A new short film explores the cod moratorium’s ripple effect through the lens of one fisherman. We sit in on their chat as the creators discuss their inspiration.
The animated short-film, Last Fish, First Boat, tells the story of the 1992 cod moratorium through the eyes of fifth-generation fisherman, Eugene Maloney. When the federal government shutters the fishery, Gene and his crew haul up their fishing gear one last time. Gene pivots to boat-building. Now in his 80s, Gene continues to build boats from his Bay Bulls woodshed, overlooking the southeastern shores of Newfoundland and Labrador. In the following conversation, filmmakers Kat Frick Miller and Jenn Thornhill Verma discuss why Gene’s story and the cod moratorium remain relevant today, 30 years on.
Kat Frick Miller: Our film is based on your book, Cod Collapse: The Rise and Fall of Newfoundland’s Saltwater Cowboys, which is part historical nonfiction, narrative and memoir. Of all of the stories you could have drawn from, Jenn, why did you focus on Gene’s story for this project?
Jenn Thornhill Verma: The day before the cod moratorium was formally announced, when the federal fisheries minister John Crosbie is in Bay Bulls confronted by hundreds of people - fishermen, plant workers, men, women, children and news crews - Gene Maloney isn’t in the crowd. He’s taking a break from fishing to go home for dinner (what Newfoundlanders and Labradorians call lunch). That’s when Gene learns the cod fishery is closing. When he sets back out in boat, it’s to haul up all of his fishing gear one last time. Gene had boots in the boats in the harbours where the cod moratorium happened. We can see through his story that the moratorium was more than an end to fishing; it marked an end to a way of life. We know now the signals that the cod population was collapsing had been there: from 1962, the earliest recordings of the cod population, to 1992, Atlantic cod were already 90 per cent depleted. But Gene’s story humanized the moratorium response. What resonated with you about Gene’s story, Kat?
KFM: When you wrote the book the pandemic was not yet happening, but Gene’s story so perfectly tied into this moment as an illustration of your world upending overnight. I was surprised by how much I could relate to it, but I kept thinking about it more and more, imagining Gene: he would have gone out in boat, working with a crew, hanging out on the wharf, that kind of daily structure. Then, to have that abruptly end, removing all of your social connections, your work connections, it felt so relevant. We always need those examples of people’s journeys through a really difficult time and how they navigate that period. And I appreciated the lightheartedness that Gene brought to his story. He’s able to carry on, lucky enough and determined enough to find something else to turn his hand to boatbuilding.
JTV: I love how Gene jokes about the lawns, fences and houses looking a touch more manicured in 1993. People who were accustomed to leading busy lives are suddenly trying to find things to do. There’s a universal theme here about your identity changing overnight, having to pivot your career and redefine what you do now. Let’s talk about how the film came together - especially given you and I have never met [in person], and you’ve never met Gene Maloney either. Kat, how did you get from idea to illustration to animation?
KFM: The pivot in Gene’s story felt very similar to this idea of us taking on a new collaboration in the digital realm. Your script allowed us to travel back to when Gene is a kid and contrast his life then to when he’s a working man on the water. That narrative illustration is a rewarding process, and the strength of your story along with your reference photographs helped me to shape a world that had a lot of depth. The contrast of the broad scenes painted of Bay Bulls in the hustle and bustle of the fishery’s heyday with the quieter moments of precise detail with Gene whittling in his woodshed, draws you in. Once we honed the script, we storyboarded, which was a new process to me, breaking down the narrative and isolating those moments we wanted to illustrate. We landed more than a dozen still-images, then giving thought to the animation, asking which elements we could highlight that would bring the images and the film to life. I timed the animation to your audio narration.
JTV: That’s where our co-producer, Matt LeMay - an award-winning filmmaker; and our sound designers the indie rock duo, Jamie Bonaparte and Michelle Opthof of Paragon Cause came in. They took what we started and fine-tuned the production with an original soundtrack. I had just had twins (in May) just before we launched the project, but I was just as excited to see what we all birthed!
KFM: To think about that we created from our own isolated pods, across three provinces (me in Nova Scotia, you all in Ontario, and our main character, Gene, in Newfoundland and Labrador), and to think about what we can come up with when we are face-to-face and really have that in-person energy to travel on-site - the ideas that we can explore, the stories that we can create will be awesome. Can we give a sneak peek of our next film project?
JTV: Last Fish, First Boat tells the story of the human outfall from the 1992 cod moratorium, and the next story we want to tell, Unsettled, also shares the human consequences of fishery closures. Resettlement - or moving people from small, often outport, rural and remote communities to places that offered the promise of prosperity in terms of jobs and economic growth - are part of the life history of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians. We’ll focus on another story from my book, about April MacDonald and her family, resettled as part of the Fisheries Household Resettlement Program from Woods Island in the Bay of Islands to Lark Harbour in western Newfoundland. Resettlement has affected the trajectory of tens of thousands of people from hundreds of communities across the province - Indigenous and settler communities alike. We know resettlement is not unique to Newfoundland and it happens for any range of reasons - in response to economics, geopolitics and climate change - but it feels unique here because of how it’s linked to the fishery, but also because almost as soon as people settled in the outports here, they were leaving and it’s still happening today.
“Last Fish, First Boat” is a six-minute animated film, funded by Canada Council for the Arts, and distributed by Canadian Geographic (via YouTube) with an educator version via McIntyre Media.