Building a Future on Fogo Island

It took decades for Zita Cobb to make her way back to Fogo Island. Now she’s helping to revitalize her tiny community and draw others home.

Building a Future on Fogo Island

Zita Cobb was raised in a home without electricity or running water in Joe Batt’s Arm, a stamp-size community on Fogo Island, just off the coast of Newfoundland. It’s a place of battered granite, salty air and sudden storms, where, in the summer, wild irises sway and icebergs creak on the horizon. In the late 1960s, while Cobb and the other kids teetered around on the beach on stilts for fun, their parents looked out to the sea and watched international draggers strip the local waters of marine life.

The cod stocks that islanders had depended on for three centuries were rapidly dwindling. To make a living, the fishermen formed a co-op and diversified their catch. This meant heading farther out to sea. Cobb’s father, too old to change over to the longliners common in industrial fishing, set his little boat alight and gave up the trade. “I remember my mother’s expression,” Cobb says. “She was unable to reconcile what her eyes saw and her heart felt.” In 1975 Cobb’s father nailed shut the gate to the family home and took his wife and the two youngest of their seven children to live on the mainland. They were one of hundreds of families to relocate from outport Newfoundland. Fogo Island is a hard place to live, but it’s an even harder place to leave, as Cobb would discover.

Cobb left Newfoundland at 16 for university and went on to forge an impressive career that included heading up multi-billion-dollar deals for a California-based fibre optic company. By 43, however, she wanted to take what she describes as “the off-ramp to that 100-mile-an-hour lifestyle.” She retired in 2001 with millions of dot-com dollars in the bank and set about on other adventures, such as sailing the world. She returned often to Fogo Island over the years, staying with childhood friend Margaret Decker and Decker’s fisherman husband, Peter, in their home by the ocean. The pull to come back for good became stronger with each visit. “I’m made of this place,” says Cobb, who insists the air here is fresher, the ocean saltier and the stories livelier than anywhere else on Earth.

Life on Fogo Island only got harder in the decades after Cobb’s family left. A cod-fishing moratorium was declared after the fisheries collapsed in 1992. The 5,000-strong population from Cobb’s youth declined by almost half. It’s the same story throughout rural Newfoundland.

Cobb wanted to help the residents of Fogo Island. To that end, she set up an educational-grant program for the islanders’ children in 2002. This allowed them to advance in the world, but didn’t make it any easier for them to find jobs at home. So she decided to establish a nonprofit that would build a sustainable economy on Fogo Island. In 2006 she moved into a tiny fisherman’s house and became the first person in her immediate family to return home permanently. She founded the Shorefast Foundation with her Toronto-based youngest brother, Anthony, and threw herself into the new venture.

In fishing, a “shorefast” is a line that secures a vessel or cod trap to the shore. For Cobb, it’s also a metaphor for connecting a community with its place of origin. Shorefast’s mission is to help locals revive Fogo Island’s economy and establish the outport as an international cultural destination. Cobb personally pitched in over $6 million, and the provincial and federal governments contributed another $10 million, for a range of programs that include micro-financing for artisans and small-business owners. As of next spring, a five-star inn-a first for the island-will house a movie theatre, library and gallery. The inn’s 29 rooms will be filled with locally made furniture; construction workers from the area, who had never built from architectural plans, weighed in on practical details.

Shorefast’s keystone project is an artist-in-residence program that is also slated to be fully underway next spring, when its six studios are completed. The program will bring in more than 40 filmmakers, writers, artists and curators from around the world each year. These temporary residents will be immersed in island life, staying in heritage houses scattered among different communities and collaborating with local artists. In preparation for the visitors, new businesses are appearing and old ones are expanding. Over at Nicole’s Café, Margaret and Peter’s daughter, Nicole Decker-Torraville, serves up dishes made with local ingredients. Decker-Torraville and her husband, Dave Torraville, belong to the generation that is returning home, filled with the promise of opportunity. The couple, who were expecting their second child, had been living in St. John’s but felt far from loved ones. Decker-Torraville would sometimes turn on the fisherman’s broadcast during her drive home from her catering job. “My dad used to have that on,” she says. “I’d listen to it in the car and cry and cry.”

Cobb encouraged her to channel her catering experience into a restaurant of her own on Fogo Island; Shorefast even lent her its chef consultant, who was in from Ottawa, to help her build a menu. Torraville found work with the foundation, restoring heritage houses for the artists’ residency program. They were the first young couple to return after Shorefast was established; since then a steady trickle of 20-somethings and 30-somethings has followed suit.

The older generation has also found alternative ways to make a living, allaying fears that new development would wipe out a traditional way of life. Veteran husband-and-wife fishing team Aubrey and Marie Payne were recently allocated cod pots as part of a pilot program. The lightweight structures can keep the catch alive for up to a week until it’s retrieved. Since cod pots don’t wastefully trap every other sea creature in the vicinity, as trawling methods do, the hope is that using them will eventually allow local waters to recover from overfishing.

Fisherman Aidan Penton, 55, used to fulfill his catch quota in a mere four trips out. Now he’s never short of work: Since Shorefast launched a rowing competition-The Great Fogo Island Punt Race to There and Back-Penton has been busy making wooden tags for competitors, building custom wooden boats and teaching traditional boat-making skills at the local high school.

“When I started at the school, it was the first time I worked all year round,” says Penton. “And I loved it!”

On a drive across Fogo Island, Cobb and her old friend Peter Decker giggle as they tease each other and recall events from their childhood. As they pass a cemetery, Cobb adopts a more serious tone. “It’s important to live beside the graves of the people who came before you,” she says. “It makes you more responsible.” This reverence for the old ways, paired with a vision for the future, might be the key to inspiring residents’ trust. Though she doesn’t like to be the centre of attention, Cobb is a constant presence on the island-whether square dancing or tucking into cod suppers at Nicole’s Café.

“My brother and I often ask ourselves what Dad and all the people who came before would think was best. We want to feed what’s here so it can renew itself, and we’re doing things that allow the essence to stay the same,” she says. “Even if those new forms take patterns my father wouldn’t recognize straight away.”

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