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Fogo Island: Bringing new life to a remote Canadian fishing community

Fogo Island's comeback story
Fogo Island: A far away comeback story 13:29

A remote jewel of land off the coast of Canada, Fogo Island floats in the northeast corner of the northeast province of Newfoundland and Labrador, the outstretched right fingertip of this continent. The place might be drop-dead gorgeous; but it wasn't immune to the fate befalling so many small and isolated communities in North America: its one and only industry went into steep decline, and so, in turn, did its population. Then about a decade ago, a local returned home, fresh off making a fortune in the tech sector. Her pockets were deep. So was her desire to lift up the place and bring people back. So she unleashed a sort of economic experiment. As we first told you last fall, we took two planes, a long drive and a ferry to reach Fogo Island, and check on the early results.

The saying here goes: you'll know the Newfoundlanders in heaven; they'll be the ones who want to go home. And the adage comes to life on Fogo Island, a 90-square-mile patchwork of 10 miniscule fishing villages where clapboard houses the color of jelly beans cling to rock 400 million years old. Among its quirks, Newfoundland has its own time zone, half an hour ahead of the mainland. But wander through Fogo Island's villages and you might as well set your watch back to the 18th century.

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Fogo Island

Back then all you needed to get by here was a pig, a potato patch and something called a punt— a small, wooden fishing boat used in pursuit of North Atlantic cod, the species that once kept this place afloat.  

Seemingly every structure on the island was built in service of catching and preserving fish. With one gleaming exception. A $40 million, luxury inn. Part edge-of-the-earth destination, part economic-engine-on-stilts, the inn is the brainchild of eighth generation Fogo Islander Zita Cobb. And locals gave her a funny look when she first floated the idea. 

Jon Wertheim: What kinda reaction did that get?

Zita Cobb: "Why would anyone come here?" We love this place, but it wasn't obvious when, you know, there are fancy places in the world that people go. Our assumption is everybody wants to go where it's warm. (LAUGH)

Jon Wertheim:  Someone suggested to us it looked like-- a ship.

Zita Cobb: The architecture of the inn was-- obviously a topic of much conversation. I think about it as a metaphor. It's about people from here and people from away. It's about the future and the past.

The past looms large on Fogo Island. To fully appreciate the inn, even as a metaphor, you have to understand Fogo's history.

Jon Wertheim: It's just something.

Zita Cobb took us through dozens of tiny islands that dot Fogo's waters to a place called Little Fogo Island - and for those keeping track, that's an island, off an island, off an island. Her ancestors landed here from Ireland and South England. They came for one reason.

Zita Cobb: Fish, fish, and fish.

Jon Wertheim: When you say fish, is it just a given?

Zita Cobb: It's a given. So when, yes. When we-- say fish, we mean cod. 

Jon Wertheim: Is it possible to exaggerate the importance of cod to this place?

Zita Cobb: No. It's not possible, because everything that you need to know about someone from here you can figure it out by just studying that lowly fish. It's actually quite a noble fish.

Jon Wertheim: A noble fish?

Zita Cobb: It asks very little and gives so much. They exist on almost anything. I mean I think a cod could eat a rubber boot if it had to.

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  Zita Cobb

Not unlike the noble fish, Zita Cobb's family survived without fuss. 

In cod they trusted. Families worked side-by-side here, trading their fish for goods. No bank accounts, no cash. Cobb's parents could neither read nor write. She and her six brothers grew up in a house with no electricity. She says it was a happy childhood. Until it wasn't. 

Jon Wertheim: What happened?

Zita Cobb: The worst of the 20th century came down on top of us very quickly in the form of the industrialization of the fisheries. So these enormous factory ships showed up here - all along the coast of Newfoundland. And fished day and night until just about every last fish was gone.

With one small punt launched from this one dock, Cobb's father couldn't compete with commercial vessels that had come to the North Atlantic from all over the world.

Jon Wertheim: How bad did things get for him?

Zita Cobb: Things got-- he would go out and come back with nothing. But one day in particular he came back with one fish. And he brought the fish into the house, and he slapped it down onto the kitchen floor, and said, "Well, it's done." And it was the next day he burned his boat.

