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
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
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
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