fewer people to participate in community activities. A new mayor and council were elected in 2009 and are fully engaged, and initiated a program to recuperate unpaid taxes to improve the town’s financial situation. The diminishing school age population and the loss of resident church pastors are additional concerns. Nevertheless, Change Islanders, although vulnerable, have a degree of optimism regarding the future. The natural beauty of the area, picturesque architecture, and other attractions (e.g., an interpretation centre, historical museum, pony refuge) have drawn an increasing number of tourists, making important contributions to the local economy. They are committed to adapt and diversity, conserve traditions, and keep community going.