Jon Wertheim: He burned his boat?

Zita Cobb: He burned his boat. 

Jon Wertheim: It's almost like a sacrifice.

Zita Cobb: It was. He did it as a statement. He did it as an expression of pain and anger. 

Lambert Cobb made this sacrifice once he realized that those big boats were - in his words - turning fish into money.

Zita Cobb: He said to me, as a ten-year-old, "You have got to figure out how this money thing works." "'Cause if you don't, it's gonna eat everything we love."

He wasn't wrong. As fish stocks dwindled, so did the island's population - from 5,000 to 2,500. The Cobbs left, grudgingly, for the mainland in the 1970s. Zita Cobb's father died shortly thereafter; but she heeded his advice. She got a business degree, worked in fiber optics, landed in Silicon Valley, and before long, was the third-highest paid female executive in America. In her early 40s, she cashed out tens of millions in stock options, dropped out of the winner-take-all economy and took her business savvy home, determined to revitalize Fogo Island. Instead of writing a check, she posed a question.

Zita Cobb: What do we have and what do we know? And how can we put that forward in a way that's dignified for Fogo Islanders, and creates economy, and connects us to the world?

Spend one night at what the locals call a shed party and the answer emerges.

Zita Cobb: When you think about the people of this place, if there's one thing we're really good at, it's hospitality. 

Jon Wertheim: What does hospitality mean here?

Zita Cobb: Hospitality in its purest form is the love of a stranger. We didn't get a lot of strangers and when they arrived, as my mother used to say, it's always better to see a light coming into the harbor than a light going out. 

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The Fogo Island Inn

So in 2013, Cobb built the biggest beacon in the harbor. She made the Fogo Island Inn the centerpiece of a charitable trust—called Shorefast—with profits reinvested in the island. At $2,000 a night, the Inn does turn a profit. But there were other considerations.

Zita Cobb: We're gonna put a 29 room inn on an island that's never had an inn. What are the consequences of that? Well, more people will come? Well, how many more people? As one woman said "Well, you know, we're only 2,500 people. We can only love so many people at a time." 

Shorefast and the inn employ more than 300 Islanders. But the real payoff is the ripple effect.

For starters, all the furniture at the inn is locally made. 

Same for the pillows and quilts. It so happens the women of Fogo Island have been making them for their own homes for 400 years. 

Lillian Dwyer: We're getting there. We got half done. 

Word is out now. This quilt is destined for a customer in Baltimore. We joined the quilting bee.

Lillian Dwyer: Watch him, Millicent.

But didn't last long.

Jon Wertheim: It was all very nice except for this one square.

Dwight Budden: This is our lettuce room…

Shorefast puts up seed money for new businesses, too - a quarter of a million dollars so far.

Hayward Budden: And then you put your plant in. 

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Dwight Budden and his father, Hayward, with correspondent Jon Wertheim

A $7,500 microloan went to Dwight Budden and his father Hayward, a former fisher who left Fogo Island when the industry collapsed. He's back now, as a hydroponic farmer, growing greens for the inn.

Dwight Budden: Yeah, there's our kale.

Jon Wertheim: Does Hayward eat kale?

Hayward Budden: Not too much. (LAUGHTER)

Beyond the kale, new culture is taking root. Futuristic-looking studios now speckle the landscape - part of Shorefast's ambition to bring artists-in-residence to Fogo. And back at the inn, a chef turns cod into haute cuisine. 

Jon Wertheim: If your dad saw cod with magnolia oil and sea foam--

Zita Cobb: And porcini. 

Jon Wertheim: And porcini--

Zita Cobb: Cini-- yes. (LAUGH)

Jon Wertheim: What would he say?

Zita Cobb: Yes. First thing, he'd say, "Can you really eat that?"

You can do more than eat cod; you can fish for it again. Now that a decades-long ban has been eased, Fogo Island's fishers are back hauling cod. We ventured out of Fogo Harbor with brothers Glen and Jerry Best - the fifth generation of their family to harvest these waters. 

