Unnatural Disaster: How Politics Destroyed Canada’s Atlantic Groundfisheries

Elizabeth Brubaker
January 18, 2000

From Political Environmentalism 
Terry Anderson, Editor
Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2000

Chapter 5: Unnatural Disaster

1. Introduction to Chapter
2. Nature Overthrown
3. Laying Blame
4. How Many Jobs?
5. Fishing for Subsidies
6. Unemployment Insurance to Ensure
7. The Fruits of Canadian Citizenship
8. Messy Information
9. An Unsteady Hand
10. Whistling Past the Graveyard
11. Plus ça change…
12. Surrendering Control
13. References


On July 2, 1992, Canada’s fisheries minister banned fishing for cod 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 the beginning of an unprecedented disaster for virtually all of Canada’s Atlantic groundfisheries the fisheries for species that feed near the ocean floor. Nineteen-ninety-three saw dramatic reductions in the allowable catches of cod in the northern part of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the closure of the cod fisheries off Newfoundland’s south coast, Nova Scotia’s east coast, and in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence. With the following years came further reductions and new moratoria, not only on cod but also on redfish (ocean perch), white hake, American plaice, turbot (Greenland halibut), and witch flounder.

Despite the fishing bans, many stocks continued to decline, setting new historical lows year after year. Cod populations dropped to one one hundredth of their former sizes. In 1997, fishing for twenty-two stocks remained prohibited; most other groundfish stocks supported only severely limited fishing (Canada 1997, 79-82). In 1998, the Fisheries Resource Conservation Council, responsible for advising the fisheries minister on catch levels, expressed “surprise,” “alarm,” and “dismay” over the status of several stocks and projected further declines, even in the absence of any fishery (FRCC 1998b, 5-12). The council warned, “the outlook as described by scientists is even more bleak than at the beginning of the moratorium” (FRCC 1998a, 5). Some scientists worried that the worst hit stocks might never fully recover.

The collapse of the Atlantic groundfish was more than an ecological disaster: It was also an economic disaster. Groundfish landings in the 1980s had an average landed value of $345 million and a processed value of considerably more (Cashin 1993, Appendix Table 2-1). According to Gus Etchegary, former chairman of the Fisheries Council of Canada and former president of Newfoundland’s largest fishing and processing company, if catches off Newfoundland and Labrador had not declined in the previous twenty-five years, by 1997 they would have had an annual export value of $3 billion (SCOFO 1998a, 950-5).

Fishery closures, throwing 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 for their existence (Auditor 1997, 14-9). In the words of 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” (Harris 1998, i).

The moratoria hit Newfoundland especially hard. The province has always depended on cod fishing. Cod inspired its first settlements, posts where English merchants salted and dried cod before shipping it to Europe. For centuries, fishing was Newfoundland’s only major industry; it has remained the province’s most important primary industry. Many communities have known nothing but fishing and fish processing. And many are prepared for nothing else: 83 percent of the province’s fishermen have not graduated from secondary school, and more than a third have not attended any secondary school at all (Auditor 1997, 14-10). Former fisheries minister John Crosbie described Newfoundland’s special relationship with cod:

Through the centuries, the northern cod was the economic foundation for the settlement and growth of communities along the east coast of Newfoundland and the coast of Labrador. Without the abundant fish stocks, there would have been no Newfoundland as a British colony, a British dominion, or, after 1949, a province of Canada. . . . Cod was the reason why Newfoundland was settled; it permitted our people to survive. (Crosbie 1997, 375-6)

The fact that the destruction of this critically important resource could have been avoided makes it even more tragic. The groundfisheries collapse resulted from the wrong people controlling the resource. Politicians, pursuing their short-term interest in putting voters to work, subsidized the expansion of the fisheries and set catch levels exceeding those recommended by their own scientists. If instead, fishermen, fishing companies, and fishing communities with exclusive, permanent rights to the stocks had controlled the resource, the groundfish collapse would, in all likelihood, never have occurred. Their financial interest in the long-term health of the stocks, and their confidence that reducing their own catches wouldn’t simply provide an opportunity for other fishermen to benefit, would have compelled those with fisheries rights to conserve.

Nature Overthrown

For five centuries, the area now known as Canada’s Atlantic Coast offered some of the world’s best fishing. John Cabot’s son reported that, upon arriving in Newfoundland in 1497, the explorers found “a great abundance of that kind of fish which the savages call baccalaos” what we call Atlantic cod (Matthiessen 1959, 26). Cabot’s crew returned to Britain with tales of a sea “swarming with fish, which could be taken not only with the net but in baskets let down with a stone, so that it sinks in the water” (Kirby 1982, 7). The fish were as large as they were plentiful: Cabot likely found five- and six-foot-long cod weighing up to 200 lbs (McKibben 1998, 60).

Throughout the following centuries, fishermen sailed from Portugal, France, Spain, and England to catch between 100,000 and 200,000 tonnes (metric tons) of cod a year (McKibben 1998, 62). The ocean remained bountiful; one seventeenth-century discourse on Newfoundland reported cod so dense “that we heardlie have been able to row a boate through them” (Harris 1998, 43). All assumed that the cod stocks were boundless. And indeed, given the technological limitations of the fleets, they probably were. An 1883 report on fisheries for the British Government asserted that “The cod fishery . . . and probably all of the great sea fisheries are inexhaustible. Nothing we can do can seriously affect the numbers of fish” (Iles 1980, 6). Two years later, the Canadian Ministry of Agriculture predicted, “Unless the order of nature is overthrown, for centuries to come our fisheries will continue to be fertile” (Kurlansky 1977, 32).

Overthrowing nature’s order proved surprisingly easy. Western Europeans intensified fishing in the northwest Atlantic in the 1950s, to be followed by Eastern Europeans in the next decade. The introduction of high-powered factory trawlers that operated in all seasons and weathers, located fish on their spawning grounds with sonar equipment, dragged huge nets to scoop vast quantities of the fish from the seabed, and then filleted and froze the fish in on-board processing plants made possible dramatic increases in catches. Cod catches grew from an annual average of 500,000 tonnes in the first half of this century to 1,475,000 tonnes in 1968 (FRCC 1997, 9). That year the catch of northern cod alone reached 810,000 tonnes (FRCC 1996a, Annex 2). With 200 factory trawlers plying the waters off Newfoundland, it took only the fifteen years between 1960 and 1975 for fishermen to catch as many northern cod as they had in the 250 years following Cabot’s arrival in Newfoundland (Harris 1998, 63-4).

The glory days of high cod catches would soon end. By 1978, catches had declined to 404,000 tonnes. Many hoped that Canada’s establishment, in 1977, of a 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone excluding many foreign boats from rich fishing grounds would allow stocks to recover. But chasing foreign boats from Canadian waters did little for the stocks, since Canadian boats soon took their places. After a brief recovery in the 1980s, cod catches plummeted. They fell from 508,000 tonnes in 1982, to 475,000 tonnes in 1986, to 461,000 tonnes in 1988, to 384,000 tonnes in 1990, and to 183,000 tonnes in 1992 (Cashin 1993, 26). In 1996, four years after the imposition of the first moratorium, fishermen caught only 13,000 tonnes of cod (FRCC 1997, 13).

Other groundfish catches fared as badly. From a peak of 2,829,000 tonnes in 1965 (Canada 1976, 29), groundfish catches fell to 819,000 tonnes in 1977, rebounded somewhat in the following decade, and then collapsed (FRCC 1997, 9). In 1996, catches remained below 200,000 tonnes.

Laying Blame

Canada’s fisheries managers tried desperately to blame the groundfish collapse on forces beyond their control. Colder water temperatures, they suggested, had driven the cod away, while increasing seal populations had eaten both cod and capelin, cod’s favourite food. It has become increasingly clear, however, that such environmental factors played only minor roles in the destruction of the stocks. The real problem, scientists now widely agree, was that the politicians and bureaucrats running Canada’s Atlantic fisheries permitted nay, encouraged overfishing.

Following the collapse of the northern cod stock, scientists published numerous papers documenting the unambiguous role of overfishing. “Cold water and other environmental factors have been suggested as the underlying cause of the observed declines, but the data now emerging show that overfishing has been the prime agent” concluded one researcher, while others stated, “Our analysis suggest[s] that even if natural mortality has been higher in recent years, that overfishing was responsible for the collapse in this population before 1991” (FRCC 1996a, Annex 8). With study after study, it became increasingly indisputable that “the northern cod stock had been overfished to commercial extinction” (Steele et al. 1992, 37).

