My Week: The cod have gone and the bears invade: C J Fox returns to find his native Newfoundland beset by ecological disaster

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The Independent Online
Thursday: A London-based writer, I've returned to my native Newfoundland for a family reunion. This North Atlantic island, once 'Britain's Oldest Colony' but since 1940 part of Canada, is now gripped by possibly the worst ecological disaster this side of the Amazon. The talk in my home town, St John's, seethes around the apparently indefinite moratorium imposed on Newfoundland's main industry, cod fishing, after the once-swarming Grand Banks were virtually fished out by juggernaut vessels, local and foreign. One commentator laments: 'The shoals of cod that Cabot (discoverer of Newfoundland) was able to harvest in baskets dipped over the side half a millennium ago are now gone.'

Gone too are 25,000 fishery jobs - the equal in this sparsely populated province of 2.5 million layoffs in Britain. The federal government provides the equivalent of pounds 200 a week under a retraining package for each of those affected, but next year the welfare bonanza runs out, and after that . . .

Friday: A break in the cold, rainy weather ('a judgement', one Newfoundlander calls this summer's meteorological misery). So myself and visiting French-Canadian relatives hike to the outlying headquarters of the provincial government. We joke about meeting a moose or a polar bear. Meanwhile an engineer nephew of mine, driving to work, is hurt in a collision with a moose. Such crashes have become commonplace, even within St John's where my sister, Sheila, was flabbergasted to see one of the 1,800-pounders in her back garden. And Arctic polar bears drift further south on the ice-pans and come ashore with increasing frequency, one invading a house near the capital and terrifying the owner.

Saturday: We tour St John's harbour guided by my port-managing brother, David. The sight of five crack trawlers in mothballs grimly symbolises Newfoundland's great disaster. High and dry in a repair dock is an Estonian trawler whose crew have made headlines with scavenging expeditions to the city dump. I visit Professor George Story, Oxford-educated specialist in Renaissance literature and a compiler of the extraordinary Dictionary of Newfoundland English. He cites Stephen Spender, a 1975 visitor, on the claustrophobic feel of St John's: '. . . so many squalid buildings crowding down the oblong pocket handkerchief of the harbour'.

Sunday: Entertained by book critic Alison Feder and husband, Herb. The chat swings back from Irish writers to, inevitably, the fish crisis - how much it should be blamed on voracious foreign factory ships, man-made climatic changes or the hosts of cod-consuming seals no longer hunted since the victorious protest campaigns. The frustrations of urging the EC and other foreigners to help save the Grand Banks are subsequently recounted by my environmentalist niece, Voya Cahill, just back from the UN talkfest on worldwide fish depletion. A cousin - Richard Cashin, former head of the fisheries trade union - ponders on creating a 'vision of hope' for displaced fishing people.

Monday: Starts with Newfoundland radio's answer to Desert Island Discs. It's Funk Island Discs, named for a primeval rock off the North-east coast. I visit Laurie Cashin, Richard's polymath brother, whose room is papered with propaganda sheets from the bitter referendum campaigns preceding the '49 join-up with Canada. A zealous radio ham, Laurie has been up early contacting a lone British sailor off Central America. Next, to the home (at 200 years of age the city's oldest) of retired Chief Justice Robert Furlong. Now 89, he stays in global touch through the British books and journals he devours in a spirit of scorn for the mainland North American ethos.

Tuesday: My last day sees me chauffeured down the coast south of St John's by Canada's rousing TV iconoclast, Rex Murphy, who gives me a running commentary about this uproariously Irish 'Southern Shore'. Murphy sounds like Herman Melville reborn as he enthuses over the cavorting whales which now crowd the coast enjoying the surplus of tiny fish left uneaten by the absent cod. 'People come from all over to watch the whales,' Rex reports, adding ruefully: 'We've become a theme park for eco-tourists'.

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