Death of a fishery

Elizabeth Brubaker
National Post
April 22, 2003


After decades of mercilessly laying waste to the East Coast cod fisheries, the federal government is poised to shut them down. The government has no choice: There is nothing left to plunder.


It didn’t have to end like this. The cod stocks of the Northwest Atlantic, once some of the richest in the world, supported thriving fisheries for centuries. Under a different property rights regime, the fisheries could have prospered indefinitely. Instead, political and economic forces conspired to expand the fisheries beyond sustainable limits.

The trouble started in the 1960s with what should have been good news: Technological advances made it possible to catch vast quantities of fish. But this efficiency gain, in the hands of the federal government, spelled ruin. In the following decade, governments intent on maximizing employment lured workers to the industry with generous subsidies. The workers — holding no property rights in the fisheries — had no incentives to moderate their short-term gains to preserve the stocks.

In the words of one former fisherman, “The fish had no chance.” When the overfishing became apparent to government scientists, the fishermen pressured governments to maintain excessive catches. Stocks plummeted. By 1992, when the federal government imposed a moratorium on much cod fishing, some populations had dropped to one-hundredth of their former sizes.

The 1992 moratorium came too late to save the cod. Many stocks remained at historic lows. Some scientists warned of extinction. But even the threat of the complete annihilation of the stocks wasn’t sufficient to prevent further fishing. Responding to intense pressure, the government reopened a scaled-back fishery in 1998.

Not surprisingly, the cod suffered. Last spring, federal fisheries scientist Peter Shelton reported “no evidence of recovery” in the Northern cod stock off Newfoundland and Labrador and warned that “the current removals are not sustainable.” Such warnings fell on deaf ears. The Fisheries Resource Conservation Council — a federally appointed body responsible for advising Fisheries Minister Robert Thibault on catch levels — called the state of the stock “disturbing” and admitted that “there has been no significant rebuilding.” Regardless, it recommended a catch of 5,600 tonnes.

The FRCC likewise ignored warnings about cod stocks in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Even if no fishing were allowed, scientists reported last spring, the Gulf stocks were likely to decline 6%. A modest fishery could double the damage. While the FRCC expressed pessimism about the stocks’ prospects, it recommended an unchanged commercial catch of 13,000 tonnes. Mr. Thibault complied with the council’s recommendations.

Federal fisheries scientist Ghislain Chouinard did not hide his concern about the decision to allow continued fishing in the Gulf: “Certainly this is not good news, to see that whatever progress has been made in [the] last few years is being eroded.” Fisheries scientists working outside the government were even blunter. Dalhousie University’s Ransom Myers wondered, “Why in the world are they allowing any fishing at all? It doesn’t make any sense. It’s totally dumb.”

Subsequent stock reports confirmed how very dumb it was. Last month, the FRCC admitted that “the Northern cod is in a state of crisis.” The news was grim for other stocks, as well. Earlier this year, the council reported with alarm that the cod stock off Nova Scotia “continued to decline on a perilous slope” and “may be in free-fall.”

And yet, the council refuses to endorse a complete closure of the cod fishery, calling the proposal “draconian” and “unrealistic.” Instead, it recommends halving quotas for the Gulf and reducing Northern cod catches to less than 1,500 tonnes.

Politicians have likewise gone into denial. When scientists proposed a complete closure last fall, Newfoundland MP Lawrence O’Brien called such a move unnecessary, countering, “I don’t believe the state of the cod is as bad as they’re saying.” His colleague Bill Matthews, predicting the loss of 11,000 direct jobs and up to 25,000 indirect jobs, pleaded, “The government would be very wise to reconsider this.”

These two were by no means alone. Just last month, an all-party committee of federal and provincial politicians recommended against closing the fishery, warning of the social upheaval such a move could cause. Newfoundland Premier Roger Grimes, questioning the science behind the threatened closure, insisted that such a move “is not the answer.”

Meanwhile, the Fisheries Minister is denying persistent reports that he has at long last decided to close the fisheries. According to his spokesman, “He’s still looking at his options.”

Despite his dithering, the Minister doesn’t really have any options. Given the state of the stocks, the fisheries must close. The only meaningful question is what happens after that.

Will the government encourage workers to stay in the industry, reopen the fisheries once the stocks show signs of recovery, and resume the vicious circle of subsidies and over-fishing? Or will it have the vision and the courage to reform the fisheries to give a smaller number of self-supporting fishermen real rights and responsibilities — and along with them, real incentives to conserve rather than to despoil the stocks?

Last month, the FRCC called for a new strategy to meet this challenge. It emphasized that fishermen must “buy-in to the need for conservation” — they must become “fish stewards” rather than “fish killers.” It proposed giving fishermen more rights and responsibilities, involving them in more decisions, and enhancing their stake in present and future fisheries.

Seemingly on the verge of recommending effective change, the council couldn’t, in the end, tear itself free from the status quo. It proposed local fisheries councils to “enhance” rather than to replace existing management structures. And it suggested that the federal fisheries department should retain responsibility for higher-level management.

The fisheries demand more fundamental reforms. When governments control fisheries, politicians too often make short-term, politically driven decisions. Conservation is rarely in their interest.

When governments control fisheries, fishermen, too, pursue short-sighted agendas. They fish while they can, knowing that if they don’t, someone else will. Even the knowledge that the stocks cannot support more fishing will not keep them away. As one fisherman explained, “We may as well fish them out if we are gonna have to close it up anyway.”

The best way to change these attitudes is to grant fishermen exclusive, permanent, transferable rights to fisheries, either individually or through companies, associations, or communities. It is also imperative to give them full responsibility for management decisions, and to refuse to rescue them if they make poor choices. Such rights and responsibilities will give fishermen a long-term financial interest in the preservation of their stocks. They will create powerful incentives to conserve.

The FRCC’s George Rose recently called the Northern cod “the icon for fisheries mismanagement in the world.” Governments have failed miserably to protect the once-abundant stocks. Fishermen, armed with secure property rights, would have succeeded brilliantly.



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