Scientists reached the same conclusions about other Atlantic groundfish stocks. In a study of the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence cod, for example, researchers noted the low abundance of mature fish and examined the causes of the increased mortality of these fish. They concluded that “the most likely cause is increased exploitation in the late 1980s and early 1990s . . . [I]t is unlikely that Grey seal predation was the main cause of this trend in mortality. . . . [I]t is also unlikely that unfavourable environmental conditions are primarily responsible for this pattern” (Hutchings et al. 1997, 1202).

Fisheries managers fought hard against such conclusions. Long after their arguments had been discredited, official documents continued to stress environmental factors. In its overview of the causes of stock collapses, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’s (DFO’s) 1995 report on the status of Newfoundland’s groundfish stocks barely mentioned overfishing, focusing instead on environmental change. Given that research on overfishing had not only been published, but had also been presented at stock assessment meetings, it is evident that the report’s focus resulted from explicit bias rather than mere ignorance (Hutchings et al. 1997, 1202).

Well into 1996, the government’s Fisheries Resource Conservation Council remained reluctant to single out overfishing, instead attributing Atlantic stock collapses to a combination of environmental, managerial, scientific, and political factors. Even the council’s inaptly named Learning from History stressed nature’s effects on fish stocks, leading one member to list the scientific evidence pointing to the primary role of overfishing and to express his disappointment in “the report’s inability or reluctance to address the causes of the collapse of the Northern cod stock” (FRCC 1996a, Annex 8). Frustration at the apparent bias prompted the attachment to the report of a preface in the form of a letter stating that “environmental changes cannot be seen as the principal cause of the collapse of the Northern cod, and certainly should not be used to overshadow the central fact of over-fishing” (FRCC 1996a).

The government’s bias led it not only to ignore evidence of overfishing, but to actively conceal it. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans’s 1995 report on the status of groundfish stocks in the Gulf of St. Lawrence excluded information on overfishing after a senior bureaucrat challenged its appropriateness. After reading the draft report’s conclusion that “It is unlikely that seal predation or environmental conditions are responsible for these trends in total mortality,” the assistant deputy minister fired off a memo asking not only if evidence could support this statement, but also whether it was consistent with the department’s previous statements on seals. Not surprisingly, the statement blaming overfishing disappeared from the report’s final version (Hutchings et al. 1997, 1202).

This was not an isolated incident: DFO routinely suppressed politically inconvenient research into the causes of the cod decline. An internal government report, based on meetings with almost every member of DFO’s Science Branch in 1992, charged that “Scientific information surrounding the northern cod moratorium, specifically the role of the environment, was gruesomely mangled and corrupted to meet political ends.” It noted that the department routinely gagged its scientists, leaving communication with the public to ill-informed spokespersons. “Management is fostering an attitude of scientific deception, misinformation and obfuscation in presenting and defending the science that the department undertakes and the results it achieves,” the report said. “It appears that science is too much integrated into the politics of the department . . . It has become far too convenient for resource managers and others to publicly state that their decisions were based on scientific advice when this is clearly not the case” (Canada 1993, 34, 44, 54, 55).

The federal government’s suppression of Ransom Myers’s research reflects its attitude towards scientific evidence. Myers, who worked for DFO between 1984 and 1997 and who has been called “the best fish scientist in Canada” by his peers (Cameron 1998), was one of its first scientists to challenge the official view of the cod collapse. In 1994, he co-authored an article that stated unambiguously, “We reject hypotheses that attribute the collapse of the northern cod to environmental change. . . . We conclude that the collapse of the northern cod can be attributed solely to overexploitation” (Harris 1998, 196).

Once the government got wise to the threat posed by Myers, it did its best to silence him. In one instance, it forbade him and two colleagues to distribute written copies of a paper, minimizing the effects on young cod of increased seal populations, to an international conference on marine mammals. One of the co-authors recalled, “because of the politically sensitive nature of the work and because our conclusions were at odds with recent statements by the minister and government spokespersons regarding the influence of seals in the collapse and recovery of northern cod, we were not permitted to distribute copies of our work to our fellow scientists” (SCOFO 1997a, 945-50). When a member of Parliament requested a copy of the report, then Fisheries Minister Brian Tobin denied that it existed (Thorne 1997). Later questioned about his denial, he replied that scientists could be petulant, pompous prima donnas and suggested firing them: “Take all of these scientists if they feel constrained working within government and make them free” (CP 1997b). In another case, the threat of departmental intimidation persuaded a colleague to withdraw an article, co-authored with Myers, maintaining that harp seals had not caused the cod collapse (Harris 1998, 297). Senior bureaucrats also harassed Myers’s adviser and the director of his laboratory in their efforts to suppress his politically undesirable research (SCOFO 1997b, 945-50). Myers pointed out that the department “seemed to have a notion that you could sit in Ottawa and make up reality. If you could enforce a scientific consensus, that would become reality” (Cameron 1998).

When, in 1995, Myers told Canada’s national newspaper that “what happened to the fish stocks had nothing to do with the environment, nothing to do with seals. It is simply overfishing,” DFO formally reprimanded him:

Your comments, as presented by the media, did not give a balanced perspective on the issue of the status of the cod stocks and were inconsistent with the June 1995 Newfoundland Stock Status Report. . . . Your . . . disregard for both departmental policy on communication with the media and the professional opinions of your colleagues warrant the disciplinary action of a written reprimand. In the future, you are expected to respect both the system of primary spokespersons and peer conclusions on matters within your area of expertise. (Hutchings et al. 1997, 1203)

Myers was lucky to get off so easy: He later recalled that the assistant deputy minister of science had wanted to fire him, but that his science director had bargained him down to a reprimand (SCOFO 1997b, 1050-5).

Even Myers’s departure from DFO did not spare him the department’s wrath. In 1997, after he told the Ottawa Citizen about the bureaucracy’s efforts to suppress his research into the role of seals in the cod stock collapse, two senior bureaucrats sued both the paper and the scientist for libel (Strauss 1997b). David Schindler, a scientist who worked with DFO for twenty-two years, called the lawsuit “the worst form of intimidation.” But the suppression and intimidation hardly surprised him: “It’s almost a tradition in the Canadian civil service to act this way” (Harris 1998, 299). Tradition or not, Myers refused to be cowed. He told a government committee, “I believe it is simply a suit to get me to shut up. . . . This is not a private suit. This is a suit by bureaucrats who are doing it on government time and who are using government resources to harass citizens whose opinions they don’t like” (SCOFO 1997b, 950-5).

Myers pointed out that he has not been DFO’s only target. When, in 1992, Gordon Mertz said in an interview that everyone knew that the cod fishery would collapse because of overfishing and not cold water, he was required to write a letter admitting that he was wrong. Not one to pull his punches, Myers described the incident as “Stalinist behaviour” (SCOFO 1997b, 950-5).

It is hardly surprising that senior bureaucrats would find offensive the research of Myers and his colleagues that held their institution’s own failures rather than nature’s responsible for the collapse of the cod. It is likewise to be expected that politicians would shy away from suggestions that they, who ultimately approved each year’s catch levels, must be held accountable for the disastrous overfishing of the Atlantic groundfish stocks. And sure enough, politicians proved reluctant to accept responsibility for the collapse. The government’s news release announcing the moratorium on northern cod claimed that the stock’s decline was “due primarily to ecological factors” (Canada 1992). The previous day, then fisheries minister John Crosbie had shouted at hecklers that there was no point in taking their frustration out on him because he hadn’t removed the god-damned fish from the sea (Crosbie 1997, 387). In his memoirs, Crosbie offered a weak defence: “There wasn’t much I or anyone else could do” (Crosbie 1997, 372).

Although it is true that the federal government could not bring the fish back, it is equally true that the blame for their disappearance must be laid at its feet. The government has long had jurisdiction over inland fishing and, since 1977, has controlled fishing within 200 miles of Canada’s shores. Economists have described the tidal fishery as “among the most closely regulated of industries in Canada and comparable industrial democracies” (Scott and Neher 1981, 2). Canada’s Fisheries Act grants the federal fisheries minister absolute discretion over the issuing of fishing licences and empowers his agents to prohibit fishing in designated areas. Over the decades, the act and other fishing regulations have governed virtually every detail of the fishery from the number and size of boats fishing, to the type of gear used, to the amount of drinking water fishing boats must carry. Tragically, successive governments abused their virtually complete power over the fisheries, managing them not for long-term biological or economic sustainability, but for short-term political gain.

How Many Jobs?

