The Next City
December 1, 1998
On July 2, 1992, Canada’s fisheries minister banned cod fishing off the northeast coast of Newfoundland and off the southern half of Labrador. The northern cod stock, once one of the richest in the world, had collapsed.
The moratorium on northern cod marked an unprecedented disaster for virtually all of Canada’s Atlantic groundfisheries – the fisheries for species that feed near the ocean floor. In the following year, the government scaled back the cod fishery in the northern part of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and closed it entirely off Newfoundland’s south coast, Nova Scotia’s east coast, and in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence. Then came further reductions and new moratoriums, not only on cod but also on redfish, white hake, American plaice, turbot, and witch flounder.
Despite the fishing bans, many stocks continued to decline, setting new historical lows year after year. Cod populations dropped to one-hundredth of their former sizes. In 1997, fishing for 22 stocks remained prohibited; most other groundfish stocks supported only severely limited fishing. The Fisheries Resource Conservation Council, responsible for advising the fisheries minister on catch levels, warned that the outlook was “even more bleak than at the beginning of the moratorium.” Some scientists worried that the worst hit stocks might never fully recover.
The collapse of the Atlantic groundfish stocks was both an ecological and an economic disaster. Groundfish hauls in the 1980s averaged a landed value of $345 million and a considerably higher processed value. According to Gus Etchegary, former chairman of the Fisheries Council of Canada and former president of Newfoundland’s largest fishing and processing company, had catches off Newfoundland and Labrador not declined in the preceding 25 years, they would have had an annual export value of $3 billion by 1997.
The fishery closures, which threw 40,000 fishermen and fish processors out of work, created social and economic chaos throughout Atlantic Canada, where half of the region’s 1,300 fishing communities depend entirely on the fisheries. According to Earle McCurdy, president of the Fish, Food, and Allied Workers Union, “What we have is not an adjustment problem, but the most wrenching societal upheaval since the Great Depression. Our communities are in crisis. The people of the fishery are in turmoil.”
The fact that this ecological and economic disaster could have been avoided makes it even more tragic. For too much of the history of the Atlantic fisheries, the wrong people have been making the wrong decisions for the wrong reaons. Politicians have permitted catch levels far beyond those recommended by their own scientists. They have subsidized the expansion of the fishery despite countless warnings of overcapacity. Like political piranhas, they have cleaned out the fisheries in their greed to snatch the next election; this species of leader leaves nothing behind to sustain those who will soon follow.
(This article was reprinted in full in the Halifax Herald. The first part, “The politics of cod,” appeared on May 2, 1999. The second part, “Hear no evil, see no evil,” appeared on May 9, 1999.)