Aug 15, 2022
Fogo Island: A far away comeback story Transcript
A small island off the coast of Newfoundland is redefining itself with the help of a local businesswoman who combined deep pockets with a deep appreciation for the island’s past. Read the transcript here.
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Speaker 1: (00:01)
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.
Speaker 1: (00:13)
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. It’s one and only industry went into steep decline. And so in turn, did its population.
Speaker 1: (00:27)
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.
Speaker 1: (00:37)
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.
Speaker 2: (00:50)
The story will continue in a moment.
Speaker 1: (00:57)
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 minuscule fishing villages, where clapboard houses, the color of jelly beans, cling to rock 400 million years old.
Speaker 1: (01:18)
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.
Speaker 1: (01:32)
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.
Speaker 3: (01:48)
Speaker 1: (01:50)
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 stills, the Inn is the brainchild of eighth generation Fogo Islander, Zita Cobb.
Speaker 1: (02:09)
And locals gave her a funny look when she first floated the idea.
Speaker 1: (02:13)
What kind of reaction did that get?
Zita Cobb: (02:15)
“Why would anyone come here?” We love this place, but it wasn’t obvious, when there are fancy places in the world that people go. Our assumption is everybody wants to go where it’s warm.
Speaker 1: (02:24)
Someone suggested to us, it looked like a ship.
Zita Cobb: (02:27)
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.
Speaker 1: (02:39)
The past looms large on Fogo island. To fully appreciate the Inn, even as a metaphor, you have to understand Fogo’s history.
Speaker 1: (02:47)
Speaker 1: (02:48)
Zita Cobb took us through dozens of tiny islands that docked 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.
Zita Cobb: (03:00)
This is a slip.
Speaker 1: (03:01)
Her ancestors landed here from Ireland and South England. They came for one reason.
Zita Cobb: (03:06)
Fish, fish, and fish.
Speaker 1: (03:08)
When you say, “fish,” is it just a given?
Zita Cobb: (03:11)
It’s a given. So, yes, when we say fish, we mean cod.
Speaker 1: (03:16)
Is it possible to exaggerate the importance of cod to this place?
Zita Cobb: (03:20)
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.
Speaker 1: (03:32)
A noble fish?
Zita Cobb: (03:32)
It asks very little and gives so much. They exist on almost anything. I think a Cod could eat a rubber boot if it had to.
Speaker 1: (03:40)
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.
Speaker 1: (04:03)
Zita Cobb: (04:04)
The worst of the 20th century came down on top of us very quickly, in the form of, the industrialization to 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.
Speaker 1: (04:21)
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.
Speaker 1: (04:31)
How bad did things get for him?
Zita Cobb: (04:31)
Things got, people 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.
Speaker 1: (04:49)
He burned his boat?
Zita Cobb: (04:50)
He burned his boat.
Speaker 1: (04:51)
It was almost like a sacrifice.
Zita Cobb: (04:53)
It was, he did it as a statement. He did it as a expression of pain and anger.
Speaker 1: (05:01)
Lambert Cobb made this sacrifice once he realized that those big boats were, in his words, “Turning fish into money.”
Zita Cobb: (05:09)
He said to me, as a 10 year old, “You have got to figure out how this money thing works, because if you don’t, it’s going to eat everything we love.”
Speaker 1: (05:17)
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.
Speaker 1: (05:28)
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.
Speaker 1: (05:42)
In her early forties, 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.
Speaker 1: (05:54)
Instead of writing a check, she posed a question.
Zita Cobb: (05:57)
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?
Speaker 1: (06:13)
Spend one night at what the locals call a shed party, and the answer emerges.
Zita Cobb: (06:19)
When you think about the people of this place, if there’s one thing we’re really good at, it’s hospitality.
Speaker 1: (06:25)
What does hospitality mean here?
Zita Cobb: (06:27)
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.”
Speaker 1: (06:39)
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.
Speaker 1: (06:50)
At $2,000 a night, the Inn does turn a profit, but there were other considerations.
Zita Cobb: (06:56)
We’re going to 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, we’re only 2,500 people. We can only love so many people at a time.”
Speaker 1: (07:11)
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 at Fogo Island have been making them for their own homes for 400 years.
Speaker 5: (07:30)
We’re getting there, we got half done.
Speaker 1: (07:32)
Word is out now, this quilt is destined for a customer in Baltimore.
Speaker 1: (07:36)
We join the quilting bee…
Speaker 5: (07:38)
Watch him [inaudible 00:07:39].
Speaker 1: (07:39)
But didn’t last long.
Speaker 6: (07:41)
It was all very nice, except for this one square.
Dwight Budden: (07:44)
This is our littest room.
Speaker 1: (07:46)
Shorefast puts up seed money for new businesses too. A quarter of a million dollars so far.
And then you put your plant in.