In his paper on the history of fisheries management, DFO’s T. D. Iles spelled out four kinds of questions that can be asked of a fishery: the biological question (how many fish?); the economic question (how many dollars?); the social question (how many jobs?); and the political question (how many votes?) (Iles 1980, 3). The politicians and bureaucrats managing Canada’s Atlantic fisheries have too often asked only the social and political questions. The inevitable answers to these questions have spelled doom for what was once a great biological and economic resource.

Putting to work as many fishermen and fish processors as possible has long been a goal of Canada’s fisheries managers. In 1970, the government’s Economic Policy for the Fisheries spelled out its primary objective of maximizing employment in the commercial fishery (Auditor 1997, 14-16). Six years later, the Department of the Environment’s Policy for Canada’s Commercial Fisheries again stressed the social elements of the fishery. In what it called a major policy shift, it said that federal fisheries management would be guided not by the traditional notion of maximum sustainable yield but by the principle of “the best use of society’s resources,” or the sum of net social benefits, including “occupational opportunity” (Canada 1976, 53). The government would base allowable catches “on economic and social requirements . . . rather than on the biological-yield capability of a fish stock” (Appendix 1, 3). Although the policy gave a nod to the goal of minimizing dependence on paternalistic government, it proposed programs to stabilize and supplement fishermen’s incomes (65, Appendix 1, 1). The policy summarized the government’s position with a startling announcement: “Although commercial fishing has long been a highly regulated activity in Canada, the object of regulation has, with rare exception, been protection of the renewable resource. In other words, fishing has been regulated in the interest of the fish. In the future it is to be regulated in the interest of the people who depend on the fishing industry” (5).

A 1980 ministerial speech elaborated on the federal position: “The allocation of fish must come from a mixture of reasons: not just what is ‘economical’ but also the survival of communities, the preservation of a way of life, . . . the reasonable well-being of fishermen and plant workers, and so on” (Iles 1980, 4). The following year, a DFO discussion paper, Policy for Canada’s Atlantic Fisheries in the 1980s, confirmed that Canada based catch limits not simply on what it thought the fishery could bear but also on “the economic needs of coastal fishing communities” (Canada 1981, 23).

As questions arose about the economic viability of policies maximizing employment, the government paid lip service to balancing social concerns with economic reality. The resulting policies often seemed schizophrenic, with contradictory policies appearing within a single document. In the 1980s, the Atlantic Fisheries Restructuring Act adopted both economic viability and employment maximization as policy objectives for the Atlantic fisheries, giving the former priority over the latter. More recently, the government has ostensibly made conservation a primary objective. Its actions, however, have belied its conflicting priorities: Too often, short-term jobs and the votes they bring continue to come first.

Fishing for Subsidies

In their quest to put constituents to work, successive governments devised dozens of assistance programs for fishermen and fish processors. Federal support for the Atlantic fisheries dates at least as far back as 1930, to the formation of the United Maritime Fishermen and the funding of its cooperative processing and marketing efforts (Alexander 1997, 24, 40, 83). Subsidies increased over the years, generally in response to periodic crises in the industry. They skyrocketed after 1977, as federal and provincial governments alike pushed the fishing industry to take advantage of the new opportunities presented by the extension of Canada’s fisheries jurisdiction to 200 miles. One bureaucrat recalled, “It was a gold rush kind of mentality,” while his colleague suggested that the new 200-mile limit created a “bonanza attitude. It was El Dorado again” (Finlayson 1994, 26). Fisheries biologist Richard Haedrich elaborated: “The idea was that the streets were paved with fish and that now that the Europeans were gone it would come to the Canadians” (McKibben 1998, 64).

In those heady days, provincial loan boards showered fishermen with loans at concessionary interest rates in order to help them buy bigger boats and more sophisticated gear. Between 1977 and 1982, fishermen’s indebtedness to the boards increased by 400 percent to $219.4 million. Provincial officials apparently gave little thought to the likelihood of repayment of their 7917 outstanding loans. By 1982, almost half of the loans made to Newfoundland’s fishermen were overdue (Kirby 1982, 76-7).

Loans provided just one of many kinds of assistance. Governments made cash grants to fishermen and fish processors. They created tax exemptions for fuel and equipment. They acquired equity in insolvent processing companies. They subsidized workers with various unemployment programs. They purchased canned fish for international food aid. Public expenditures on management, surveillance, enforcement, infrastructure, and programs ranging from vessel insurance to bait service added to the tab. By one estimate, public expenditures on the Atlantic fisheries reached $8 billion during the 1980s (Harris 1998, 78).

Newfoundland attracted the most assistance. All told, between 1981 and 1990, federal and provincial net outlays for Newfoundland’s fishery amounted to $2.934 billion far in excess of the value of the catch. The most generous subsidies took the form of unemployment insurance (UI) benefits, which, after netting out premiums, amounted to $1.647 billion during that period (Schrank et al. 1995, 362, 367). During the 1980s, Newfoundland’s fishermen relied on UI for an ever increasing portion of their income. By 1990, they were receiving $1.60 in benefits for every dollar they earned in the fishery, up from ninety-six cents in 1981 (Auditor 1997, 14-11).

Unemployment insurance (renamed employment insurance in 1997) supported generations of Atlantic fishermen and processors. Introduced in the mid-1950s, the program became progressively more generous; it simultaneously evolved from an insurance program to a permanent income-transfer program. In 1971, six weeks of fishing bought five weeks of benefits; by 1976, eight weeks of fishing bought twenty-seven weeks of benefits (Schrank et al. 1995, 368). Although eligibility requirements became somewhat stricter in the 1990s, for many years plant workers had to work only ten weeks to qualify for forty-two weeks of benefits (May and Hollett 1995, 55).

Unemployment benefits particularly for those who were already financially secure became quite ample. In 1992, the average UI benefit for fishing families in Atlantic Canada was $12,219 a far cry from the days of the Great Depression, when Newfoundland was still a British colony and unemployed fishermen received allowances of six cents a day (Kurlansky 1997, 178). In 1992, fishing families with incomes at or above $80,000 received on average $16,668 from UI; benefits for this wealthiest group of recipients comprised nine percent of the total benefits paid to fishing families (May and Hollett 1995, 66-7).

By the early 1980s, UI was widely taken for granted as a natural part of fishermen’s incomes. The 1982 Task Force on Atlantic Fisheries, in recommending objectives to guide Atlantic fisheries policy, said that “employment in the Atlantic fishing industry should be maximized subject to the constraint that those employed receive a reasonable income as a result of fishery-related activities, including fishery-related income transfer payments” (Kirby 1982, 186). The Task Force called the UI program vital to the achievement of this objective and rejected the notion that the sums transferred through it should be reduced (312).

In fact, some have suggested that fishermen now consider UI itself, rather than fish, as a resource indeed, another part of Canada’s natural resources to be tapped (Burke and Brander 1996, 12). As former fisheries minister John Crosbie explained:

The way of life of the outports of Newfoundland has been centred on the fishery from the earliest days, but the nature of people’s dependency has changed. In recent years, their economic survival has depended less on the fish they caught than on their ability to qualify for financial-support programs. Federal unemployment insurance is the lifeblood of rural Newfoundland. (Crosbie 1997, 384)

Unemployment Insurance to Ensure Unemployment

“Lifeblood” or not, it is hard to imagine that anything could have so effectively threatened rural Newfoundland’s fishing communities as did their reliance on unemployment insurance. The perverse effects of UI have become tragically clear: It created a dependence that it could not sustain, leaving tens of thousands of fishermen, processors, and their families wondering how they will survive in the coming years.

Unemployment insurance encouraged people to remain in communities lacking any promise of a viable future. More insidiously, the program prompted young people to quit school. Although forgoing education seemed like a rational occupational choice, since youths could earn more in the UI-supplemented fishery, which required no formal education, than they could working in many year-round jobs, the decision left them ill-equipped for other jobs when the fishery collapsed (May and Hollett 1995, 43-5). The program also subtly eroded the work ethic of Atlantic Canadians and threatened the pride that accompanies self-sufficiency.

Unemployment insurance’s most egregious legacy was its contribution to overcapacity in the fishing industry overcapacity that eventually led to the collapse of the groundfish stocks. The program lured workers into an industry that could not support them. In Newfoundland, the seven years following the introduction of UI saw a 33 percent increase in the number of inshore fishermen, even as the average fisherman’s catch fell by 50 percent (Harris 1998, 67-8). And again, during the fifteen years following 1972’s changes to the UI system, the number of fishermen doubled and the number of fish processors almost tripled. John Crosbie explained the numbers: “They weren’t catching or processing any more fish. What they were doing was spreading the work around so that everyone could qualify for UI” (Crosbie 1997, 385).

