Splinter Fleet

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The Splinter Fleet

It was a sad day for Newfoundland when we sacrificed our “Splinter Fleet”. These boats, built by Commission of Government as a general service carrier for Newfoundland, were bequeathed to the province as a fixed asset. It seemed to be a good idea to “Liquidate” them to turn them into money, as so much of the fixed pre-union surplus was turned into money, and to spend that money for building up the province industrially. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a good idea at all.

The “Splinter Fleet” was sold for a fraction of its real value, at much less than cost, and at a time when replacement values had climbed astronomically. At the time it looked like getting rid of a liability to buyers who would turn it into an asset for Newfoundland as well as for themselves. We do not, therefore, blame the Government for making this fundamental error. It was an error which any Government might have made. But now, six years later, we might well wish to but back the scattered Clarenville boats for many times the amount we received.

If we had something in the nature of a foreign going merchant marine of our own we could do something about fish exports at the provincial level. That would be especially so if the merchant marine were controlled by the Government. Apparently one of the troubles with the Jamaica fish market is that export costs are too high, our fish is being taken to Nova Scotia for reshipment to the Caribbean, running up freights and handling charges. If we had a foreign going merchant fleet of our own we could export fish on whatever freight terms we cared to adopt.

With a “Splinter Fleet” it would even be possible to subsidize salt fish indirectly by putting a hidden subsidy on freights. Every time anyone suggests anything even remotely resembling a subsidy for salt somebody throws up his hands in holy terror and exclaims “Hush! Hush; if the Americans hear a word about fish subsides they’ll slap a higher duty on fresh fish and put our plants out of business.”

But even the Americans couldn’t be expected to object to a Government owned merchant fleet operating at a loss. They might point to it as an example of the superiority of private enterprise, but they would never cite it as an example of a subsidy warranting a higher tariff wall.

Shipping is still Newfoundland’s very life blood not only shipping by large tramps, but small vessels shipping around our own coats and from our towns to the Mainland. We need carriers for supplies going to the out-ports, for fish going from fishing harbors to ports of export, and for salt bulk going to Nova Scotia. Our privately owned merchant fleet, which in the last century made Newfoundland an important trading nation out of all proportion to her tiny population, is now at the bottom of all the oceans of the earth, and buried in the sand and ooze of numberless coves around our own coastline.

We went from the big foreign going merchantmen, from brigs and barques and barquentines and noble three-masted schooners, to the auxiliary fishing vessel, Labrador floaters and bankers, some of which were still capable of making an ocean voyage, but which steadily decreased in size until we were left with a fleet of little coasters, or fishing boats which doubled as coasters at seasons when trade was brisk. Now even the coasters are rapidly disappearing, and we shall soon be down to a fleet of trap skiffs and long liners. This is no exaggeration. It is what has happened to Newfoundland shipping in the last 50 years.

The Commission, with all its faults, was long sighted in some things, and the effort to revive our merchant marine, and with it our shipbuilding industry, was a long sighted policy. We should have taken over that policy and built upon its foundation, just as we built upon the foundation of fresh fish policy laid by the Commission. We could revive and enlarge that policy only at enormous expense. But it is an expense which we may yet have to shoulder. For our shipping industry is virtually dead. And there is danger that it may take our salt fish industry with it.

Source: Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador