Photo: Portrait of Zita Cobb

Fish out of water: Zita Cobb on Fogo Island, in front of her foundation’s first artist studio.

Photograph by Gordon Slade

By Keith Bellows

From the March/April 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler

Zita Cobb is building a future that respects the past. Her Shorefast Foundation, founded in 2006 on Newfoundland’s rugged Fogo Island, aims to parlay 400 years of local culture, centered historically on fishing, into a thriving economy bolstered by the arts and tourism. To that end, the foundation is funding the construction of art studios—complete with a residency program for guest artists—and a 29-room inn, set to open this year, where visitors and locals will mingle in common areas. The foundation will also grant micro-loans to help locals start their own businesses on the 92-square-mile island. Cobb, who made her fortune in the high-tech industry, is at the vanguard of a culturally responsible form of entrepreneurship.

What defines the next-generation entrepreneur? He or she serves the needs of culture and the environment and not just business. To my mind, it’s a kind of social entrepreneurship, having the very best tools from the traditional, for-profit business world but serving the right ends.

What are you trying to create on Fogo Island? I’m very concerned for Fogo and many other places suffering a flattening of culture, the loss of a sense of self. It happens when you’re ripped away from home, from the natural world, and from your ancestors: people from Newfoundland and Labrador, for example, working out west as economic refugees in Alberta. As this happens, a little bit of us dies. I hope to help us remain shorefast on our rock. A shorefast is a tether that joins a cod trap to the shore and a metaphor for communities realizing the importance of holding on to physical place and tradition.

A common view of Newfoundland is that of a fishing culture dying out. True. Many communities have not survived. People just moved away. But we are still the “people of the cod.” Even though there’s been a moratorium since 1992, cod fishing is a driver in our culture. And there’s evidence the cod are coming back. Fogo Island has been lucky. It faced the threat of resettlement in the 1960s, when hundreds of Newfoundland communities had no roads, electricity, or health care. Fogo’s ten culturally distinct communities hardly communicated with each other. Growing up in Joe Batt’s Arm, I didn’t know anybody from Deep Bay. So we couldn’t strategize together about the future. Then the National Film Board of Canada arrived. Filmmaker Colin Low made 27 films, giving editorial control to the communities. This brought people together, and they founded the Fogo Island Co-op, owned by fishermen and plant workers. The co-op operates the fish plants on the island. Fishing boats go out every day, and that’s why we haven’t lost our culture. That’s an example of how art spawned social change and innovation.

Tell us about the Fogo Island Inn. It’s owned by the community. It’s not a resort. It’s part public, part private. Inside will be a heritage library, an art gallery, and a cinema. If you walk into the inn and see only other visitors, we will have failed. It’s supposed to be a place where visitors and locals come together.

And the artist residency program? The intention is to bring international artists to Fogo. The presence of outside artists fosters locals’ self-confidence about their own art. When the visiting artists leave, they become ambassadors for Fogo Island.

Canada used to turn its back on Newfoundland. Does it still? Newfoundlanders seem foreign to other Canadians partly because we came to the nation late and partly because we’re cast out on that rock by ourselves, and that rock is a very strange physical place, like a stone planet. Imagine, centuries ago people came from England and Ireland to eke out a living on the North Atlantic and were formed by those rocks and by that encounter with the sea. There isn’t any place else like it. One thing that tainted our early experience was that Newfoundland’s first premier, Joey Smallwood, was all about industrialization. “Give up this ridiculous fishing,” he would say, in effect. “Everybody’s got to move to Gander or Grand Falls and work in the pulp mill.” That was his dream. As a result, the fishery was never respected. In recent years, the economy has improved, changing us from a have-not to a “have” province, somewhat. Our wild fisheries are earning more respect as we become better stewards. And some of the mills have closed, so Joey’s dream has not quite worked out.

What has been the biggest frustration? It’s when I hear people say: “Why would anyone go to Fogo Island?” Many young Newfoundlanders have been to Disneyland but have never seen a fishing boat. I’m also terrified that as we try to hang on to our traditional viewscapes, the fast-food chains will set up house. The question is, can we partner with the local government to prevent having our culture flattened? If people want McDonald’s, Subway, Burger King, and Tim Hortons, they have every right to them, but we have to help them understand what lies down the road. By the time we figure out that we’ve invited the beast into the living room, it’s too late.

Keith Bellows is the editor of Traveler.

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