Indeed, the goal of enabling more workers to qualify for UI drove much of the fishery expansion of the 1970s and 1980s. Shortly before his retirement, Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells described the complicity of provincial governments, federal governments, industry, and the workers themselves:

To some degree both governments encouraged the use of the fisheries to create qualification for unemployment insurance. . . . They [the people on the UI system] were induced! They were shown methods by governments as to how to do it! In some cases fish plants and make-work projects would hire workers for a certain number of weeks and then lay off those workers and hire others, so that they’d all have qualification for unemployment insurance. This was done with the approbation and knowledge of both the federal and provincial governments. (Harris 1998, 176)

According to Wells, putting people on UI “was the easier way to cope with the political problem of unemployment.” For the provinces, who feared having to support the unemployed with welfare, the federally-funded UI program was also the economically attractive alternative.

As the number of workers in the fishing industry increased, so, thanks to other subsidies, did the capacity of their boats and plants. The 1993 Task Force on Incomes and Adjustment in the Atlantic Fishery summed up the problem: “Too many harvesters use too many boats with too much gear trying to supply too many processing plants by finding and catching too few fish” (Cashin 1993, 14). The artificially inflated workforce, with its artificially inflated investments, pressured politicians to maintain artificially inflated catch limits. Regardless of the state of the fish stocks, there were loans to repay and UI benefits to qualify for. The politicians complied, perpetuating a vicious circle that only the collapse of the fishery could break.

The unintended but ultimately tragic consequences of our most generous fisheries subsidies were fittingly described in a study of the UI “trap” in Atlantic Canada:

The 1956 introduction of UI fishing benefits probably seemed the act of a caring, sharing society. We believe, however, that . . . by encouraging many rural Atlantic Canadians to enter and remain in the fish-harvesting industry, UI has contributed to its overcapacity and hence to the destruction of the groundfisheries stock. . . In other words, UI has played an active role in the current tragedy of the oceans. (May and Hollett 1995, 62)

Intensifying the tragedy was its foreseeability. The overcapacity that eventually killed the Atlantic groundfishing industry was hardly a new or unrecognized problem. Even as governments pushed expansion in the 1970s, cooler heads warned that too many fishermen chased too few fish. As early as 1970, a federal cabinet memorandum described a fishing industry that was overcapitalized by a ratio of more than two to one; it estimated that Canada’s commercial catch could be harvested by 40 percent of the boats, half as much gear, and half the number of fishermen (Auditor 1997, 14-15).

The Department of the Environment’s 1976 Policy for Canada’s Commercial Fisheries acknowledged the overcapacity problem in both the catching and processing sectors. But no sooner had it warned that the long-term viability of the industry depended on getting rid of this structural defect than did it start backpedalling. Any change that occurred would have to be gradual and would have to present acceptable alternative opportunities. “Where adverse social side-effects such as reduced employment opportunities can be kept within acceptable limits, restructuring should proceed. Where damage to the community would outweigh advantages in the short run the changes must be postponed” (Canada 1976, 56). How the department proposed to reduce capacity without eliminating jobs it did not say.

To be sure, the government of the day faced enormous pressures to expand, given the boom mentality that followed the declaration of the 200-mile limit. Pressures came not only from fishermen and fish processors some of whom even took out newspaper advertisements promoting fleet expansion but also from provincial governments that worked up ambitious fishery development plans costing hundreds of millions of dollars (Kirby 1982, 19-21). And so, despite repeated warnings of the dangers of overcapacity, the industry, assisted by the government, grew apace. Between 1974 and 1981, the number of licensed fishermen in Atlantic Canada increased by 45 percent, to approximately 53,500, while the number of processing facilities increased by 35 percent, to 700 (Kirby 1982, 31).

In 1981, yet another federal department this time Fisheries and Oceans warned of overcapacity and promised a major policy shift. The government would no longer base fisheries management on the “expansionist development philosophy” of the previous decade. It would harmonize assistance programs “to provide a better match between available resources and harvesting and processing capacity” (Canada 1981, iv-v).

Despite the promising words, nothing changed. Nor did change follow the warning, issued by the Task Force on Atlantic Fisheries the following year, that if the government did not deal effectively with the incentives to expand, “overcapacity will forever plague the fishery and rob it of vitality” (Kirby 1982, 32). And still no change followed the 1989 Scotia-Fundy Groundfish Task Force’s conclusion that “excessive harvesting capacity was a major obstacle to a turnaround in the fishery, and that overcapacity and overinvestment had to be reduced as quickly as possible” (Auditor 1997, 14-18).

By the time the 1993 Task Force on Incomes and Adjustment in the Atlantic Fishery issued its predictable warnings about overcapacity, it was too late. The groundfish stocks had collapsed. Decades of subsidies amounting to billions of dollars had created only a false economy based on a resource that no longer existed. Governments had paid people to destroy the fishery.

The Fruits of Canadian Citizenship

Ironically, the collapse of the Atlantic groundfishery did not mean that the government could stop spending money. On the contrary, the federal government has already spent over $4 billion on Atlantic groundfish programs for the 1990s and shows no signs of slowing down (Auditor 1977, 14-22; Anderssen 1998b). Upon closing the northern cod fishery in July 1992, John Crosbie announced an interim assistance program that would provide fishermen and plant workers with benefits of $225 a week for ten weeks. Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells immediately wrote to the prime minister, protesting a level of compensation “that for many is less than welfare. That, Prime Minister, cannot be the fruits of Canadian citizenship in this province or any other” (Harris 1998, 164). Within two weeks, the Canadian government announced a new deal, the Northern Cod Adjustment and Recovery Program, which would provide benefits of up to $406 a week.

The bulk of federal spending in the 1990s has gone to The Atlantic Groundfish Strategy (TAGS). That $1.9-billion dollar program initially included retraining, licence buy-back, and early retirement elements, with the goal of reducing capacity by 50 percent. But with over 40,000 rather than the anticipated 26,500 people eligible for the program, and with a budget insufficient to support these numbers, the government soon reallocated TAGS funds from capacity reduction to income support (Auditor 1997, 15-10). Not surprisingly, given its revised mandate, TAGS miserably failed to wean people from the industry. Even leaving the program did not signify independence. In a peculiar twist, as their TAGS benefits ran out, recipients could return to the UI program: The government decided in 1997 that drawing TAGS benefits should be considered a “labour force attachment” for the purpose of qualifying for UI (Harrigan 1998, 14). As the program neared its close, almost 25,000 fishers and processors continued to draw benefits; the great majority expected to see a follow-up assistance program when TAGS expired (Harrigan 1998, 5, 7). The government was not to disappoint them. In June 1998, it approved a new $550-million assistance package for East Coast fishermen (Greenspon 1998). Within days, amid howls of protest over its stinginess, it upped the promised assistance to $730 million (Anderssen 1998b).

The Atlantic Groundfish Strategy made continued attachment to the fishery profitable, even in the absence of fish. Little wonder, then, that getting people out of the industry has proved considerably harder than getting people into the industry. Six years after the closure of northern cod fishery, overcapacity remains a serious problem. Virtually everyone agrees on the need to dramatically reduce the size of the fishery, although estimates of the required reductions vary. The Department of Human Resources reports a general consensus that the fishery can support half as many fishermen and plant workers as it has in the past (Harrigan 1998, 9). The Fisheries Resource Conservation Council has recommended greater capacity reductions, ranging from a factor of two to a factor of four (FRCC 1996a, 8; FRCC 1997, 16).

Without considerable capacity reductions, the Atlantic fishery has little chance of recovering. Excessive capacity will create enormous pressures on the resource and on those who manage it. Fishermen and processors will urge politicians to reopen the fisheries prematurely and to allow unsustainable catches. If experience is any indicator, the politicians will prove unable to resist.

Messy Information

Can we forgive successive governments for creating overcapacity and allowing overfishing? Would any fisheries managers have made such mistakes? Unquestionably not. Overcapacity and overfishing were not so much innocent mistakes as they were calculated political decisions. Politicians and the bureaucrats serving them were warned time and again that the fishery could not sustain the pressures to which they subjected it after the declaration of the 200-mile management zone. As the fishery expanded, scientists and fishermen alike cautioned that fish stocks were declining. Governments chose to ignore and worse, to suppress these warnings.

