Fossils Help Revive Newfoundland Fishing Area On the craggy bluffs of Mistaken Point in Newfoundland, wind and waves are licking away rocks to reveal the oldest animal fossils on Earth. The creatures are an economic engine for a suffering area.
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Fossils Help Rev Hard-Hit Newfoundland Fishing Area

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Fossils Help Rev Hard-Hit Newfoundland Fishing Area

Fossils Help Rev Hard-Hit Newfoundland Fishing Area

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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GUY RAZ, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.


And I'm Melissa Block. Sometimes, the solution to a new problem is right in front of you, or, in the case of one community in Newfoundland, right under their feet. Reporter Ari Daniel Shapiro explains.

ARI DANIEL SHAPIRO: In Portugal Cove South in southern Newfoundland, the air is like thick chilled soup.

CHARLENE POWERS: This is the only place in the world where you lock your boat and you hang your key next to the lock.

DANIEL SHAPIRO: Because it's so safe.

POWERS: Yes, indeed, and it is.

DANIEL SHAPIRO: Charlene Powers is a fish harvester, and her family has fished cod for generations. It's a tradition dating back centuries in Newfoundland. That is, until the fishery collapsed in the early '90s.

POWERS: I mean, right now, you can't get a fish out here to eat. There's no cod in our area.

DANIEL SHAPIRO: But there used to be.

POWERS: But there used to be lots of cod, yeah.

DANIEL SHAPIRO: The resulting moratorium on cod fishing ricocheted through this community.

POWERS: Enrollment in school has declined. Supermarkets closed. There's nothing here. People were afraid. They didn't know what was going to happen.

DANIEL SHAPIRO: Almost half of the nearly 400 residents in the area moved away and never came back. Kit Ward was a retired schoolteacher when the fishery collapsed.

KIT WARD: You're losing friends. You're losing neighbors. And, oh, I don't know, a part of you is missing.

DANIEL SHAPIRO: Ward was determined to keep her community intact, so she teamed up with a few friends to promote a couple of local attractions, including...

WARD: A wonderful fossil site, which we knew was important.

DANIEL SHAPIRO: But they didn't quite know just how important until Ward spoke with a couple of paleontologists doing research in the area at a site called Mistaken Point. It turned out that the fossils are from the first complex animals that appeared on our planet during the Ediacaran period, that is, over half a billion years ago.

WARD: And on talking to them, we saw, oh, gosh, we only had a surface knowledge. So this could be big.

DANIEL SHAPIRO: About a five-minute drive from Ward's house is the Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve. This part of the Newfoundland coastline is jagged, and it's littered with dark, hulking boulders.

GUY NARBONNE: We are standing on a 580-million-year-old sea bottom.

DANIEL SHAPIRO: Guy Narbonne is a paleontologist at Queen's University in Ontario. He stoops down to point out a treasure of a fossil. It looks like a long fern frond, but it's not a plant. It's an animal that lived on the bottom of the ocean where there wasn't any light.

NARBONNE: I'm going to follow it along...

DANIEL SHAPIRO: Narbonne runs his finger along the length of the fossil.

NARBONNE: ...and it ends right here. That's my height. We're looking at, bar none, the oldest large multicellular creature on Earth.

DANIEL SHAPIRO: And these creatures are drawing a crowd.


DANIEL SHAPIRO: Narbonne's become part of some significant economic development in the area. And he says it's as gratifying as all the science he's done here. Proof of this success is here at the nearby Trepassey Motel and Lodge.

MARY DEVEREAUX: We have people who come here to have our fish and chips or to have our pan-fried cod dinner.

DANIEL SHAPIRO: That's Mary Devereaux, the co-owner and manager. When they first opened 20 years ago, she says most of their business came from the people connected to the fishery.

DEVEREAUX: The bleakest time was immediately after the cod moratorium when we could have shut our doors.

DANIEL SHAPIRO: They managed to stay open, barely, and today, business is good again. A resurgence in the fishery, this time it's crabbing, has helped. The fossils are playing a big role too.

DEVEREAUX: So, you know, we often say, well, what brought you here? And 30, 40 percent of the time, it's the fossils of Mistaken Point.

DANIEL SHAPIRO: And the fossils have created jobs. Sarah Tweedt is a graduate student in paleontology at the University of Maryland. She spends several nights at the Trepassey Motel and Lodge and has eaten more than a few meals here. This visit is her first time seeing the fossils of Mistaken Point.

SARAH TWEEDT: Fossils are representative of the history of life, and that's a heritage to which we all belong. Mistaken Point is a shining example of how sharing that history actively can help rebuild and support a community.

DANIEL SHAPIRO: Newfoundland's Mistaken Point is now a contender for UNESCO World Heritage status. It's a claim that everyone - locals, tourists and scientists - are all rooting for. For NPR News, I'm Ari Daniel Shapiro.

BLOCK: Ari's story comes to us from the audio series One Species at a Time, which is produced for the Encyclopedia of Life.

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