Glen Best: You go East, your next stop is Ireland.

Jon Wertheim: Ireland?

Glen Best: We're not going there today. (LAUGH)

The Best brothers showed us the traditional Newfoundland way of fishing with a handline, 150 feet down, no rods, reels or nets.

Jon Wertheim: Now we're talkin'

Glen Best: That's a beauty.

Up comes cod, without much of a fight.

Glen Best: Now that's a nice cod. That's probably a 20-pound fish. 

Cod is making a comeback in the North Atlantic. Canada still imposes catch limits, but when the Bests get down to business, they use an automated system to drop thousands of hooks in the water at a time. We watched them offload 20,000 pounds of cod from a single trip. 

What's more, shellfish has done the unthinkable, and dethroned cod as king. Crab and shrimp now make up eighty percent of Glen Best's business; and he's never had a better year.

Jon Wertheim: You told me you caught 400,000 pounds of snow crab. At $7.60 a pound.

Glen Best: Yeah it's pretty good.

Jon Wertheim: 3 million bucks.

Glen Best: It adds up.

Jon Wertheim: That's pretty good...

Glen Best: Yeah it was a good year.

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  Glen Best

But a thriving fishery isn't always enough to keep the kids around. Best's three children have moved away from Fogo to pursue other careers.

Jon Wertheim: Your family's been doing this for generations. You named this boat after your dad. 

Glen Best: So the sad part about it is that Jerry and myself we probably could be the last generation that will fish within our family. When the day comes, that that happens, that will probably be a sad day.  

Still, Fogo Island's population has stabilized. There's hope the next census will show an uptick. Babies are the island's biggest celebrities. But as ever, with growth come growing pains. 

It's already become one of those islands where you have to pray to get a spot on the ferry. 

Jennifer Sexton spent summers on Fogo Island visiting her grandparents. She recently moved here from Western Canada to open this coffee joint, where locals mix with those who come from away.

Jennifer Sexton: Everybody asks about the Inn.

Jon Wertheim: What do you tell them?

Jennifer Sexton: Well, it's a blessing and a curse. 

Her regulars grumble that not long ago, they could get a home for $25,000 thousand —Canadian. Now homes cost ten times as much.

Jennifer Sexton: For somebody from away, that wouldn't be a lot. But for somebody from here, that is a lot of money.

Zita Cobb, the woman who turned this tide, says she doesn't want unchecked growth either.

Zita Cobb: As the economy grows, we will be smaller as a percentage of the whole economy.

Jon Wertheim: A rare business leader that wants less market share. (LAUGH)

Zita Cobb: We want less market share. Exactly.

Jon Wertheim: You say that with a smile on your face but there's a lotta responsibility here.

Zita Cobb: Yeah. I mean the consequences are huge, because-- as my brother says, yes, our-- our parents will get out of the graveyard and wring our necks if we-- if we mess this up.

Jon Wertheim: What's your response to the-- the capitalist who would say, why are you limiting your growth?

Zita Cobb: That is the techno-economic question. But I start with a different question. What are we optimizing for? We are optimizing for place. We're optimizing for community.   

The pillars of this community have been won over. If Cobb's experiment helps diversify the economy, Glen Best says he's all-in. 

Glen Best: It's not like we're overrun by tourism. That's not the way it works here. We're not, you know, we're not the Venice of-- Newfoundland, you know? We're not out of patience with people yet. 

On our last night, at the shed party, we got the full sweep of Fogo Island, its hospitality and its contrasts laid out on the table, cod and crab, young and old, warmth, wit. And a traditional song delivered with a handshake, a kind of hope that comes tempered by history. 

Zita Cobb: The undoing of this traditional way of making a life was very painful. I think I still carry those broken hearts. I think that-- kinda pain doesn't go away. 

Jon Wertheim: To what extent has that been repaired by the work you've done since you've come back?

Zita Cobb: Yeah, I think it actually does help. You can heal a broken heart.

Produced by Nathalie Sommer and Kaylee Tully. Broadcast associate, Elizabeth Germino. Edited by Peter M. Berman.

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