The first warnings came from Newfoundland’s inshore fishermen the traditional small-boat fishermen who operate during the months when cod migrate inshore to feast on capelin. When, in 1982, the size of both the inshore catch and the individual fish making up the catch began to decline, fishermen accused the offshore fleet of too heavily fishing the stocks. Although inshore catches continued to fall between 1982 and 1986, landings dropped from 113,000 tonnes to 72,000 tonnes and inshore fishermen became increasingly vocal about the perils of overfishing, the government dismissed their concerns. Federal fisheries information officer Bernard Brown described the government’s attitude: “essentially they were telling the inshore fishermen who were creating all the uproar about the destruction of the stocks, that you don’t know what you’re talking about” (Finlayson 1994, 107).

The government’s reluctance to listen to the inshore fishermen reflected in part the difficulty that a centralized bureaucracy faces when dealing with decentralized information. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans obtained from the offshore fishery most of the data that it relied on to assess stocks and set catch limits. It found it far easier to get information from fifty offshore trawlers owned by a few companies than from tens of thousands of widely dispersed small-boat fishermen using different gear in different ways. Information from the former was systematic, uniform, and quantifiable, while that from the latter, often anecdotal, could not be readily quantified or computerized. In the words of information officer Brown, “you just don’t want to deal with that kind of messy information” (Finlayson 1994, 111). Edward Sandeman, former director of the DFO’s science branch, defended that attitude:

There is a fundamental reason why, to a large extent, we ignored the inshore cod fishery. The reason being that it was extremely difficult to study. . . . It was just too big an area to cover with the people we had. . . . [T]he comments of the vast majority [of inshore fishermen] are self-serving and extremely restricted in geographical range. For the most part the majority of them have a litany of mumbo-jumbo which they bring forth each time you talk to them. . . . [T]hey were totally unscientific! (Finlayson 1994, 109-10)

In 1986, the Newfoundland Inshore Fisheries Association became more scientific. It commissioned three biologists to review the government’s stock assessments. Their review criticized the government’s sources of data, its statistical procedures, and its conclusions about the status of the northern cod stock. It charged that the government, systematically interpreting uncertain information in the most optimistic light, had overestimated the fish biomass (the total weight of the stock) by as much as 55 percent each year; as a result, the government had permitted catch levels that had prevented the stock from recovering from overfishing by foreign boats in the 1970s. True to its habit of rebutting rather than communicating, DFO dismissed the review as superficial (Finlayson 1994, 35-8, 110; Hutchings et al. 1997, 1201).

An Unsteady Hand

Although the inshore fishermen sounded the loudest warnings, they were by no means alone. Scientists within the government also expressed uncertainty about the stock assessments upon which their political masters based catch limits. Their cautions about the unreliability of their data and conclusions, however, were often stifled by a bureaucracy intent on simplifying its findings for political or public consumption. The institutional structure of DFO could not accommodate ambiguity or uncertainty. Decision makers wanted simple, unproblematic information (Finlayson 1994, 138-9). As a result, scientists were frequently, in the words of Brian Morrissey, former Assistant Deputy Minister of Science, “drawing a firm line with a very unsteady hand” (Finlayson 1994, 133).

Insisting on an appearance of unanimity, DFO always presented its stock assessments and its recommendations regarding allowable catches as consensus documents (Finlayson 1994, 39).

Former employees have complained that the department’s determination to have a single official opinion compromised the quality and effectiveness of its work. Stock assessment documents failed to reflect the full range of scientific opinion regarding the health of fish stocks (Hutchings et al. 1997, 1198-1204). Senior bureaucrats and politicians accordingly set catch limits without access to information about the full implications of their decisions.

The demand for consensus did not just impede the decision-making process; it also limited intellectual discourse within the department. Former DFO biologist Jeffrey Hutchings described the department’s tendency to reject thinking that challenged established positions: “It seemed to behave almost as a tribe, as tribal groups. It was group thinking and group action . . . And if you got someone from outside of that group analyzing what you’ve done, I think there was a tendency to downplay or, possibly, discount it” (Harris 1998, 190). The result could be disastrous. As Ransom Myers noted, “bureaucratic and authoritarian control over scientific results results in pseudoscience, not science. Such a system will inevitably fail and lead to scientific blunders” (SCOFO 1997b, 935-40).

In addition to minimizing uncertainty and creating the illusion of consensus, DFO scientists frequently put an inappropriately positive spin on ambiguous information. In assessing cod stock sizes, they tended to interpret ambiguity too optimistically, exploiting the “interpretive flexibility” of the data (Finlayson 1994, 30). Sometimes they did so to meet their own ends. Leslie Harris, chair of the 1989 Northern Cod Review Panel, commented on scientists’ inclination to use data to confirm their projections: “I think our scientists saw their data from a particular perspective that the stock was growing at the rate they had projected, and the data were sort of made to fit the equation” (Harris 1998, 141).

Other times, scientists selectively presented or interpreted data to meet the needs of their political masters. They understood that they derived their funding and authority from politicians who relied on their help to achieve political objectives (Finlayson 1994, 150-51). This understanding tainted the stock assessment process. One critic charged that “the actual dynamics of the CAFSAC [Canadian Atlantic Fisheries Scientific Advisory Committee] process shows it to be more a forum for projecting the political interests of the state into the scientific construction of reality than the other way around” (Finlayson 1994, 143). Jake Rice, former head of DFO’s Groundfish Division, admitted that there were times when political realities prevented him and his colleagues from disclosing the full scientific truth: “Or you can only tell half the answer because the other half is still being debated in Ottawa for its political sensitivities. I, and no other scientist in the Department that I know of, have never been asked to lie. But we certainly have, at various times, been discouraged from revealing the whole truth. Every government has to do that to its civil servants” (Finlayson 1994, 115).

The tendency to ignore uncertainty and to interpret ambiguous data optimistically affected the political bureaucracy even more severely than the scientific bureaucracy. One DFO employee explained that although decision makers did not falsify documents, “they optimized what they had. The politicians and the senior bureaucrats would run away, pick the very best numbers and come out and present them in the very best light. They would hide any negative notions numbers, information, anything at all that took the gloss off what they had presented. Any attempt by anyone on the inside to present a different view was absolutely squashed” (Harris 1998, 301). John Crosbie admitted to sharing this tendency towards optimism: “we have opted for the upper end of the scientific advice always striving to get the last pound of fish” (Charnetski 1994, 59).

The habit was a long-established one. The 1982 Task Force on Atlantic Fisheries, for example, relied on explicitly tentative scientific documents documents rife with warnings about their untestable assumptions. But the warnings never made it into the task force’s report, which overflowed with wildly optimistic forecasts of stock growth. The northern cod stock, the task force predicted, would grow explosively; within five years, the allowable catch would increase by 75 percent (Kirby 1982, 27, 241). These predictions encouraged further expansion of the industry, justifying unsupportable investments in harvesting and processing. “The government of the day,” commented Jake Rice, former head of DFO’s Groundfish Division, “did no one a service to drop the qualifiers” from the original scientific documents (Finlayson 1994, 8).

Scientists who were aware of and concerned about the government’s selective use or overly optimistic interpretation of data could not express their concerns. Jeffrey Hutchings explained that public employees must not challenge the government’s position: “for a government scientist to publicly disagree or public identify scientific risks or scientific deficiencies in the minister’s decision is to publicly disagree with and potentially embarrass the minister, and it’s simply not allowed” (SCOFO 1997a, 940-5).

Indeed, suppression inheres in the rules of the civil service. The federal government’s communications guidelines advise ministers to “ensure that communications with the public is managed . . . in accordance with the priorities of government.” “It is not appropriate,” the government warns, for public servants “to discuss advice or recommendations tendered to Ministers, or to speculate about policy deliberations or future policy decisions” (Canada 1984). The federal media relations policy authorizes designated spokespersons to speak to the media only on matters of fact or approved government policy (Canada 1995, F-2). Furthermore, the collective agreement covering DFO scientists specifies that “the employer may suggest revisions to a publication and may withhold approval to publish.” Although the government defends this restriction on the grounds that it applies to policy issues rather than data, it cannot be unaware that rules limiting a scientist’s discussions to data make impossible any meaningful communication, since even the simplest facts often have policy implications. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans’s departmental discipline guide goes even further in its efforts to stifle employees: In the same category as fraud and assault, “public criticism of the employer” may be grounds for dismissal (CP 1997a).

Such rules intimidated scientists concerned about the cod stocks and suppressed their valid, if controversial, findings. When the House of Commons Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans held an inquiry into the role of science in fisheries management, successive witnesses testified about flagrant intimidation. The witnesses were not merely disgruntled former employees. Indeed, Steven Hindle, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, the union representing DFO scientists, appeared on behalf of scientists throughout the department who feared the repercussions of speaking out themselves. He described a “climate of intimidation and mistrust” within DFO, saying that the department suppressed data, ignored or diluted scientific advice, prevented scientists from publishing or speaking publicly about their findings, and threatened the career advancement and even the jobs of dissenters (SCOFO 1998a, 1010-25).

As the cod disaster brewed, DFO did not merely control the information flowing from the department to the public; it also limited the flow of information within the bureaucracy, preventing critical knowledge from reaching upper-level decision-makers. Several instances involved the Canadian Atlantic Fisheries Scientific Advisory Committee (CAFSAC), which provided information on stocks to the Atlantic Groundfish Advisory Committee (AGAC), the body that advised senior management about catches. In 1990, CAFSAC’s discussion of a conservation-based catch limit for 1991 did not even make it onto AGAC’s agenda. Thus, those who ultimately chose a limit of 190,000 tonnes may not even have known that the option of 100,000 tonnes would have allowed for a sustainable catch (Hutchings et al. 1997, 1200).

A similar omission occurred two years later. On July 2, 1992, the first day of the northern cod moratorium, the chair of CAFSAC’s groundfish subcommittee was scheduled to make a presentation to AGAC. He intended to give AGAC an overview of all of Canada’s Atlantic cod stocks an overview that would indicate that because stocks other than the northern cod were also being overfished, their levels, too, were declining. Apparently senior officials did not want AGAC to hear that the other cod stocks could be in serious trouble. They cancelled the presentation. Jeffrey Hutchings later speculated that the cancellation may have been motivated by the presentation’s inconsistency with the deputy minister’s announcement, two days earlier, that the troubles in the northern cod fishery were unique (SCOFO 1997a, 945-50). Of course, it soon became obvious that stock declines were the rule rather than the exception. By the following fall, DFO had closed the cod fisheries off the south coast of Newfoundland and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Ransom Myers described the damage done by the suppression of information responsible for the delay in closing the fisheries: “This is a crime beyond imagination. During this year delay, 70 percent of the remaining cod were removed and this caused a much greater collapse in the rest of eastern Canada than was needed. We could have stopped fishing then. It was a direct decision, a bureaucratic decision, to suppress the information” (SCOFO 1997b, 945-50).

Whistling Past the Graveyard

Despite formidable barriers, ominous news about the health of the cod stocks did emerge. As early as 1986, scientists within DFO cautioned that their colleagues had grossly overestimated stock sizes, and, as a result, had set Total Allowable Catches (TACs) at unsustainable levels. That year, two DFO scientists estimated the size of 1984’s northern cod spawning stock to be less than half that officially predicted, raising the possibility that fishermen had been catching between 40 and 60 percent of the available stock, rather than the 20 percent generally thought to be sustainable (Harris 1998, 100).

Other DFO scientists soon voiced their own concerns. In November 1986, George Winters, head of the Pelagic Fish, Shellfish, and Marine Mammals division of DFO’s Newfoundland Region, presented a paper to CAFSAC dismissing his department’s northern cod stock assessment as “non gratum anus rodentum”: It was not worth a rat’s rear end. Winters maintained that DFO had overestimated the size of the cod stock since 1977 and, as a result, had recommended inappropriately high catches. Documenting a statistically significant link between high offshore and low inshore catch levels, he concluded that “the decline in the inshore catches since 1982 has been due to the increase in the offshore exploitation rate” (Hutchings et al. 1997, 1200). The committee agreed with at least some of Winters’s findings: Catch levels between 1977 and 1985 had been twice as high as they should have been.

Catch limits for 1987 reflected none of the warnings coming from scientists. Nor did the following year bring more restraint. Although the Task Group on Newfoundland Inshore Fisheries, commissioned to investigate the drop in inshore catches, recommended that 1988’s TAC for northern cod be held at the previous year’s level, the government insisted on raising it by 10,000 tonnes, to 266,000 tonnes (Harris 1998, 106). In its public response to the task group, DFO glossed over concerns about both the volume of catches and the sizes of the fish in those catches. It affirmed its confidence in both its science and management:

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans prides itself on world-class scientific capability. The unprecedented rebuilding of the Northern Cod resource since 1977 is ample testimony to sound management practices based on good scientific advice. Having nurtured the resource to a good stage of health overall, the department is now setting out to enhance that all-important achievement by addressing more intensively and more comprehensively other problems in the fishery. (Finlayson 1994, 53)

By the end of 1988, biological reality made a mockery of DFO’s optimism. The Canadian Atlantic Fisheries Scientific Advisory Committee confirmed what it had suggested two years earlier: Throughout much of the decade, fishermen had been catching northern cod at twice the sustainable rate. The committee advised the government to reduce 1989’s allowable catch of northern cod from 266,000 tonnes to 125,000 tonnes. But those in charge went into denial, setting the TAC at 235,000 tonnes an astonishing 88 percent higher than recommended (Harris 1998, 106-7).

In fact, setting the TAC at unsustainable levels had already become departmental policy. Earlier that year, DFO had introduced what it called “the 50 percent rule,” allowing managers to ignore their long-standing (if rarely achieved) target of limiting catches to about 20 percent of the spawning stock. If stock estimates declined, and the traditional target would mean large adjustments for the industry, managers could phase in catch reductions rather than imposing tough measures at once: They could recommend TACs half way between the current catches and the 20 percent target. In other words, when presented with evidence of abruptly declining stocks a circumstance demanding immediate action fisheries managers could drag their feet. But even this rule “institutionalizing” overfishing (FRCC 1996a, 7) did not go far enough for the government, which could not bring itself to impose a quota as low as the rule required.

John Crosbie, who announced the 1989 TAC with Fisheries Minister Tom Siddon (and who would become fisheries minister two years later), explained his government’s decision to disregard its own scientists’ advice:

A politician has to be concerned about protecting both the fish stocks and the livelihood of fishermen. We couldn’t suddenly cut the TAC by more than half. If we did, for historic and political reasons, we would have had to give priority to inshore fishermen or accept the death of their outport communities. Cutting the total allowable catch to 125,000 tonnes overnight would have wiped out the offshore fishery. Two large Canadian companies were primarily involved in the offshore fishery National Sea Products in Halifax and Fishery Products International in St. John’s; both had fish-processing plants along the south and east coasts of Newfoundland. If we accepted the new TAC recommended by the scientists, both National Sea and Fishery Products International would have gone bankrupt. “We are dealing with thousands of human beings, who live and breathe and eat and need jobs . . . so we are not going to, because of the formula . . . immediately go to a quota of 125,000 tonnes,” I told a press conference in St. John’s. (Crosbie 1997, 378)

With this announcement, the government established a pattern that it would follow until the cod stocks disappeared. Scientists would warn of serious stock declines and advise dramatic catch reductions; the government, afraid of throwing fishermen and processors out of work, would merely inch the TAC downwards. Its refusal to act quickly destroyed the cod stocks, and, with them, the jobs the government wanted so desperately to protect.

Historian Leslie Harris, who in 1989 chaired the Northern Cod Review Panel a review that savaged DFO’s data and methodologies, suggested that the stock size was half of what DFO had previously estimated, and warned that recent catch levels could not be maintained (Finlayson 1994, 9, 66) later commented that a more responsive government could have averted the cod catastrophe. “Even in 1988-89, if we had strictly followed the rules then and said, ‘Okay, we’re going to chop the fishing season from 260,000 tonnes down to 120,000,’ then that might have saved the day probably would have saved the day” (Harris 1998, 296).

But the government just could not bring itself to act decisively. Although warned by scientists that stock levels threatened the very survival of the northern cod fishery, it set the 1990 TAC at 197,000 tonnes. John Crosbie recalled:

Although Siddon and I knew we were walking a very thin line between scientific advice and economic reality, we were trying to keep the TAC high enough to permit the continuation of part of the offshore fishery and save jobs of people employed by at least one of the three threatened plants owned by Fishery Products International (FPI). . . . I believed, if the quota was a bit larger [than that recommended by the Harris panel], FPI might be able to keep its fish plant open at Trepassey in my constituency. (Crosbie 1997, 379)

Crosbie, in other words, had his eye on votes rather than on the fish, illustrating what he would later describe as “an understandable, if misguided, tendency among politicians of all stripes to put the interests of fishermen who were voters ahead of the cod, who weren’t” (Crosbie 1997, 373).

Meanwhile, what was happening with annual allowable catches for northern cod was also happening with the allocations of catches of other cod stocks. In March 1991, one hundred fishermen vandalized a DFO office to protest the early closure of the cod fishery off southwestern Newfoundland. The department had closed the fishery because fishermen had caught too may redfish along with the cod. After the protest, it took only two days for the government to find an additional redfish quota and to reopen the cod fishery. The following month, a similar scenario occurred. After sixty fishermen staged a protest at a DFO office, bureaucrats added 300 tonnes to the fishermen’s original 400-tonne quota (Harris 1998, 138).

Commercial fisherman Stuart Beaton explained that there was nothing unusual in these politically motivated allocations:

Time and again in the past twenty years, fishermen, plant workers, and companies have hit the streets in often violent protest because the quota for a given year or region was exhausted and there were boats to pay for, mouths to feed, UI to qualify for, or elections in the near future. Most of the time more fish was found. “Paper fish” as it is known. The resource was sacrificed on the alter of political expediency until, at last, the fish refused to cooperate. (Beaton, 1998)

The government brought the TAC for northern cod down by another 7,000 tonnes in 1991. That the stocks could not support a 190,000 tonne catch soon became obvious. Try as they might, fishermen could not catch more than 127,000 tonnes (Harris 1998, 129).

In October 1991, Leslie Harris shared CBC airtime with Brian Morrissey, DFO’s assistant deputy minister for science. After the former expressed fears for the very survival of the species, the latter insisted that the cod stock was growing. In the words of Michael Harris, author of the most damning book yet about the cod collapse, “Ottawa’s whistling past the graveyard was getting loud enough to wake the dead” (Harris 1998, 141). Ottawa whistled its way into 1992, reducing the northern cod TAC by just 5,000 tonnes. Again, John Crosbie defended the decision: “I’m not going to carry out advice of theirs that I think is wrong. I’m not going to listen to advice that says, oh, reduce the TAC for the northern cod to 125,000 tonnes when there’s no scientific advice that says this should be done, or must be done. I’m not going to do something that I think is wrong for Canada” (Harris 1998, 144).

Ottawa’s bravado made even the big offshore trawling companies nervous. Fisheries Products International President Vic Young admitted, “I can’t say if they’re right or wrong. I can say I’m very uncomfortable with it. Why? Because I now see that there’s no fish in 2J [the fishing zone off the southern half of Labrador]. That makes everyone very, very uncomfortable” (Harris 1998, 146).

It soon became apparent that even the 125,000-tonne TAC that Crosbie had sneered at just months earlier would be hopelessly high. In February 1992, CAFSAC estimated that the northern cod’s spawning biomass the total weight of fish mature enough to spawn had decreased to 130,000 tonnes and recommended that the TAC for the first half of 1992 be cut to 25,000 tonnes. Crosbie later explained that he was under tremendous pressure: “the political pressures on me . . . to do something anything about the fishery made the job almost unbearable” (Crosbie 1997, 372). Perhaps for this reason, while he followed CAFSAC’s advice, announcing a six-month TAC of 25,000 tonnes, he maintained that the TAC for the year would be 120,000 tonnes (Harris 1998, 154).

But the fish could not support such plans. By July, CAFSAC estimated that the northern cod stock had fallen to between 48,000 and 108,000 tonnes (Harris 1998, 161). Only then did Crosbie impose a moratorium on fishing for northern cod. Was he too late? Crosbie has considered that question: “I wish I could say that we weren’t too late in closing the fishery. I wish I could say the northern cod and other species are recovering and that the seas off Newfoundland will once again teem with fish as they did for the first five hundred years of our history. I wish I could say it, but I can’t. Not yet. Probably never” (Crosbie 1997, 401).

Plus ça change . . .

Upon taking over the fisheries portfolio in 1996, Fred Mifflin made promising noises about rearranging the government’s priorities. “Unless science comes before political, economic, business, social, or other considerations,” he admitted, “fisheries are going to be in trouble” (Harris 1998, 251). Trouble appeared just around the corner. In September, Mifflin, claiming that “the recovery so far has been absolutely phenomenal,” announced a weekend-long “food fishery” for cod (Southam 1996). For three days, fishermen would be allowed to catch up to ten cod per day for their personal use. Fishermen went wild. Over the course of that and a second weekend, they took 21,944 boats onto the water and caught 1,230 tonnes of cod; the effort equalled that of 93,000 people fishing for one day. The fishing alarmed scientists, who knew that the stocks remained extremely low and that any healthy schools should be preserved to permit stock recovery. The Fisheries Resource Conservation Council reiterated its recommendation against the food fishery, noting “the uncontrolled nature of this fishery and the grave consequences this poses for conservation” (FRCC 1996b, 8). A memo from one DFO cod expert sounded a distressingly familiar note: “I am disappointed and disheartened that important decisions are being made that disregard the scientific advice from this region” (Harris 1998, 230).

The June 1997 federal election again tested Mifflin’s resolve to put science before politics. Politics won. In April, shortly before the election was called, Mifflin announced the reopening of the cod fisheries off Newfoundland’s southern coast and in the northern Gulf of St. Lawrence. He said “it felt like Christmas” on announcing the reopening (Strauss 1997a). As irresistible as it must have been to play Santa Claus and to distribute goodies to the electorate, the government was in no position to give away the cod.

To be sure, Mifflin, in reopening the cod fisheries, had followed the advice of the Fisheries Resource Conservation Council. That the council might have given him advice he wished to hear would come as no surprise. The council consisted of members appointed by the minister, senior DFO bureaucrats, and delegates from provincial governments. Its mission included helping the government achieve not only its conservation objectives but also its social objectives for the fishery (FRCC 1997, A9). As the council noted in the introduction to its report recommending the reopening of the fisheries, “Minister, we are your conservation council” (FRCC 1996b, viii).

Even so, the council’s recommendation came with a number of caveats:

[T]he Council is recommending, for three of the cod stocks which were under moratorium, a reopening of commercial fishing at a small scale. These recommendations must not be seen as an indication that these stocks have returned to their historical levels of productivity. On the contrary, the Council remains extremely concerned with the status of these stocks. In their 1996 Stock Status Report on Atlantic Groundfish, DFO scientists have clearly indicated that “Although the declines have been arrested, the rebuilding of groundfish stocks has only partially begun.” The Council is concerned that the abundance of these stocks remains low, much below historical levels. Recruitment, while improving, remains poor. Growth, despite definite improvements in the condition of individual fish, remains poor. Environmental conditions, while somewhat improved, remain rather cold, particularly in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. (FRCC 1996b, 21)

The council stressed the scientific uncertainty about both the state of the stock and the effects of fishing upon it. Senior bureaucrats also admitted these uncertainties. William Doubleday, director-general for fisheries and oceans science at DFO, noted “considerable uncertainties about abundances” and acknowledged that some scientists believed the risks entailed in reopening the fisheries to be unjustified (Strauss 1997a). Indeed, a number of independent scientists expressed consternation over the decision. They warned that stocks were still dangerously low perhaps as low as 1 or 2 percent of their former levels. Some stocks, they warned, were still declining. Reopening the fishery, they said, was a “risky and irresponsible” “pre-election ploy” (Hutchings 1997; Cox 1997). Fish ecologist Kim Bell, who had just spent three years studying the cod for the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada and had concluded that the government should add the cod to the endangered species list, was appalled. “I can only hope that they know something I don’t know,” he said of the reopening of the fishery. “If they don’t, it is a big mistake” (Canadian Geographic 1997, 18). Mifflin also used other groundfish stocks as political pawns in the months leading up to the federal election. Shortly before the election call, he unilaterally increased by 1,100 tonnes Canada’s share of the turbot quota in Davis Strait, between Baffin Island and Greenland. He did so without consulting Denmark, with which Canada shared the turbot quota. His action contravened the advice of the nearby Inuit, the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization, and his own Fisheries Resource Conservation Council, all of whom were concerned about the dangers of depleting the turbot stock (Harris 1998, 310-11). A federal court later overturned the minister’s decision and restored the original quota. In its judgment, the court criticized Mifflin for ignoring his assistant deputy minister, who had warned that raising the quota “would be completely irresponsible” (Globe 1997). Even the northern cod stock did not escape the fisheries minister’s pre-election politicking. Three days before the election, Mifflin told the Evening Telegram that the northern cod stock was showing encouraging signs, that he would ask DFO to take a “special look” at it, and that he might be able to open a restricted fishery within a couple of years (Harris 1998, 260). His optimism was baseless. Less than a year later, the Fisheries Resource Conservation Council reported that the stock had been declining since the early 1990s, that the offshore portion of the stock was especially sparse, that few young fish had grown large enough to be considered “recruited” into the spawning biomass, and that natural mortality had increased. The council warned that unless the latter problem was addressed, “the chances for recovery for this stock are limited (at best)” (FRCC 1998, 33). Edward Sandeman, former director of science for DFO in the Newfoundland region, sounded a less technical warning: “The last thing we should do is polish off the last bit of our remaining spawning stock. If we do there will be nothing” (SCOFO 1998a, 1055-1105).