Speaker 1: (07:53)
A $7,500 micro loan 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: (08:07)
Yeah, there’s our kale.
Speaker 1: (08:10)
Does Hayward eat kale?
Not too much.
Speaker 1: (08:12)
Not too much.
Speaker 1: (08:14)
Beyond the kale, new culture is taking root. Futuristic looking studios, now speckle the landscape. Part of Shorefast’s ambition to bring artists and residents to Fogo.
Speaker 1: (08:26)
And back at the Inn, a chef turns cod into haute cuisine.
Speaker 1: (08:32)
If your dad saw cod with Magnolia oil and seafoam?
Zita Cobb: (08:35)
Speaker 1: (08:36)
Zita Cobb: (08:37)
Speaker 1: (08:38)
What would he say?
Zita Cobb: (08:39)
First thing he says, “Can you really eat that?”
Speaker 1: (08:41)
You can do more than eat cod, you can fish for it again.
Speaker 1: (08:45)
Now that a decade’s long ban has been eased, Fogo Island’s fishers are back hauling cod. We ventured out at Fogo Harbor with brothers, Glen and Jerry Best.
Speaker 9: (08:55)
Speaker 1: (08:56)
They’re fifth generation of their family to harvest these waters.
Glen Best: (08:59)
You go east, your next stop is Ireland.
Speaker 1: (09:02)
Glen Best: (09:02)
We’re not going there today.
Speaker 9: (09:04)
And [inaudible 00:09:05].
Speaker 1: (09:05)
The Best brothers showed us the traditional Newfoundland way of fishing with a hand line, 150 feet down, no rods, reels or nets.
Speaker 9: (09:14)
Now we’re talking.
Glen Best: (09:16)
That’s a beauty.
Speaker 1: (09:18)
Up comes cod, without much of a fight.
Glen Best: (09:21)
Now that’s a nice cod. That’s probably a 20 pound fish.
Speaker 1: (09:24)
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 watch them offload 20,000 pounds of cod from a single trip.
Speaker 1: (09:43)
What’s more, shellfish has done the unthinkable, and dethroned cod as king. Crab and shrimp now make up 80% of Glen Best’s business and he’s never had a better year.
Speaker 1: (09:54)
You told me you caught 400,000 pounds of snow crab. At 7.60 a pound is three million bucks. That’s pretty good.
Glen Best: (10:02)
Yeah, it was a good year.
Speaker 1: (10:04)
But a thriving fishery isn’t always enough to keep the kids around. Best three children have moved away from Fogo to pursue other careers.
Speaker 1: (10:14)
Your family’s been doing this for generations. You named this boat after your dad.
Glen Best: (10:19)
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.
Speaker 1: (10:32)
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.
Speaker 1: (10:50)
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: (11:02)
Everybody asks about the Inn, yeah.
Speaker 1: (11:04)
What do you tell them?
Jennifer Sexton: (11:05)
Well, it’s a blessing and a curse.
Speaker 1: (11:10)
Her regulars grumble that, not long ago, they could get a home for $25,000, Canadian. Now homes cost 10 times as much.
Jennifer Sexton: (11:18)
For somebody from away that wouldn’t be a lot, but for somebody from here, that is a lot of money.
Speaker 1: (11:24)
Zita Cobb, the woman who turned this tide, says she doesn’t want unchecked growth either.
Zita Cobb: (11:30)
As the economy grows, we will be smaller, as a percentage of the whole economy.
Speaker 1: (11:35)
A rare business leader that wants less market share.
Zita Cobb: (11:38)
We want less market share, exactly.
Speaker 1: (11:41)
You said it with a smile on your face, but there’s a lot of responsibility here.
Zita Cobb: (11:45)
Yeah, the consequences are huge because, as my brother says, “Yes, our parents will get out of the graveyard and ring our necks if we mess this up.”
Speaker 1: (11:53)
What’s your response to the capitalist, who would say, “Why are you limiting your growth?”
Zita Cobb: (11:59)
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.
Speaker 1: (12:08)
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: (12:17)
It’s not like we’re overrun by tourism, that’s not the way it works here. We’re not the Venice of Newfoundland. We’re not out of patience with people yet.
Speaker 1: (12:26)
On our last night at the shed party, we got the full sweep of Fogo island. It’s hospitality and it’s contrast laid out on the table. Cod and crab, young and old, warmth, wit and this.
Speaker 12: (12:43)
Speaker 1: (12:44)
A traditional song delivered with a handshake, a hope that comes tempered by history.
Zita Cobb: (12:52)
The undoing of this traditional way of making a life was very painful. I think I still carry those broken hearts. I think that kind of pain doesn’t go away.
Speaker 1: (13:04)
To what extent has that been repaired by the work you’ve done since you’ve come back?
Zita Cobb: (13:09)
Yeah, I think it actually does help. You can heal a broken heart.
Speaker 12: (13:11)