Thick black smoke billowed out from the burning wreck of the Quinlan Brothers fish plant in Bay de Verde Monday morning, as orange flames ate through wood and metal.
Just like that, 700 people who were ready to start their first day of work for the fishing season, had no work to go to.
The community of Bay de Verde sits on a rocky peninsula — the land barren and open to the ocean. Every home, practically, has a waterfront view.
The ocean has been the sustenance for this place — as it has been for most rural communities like this one — since the first boats from Europe sailed to here in the 1600s; in 1697 the fishermen of this community put up 4,450 quintals of fish (salt cod). Cod continued to be the mainstay of the local economy through three more centuries.
The Quinlan brothers — Maurice and Patrick — bought out the business of James F. O’Neill in 1954 and built a small fish plant on the waterfront, processing fresh codfish.
By 1967, the Quinlans fish plant was operating six of the 12 longliners that fished out of Bay de Verde, and employing over 300 people in the plant.
The little fish plant on the waterfront grew, with the addition of processing lines for shrimp and crab, and building an enterprise with millions of dollars worth of sales of fish products.
For a small community of 400, this business is irreplaceable.
And it’s not just Bay de Verde that will feel the hurt this fishing season — but communities up and down the Conception Bay Shore and beyond, where Quinlan Brothers employees live.
The fishing crews that sold to Quinlan’s will manage. They can probably sell their catches to another buyer, or even to Quinlan’s if the company can do a deal with another processor to lease a plant to continue production for at least this season.
However, the 700 fish plant worker at Bay de Verde, may not have so simple a solution.
And with 700 local jobs gone, the chances are slim that other businesses will be looking for new workers.
The hope is that Quinlan’s will rebuild the plant in Bay de Verde.
With the ashes still smouldering a day after the fire, however, the decision-making was still a work in progress.
For now, though, the people who are without income, are worried and need answers.
For many of them, this is the only job they’ve known. For some households, they Quinlan Brothers plant provided two incomes for the family.
It’s a state of emergency that will continue long after the embers are dead and the cleanup begins.
The provincial government will have to play a role in ensuring that the 700 people who had their livelihoods wiped out overnight, will be taken care of — either for a few weeks or for the rest of this fishing season.
Meanwhile, for anyone who ever wondered what might happen if a fish plant is taken out of a small community — Monday should have given you the answer.
Whether a plant is consumed by fire, or goes down in proverbial flames through loss of inshore fishing quotas, or the collapse of fish and shellfish stocks, the end result is the same.
Devastation and worry, and a major impact on a local economy when 700 people no longer have a job. And a whole lot of people looking to, and expecting, their governments to come up with solutions.
Quinlan Brothers, and Bay de Verde, may rebuild.
Yet the sight of the burning plant, and the voices of the people impacted, should serve as a reminder of the importance of these operations to rural communities.
What happened in Bay de Verde Monday was dramatic. But it’s no less dramatic when the doors simply close on a plant, never to open again.
And unless governments can find solutions to ensure equal sharing of the fish resources among fishing fleets, other fish plant workers in communities around this province will wake up some morning feeling exactly like the fish plant workers in Bay de Verde did on Monday morning.
I can only hope that on that prediction, I’m entirely wrong.
Until next time “Over and Out.”
Barbara Dean-Simmons lives in Trinity Bay, where her father was a fisherman. She has been writing about the fishery for over 30 years.