Surrendering Control

For too much of the history of the Atlantic fisheries, the wrong people have been making the wrong decisions for the wrong reasons. Politicians have subsidized expansion of the fishery despite countless warnings of overcapacity. They have permitted catch levels far beyond those recommended by their own scientists. With an eye on the next election, they have chosen actions with short-term political pay-offs and disastrous long-term consequences.

Faced with successive crises, politicians and bureaucrats have proven to be adept at studying the problems of Canada’s troubled fishing industry. Studies have provided excuses for inaction inaction that has served the government’s interests. As fisheries biologist Carl Walters noted, bureaucrats “are rewarded not for effective action, but for making every problem disappear into an endless tangle of task force meetings and reviews” (Walters 1995, 49). An endless tangle indeed. In the last century, well over 100 official commissions have reviewed the numbers, consulted with stakeholders, and penned volumes of recommendations that have gathered dust on governments’ shelves, in what one of those countless commissions described as a “traditional cycle of a crisis, followed by a study and perhaps a subsidy, then partial recovery, then back to a crisis again” (Kirby 1982, 3).

Although governments have succeeded in putting off some fisheries problems, they have not succeeded in solving them. And how could they? Too often, they themselves have been the causes of the problems. As Member of Parliament and then fisheries committee chair George Baker said of the groundfish collapse, “This is not a natural disaster that’s happened. This is a catastrophe made by man. We believe this collapse to a very large degree was caused by the government of Canada” (Eggertson 1998). Baker has since left the committee. Speculation abounds that he was fired for his sharp criticism of the government (Anderssen 1998c; MacCharles 1998).

Baker’s recognition aside, no politicians or bureaucrats have been held accountable for making the decisions that destroyed the groundfish stocks. None have been fired, or demoted, or even unlike the scientist who dared tell the truth about the collapse reprimanded. In its 1998 report on the East Coast fisheries, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans did recommend? fruitlessly, it turned out?” that senior DFO personnel who are viewed by the fishing community as being responsible for the crisis in the fishery be removed from the Department” (SCOFO 1998b, 40). The committee chose its words carefully, intentionally avoiding any suggestion that these bureaucrats be fired (Anderssen 1998a). Regardless, four committee members could not stomach even the mild recommendation; in a “supplementary opinion” they objected that “‘Witch hunt’ justice is no justice at all” and insisted that removing bureaucrats “would certainly do nothing to restore trust between the fishing community and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans” (SCOFO 1998b, 47).

Fisheries Minister David Anderson echoed the dissenters’ reservations about replacing senior bureaucrats, saying “I don’t want to spend my time on a witch hunt” (Eggertson 1998). He had early said that although he was keeping an open mind, he had seen nothing so far that would demand that departmental bosses be held accountable for the loss of 40,000 jobs (CP 1998). MP Wayne Easter, the minister’s parliamentary secretary, elaborated on his concerns: “How could you fire somebody? It’s pretty hard to pinpoint one individual, or one department or one government as being responsible for the crisis in the fishery” (Ferguson 1998).

As outrageous as such a remark would appear in the private sector, it was to some extent correct. Fault lies not only with a handful of individuals and a succession of ministers but also in the very nature of Canada’s fisheries management system. The groundfish collapse illustrates that there is no place for the political in fisheries management.

The solution is not just to punish those responsible, but to depoliticize the fishery. In the words of fisherman Stuart Beaton, “If fisheries are to survive, governments will have to surrender control over them” (Beaton 1997).

Government control is simply not a sustainable method of fisheries management. Political pressures and bureaucratic structures being what they are, government managers have neither the incentives nor the tools to make the best long-term decisions. Worsening matters, when governments control fisheries, fishermen, too, follow a short-term agenda. Self-interest drives fishermen who have no control over fish stocks to catch as much as they can. If a fisherman leaves a fish uncaught to promote conservation, he has no guarantee that it will survive to spawn or to be caught the following year. More likely, it will end up in his competitors’ nets. That threat leads even the most honorable fisherman to race for fish and to catch more than he should.

The transfer of ownership and control of fisheries from central governments to fishermen, fishing companies, or fishing communities changes these incentives. Exclusive, permanent property rights promote stewardship. They ensure that fisheries owners will reap the benefits of conservation, thereby creating incentives to conserve. When fishermen have secure rights to future stocks, overfishing ceases to be in their interest. And as one economist said, “you don’t have to be an economist to know that it doesn’t pay to kill the goose that lays the golden egg” (Dales 1968, 64). With property rights, fishermen gain powerful incentives to maximize their stock’s value, not just today, but in the future. They have a financial interest in monitoring and conserving their stocks, in using them efficiently, and in investing in them and their habitat. The stronger the owners’ rights, the more likely they are to profit from investments in conservation. Property rights internalize the benefits of such investments. As the stocks grow, and catches become easier or larger, the value of the rights increases.

Furthermore, putting those who fish in charge of fisheries enables them to use their detailed knowledge of local stocks, fish behaviours, habitats, and environmental conditions to manage their operations sustainably. Fishermen’s information that “messy information” so distasteful to DFO’s central planners is specific to their time and place, allowing them to choose actions most appropriate to their particular circumstances. Fishermen can also act more quickly than can most government managers. Approval processes for many bureaucratic decisions are painfully long, making governments slow to adjust to change. But time is a luxury that a good fisheries manager cannot always afford, since the resource is rarely in equilibrium. Fishermen and fishing communities are best equipped to respond to its volatility.

Property rights ensure healthy fisheries only to the extent that they fully internalize the costs and benefits of fisheries management decisions. Fisheries owners must understand that if they set unsustainable catch limits and destroy their resource, they rather than taxpayers will bear the full consequences of their actions. Knowing that they cannot look to the government to bail them out knowing, in short, that they depend on their fisheries for their very survival ?fisheries owners make wise decisions indeed.

A number of studies of private fisheries around the world salmon fisheries in Iceland’s rivers, commercial netting operations off the Scottish coast, inland fisheries in England, oyster beds in the United States, artificial reefs and inshore fisheries in Japan, quota-based fisheries in Iceland, New Zealand, and a growing number of other countries, and traditional community fisheries around the world confirm that property rights promote sustainable behaviour. Individual, corporate, and communal owners understand that their economic futures are tied to the health of their fisheries. As a result, they regularly limit fishing and invest considerable money and effort in enhancing habitat for the long-term benefit of their stocks (Agnello and Donnelley 1975; Cordell 1989; Crowley 1996; De Alessi 1996; Hide and Ackroyd 1990; Jones and Walker 1997; Lee 1996; Williamson 1993).

Theory and practice alike support a proposal to develop systems of exclusive, transferable, and permanent property rights in fish systems of self-managed ownership. Self-managed ownership removes decisions about catches and habitat from the political arena. Rights holders, or the associations representing them, set catch limits, monitor fishing activity, enforce regulations, and exclude interlopers. And under such a system, those who wish to acquire rights do not waste resources lobbying government. They simply purchase rights from others in market transactions transactions that leave buyer and seller better off.

Ownership can take many forms. Individuals, communities, associations, or firms can own specific stocks. They can own fishing areas, or fish habitat. Judging from experience around the world, an endless number of configurations are possible. There is no good reason not to experiment with several. As long as they confer secure rights, and as long as they get governments out of the business of managing fisheries, they should have an excellent chance of success.

In January 1998, Ransom Myers commented on the collapse of the cod: “The disaster in the cod fishery is now worse than anyone expected. . . . It may be a generation before we see a recovery of the cod. That a five-hundred-year-old industry could be destroyed in fifteen years by a bureaucracy is a tragedy of epic proportions” (Harris 1998, 332-3). The destruction of the Atlantic groundfishery is a tragedy that need not have occurred. Freeing fisheries from the political arena and placing responsibility for them with those who have a long-term interest in their success will ensure that the groundfish tragedy will not be repeated.


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2 thoughts on “Unnatural Disaster: How Politics Destroyed Canada’s Atlantic Groundfisheries

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Political Environmentalism: Going Behind the Green Curtain | Environment Probe

  2. Pingback: Lobster: the last, best fishery – Virus News Network

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