In northeast Canada, cod was once king. Harvested by both natives and later arrivals for 500 years, the prized fish swarmed the Atlantic and provided a livelihood for tens of thousands of Newfoundland fishermen. But in 1992—after decades of overfishing and the steady development of more advancing fishing technology—everything collapsed.
That was the year that the Ottawan government discovered that the cod population had fallen to one percent of its earlier levels. It swiftly enacted a total moratorium on commercial cod fishing, causing thousands of Newfoundland fisherman to leave the province or find work in other industries, effectively transforming society in the area. That ban was supposed to last two years; more than two decades later, it’s still in place. And although the cod population is slowly rebounding, area scientists say, it’s going to be a long, long time before commercial cod fishing returns to Newfoundland.
“The moratorium is still going strong,” said John Boland, a staff representative for the Fish, Food and Allied Workers, which represents about 12,000 fishermen in Newfoundland. “Their potential cod harvest would only be a few thousand tons, which is only a fraction of what it once was.” The record cod catch, in 1968, was 810,000 tons. And though the province’s 15,000 or so remaining fishermen want to see that market open up again someday, they want to make sure it’s done in a sustainable way, Boland said.
About 8 million tons of cod were caught between 1647 and 1750; the trawlers developed after the 1960s took in the same amount in 15 years.
“Sustainability is definitely where people want to be,” Boland said. “There’s no question about that.”
A pronounced lack of sustainability in the industry is exactly what caused cod’s downfall. For centuries, traditional cod fishermen used targeted equipment that limited the volume of their catch. But as that technology developed—from small boats equipped with nets to huge trawlers tricked out with radar, electronic navigation systems, and sonar—fishing stocks collapsed under the pressure. About 8 million tons of cod were caught between 1647 and 1750; the trawlers developed after the 1960s took in the same amount in 15 years. The situation in the 1990s was a far cry from that of the 1600s, when an English fishing caption reported cod shoals “so thick by the shore that we hardly have been able to row a boat through them.”
When the cod population collapsed, so did the once-vibrant cod fishing industry. The 1992 moratorium was the largest industrial closure in Canadian history, affecting not only fishermen but workers in Newfoundland’s fish canning and packing plants, as well. More than 35,000 employees in the industry became unemployed, and the federal government provided emergency income assistance called the Northern Cod Adjustment and Recovery Program.
While these social and economic effects were extreme, Boland noted that Newfoundland fishermen who decided to stick with their trade have been able to find alternate sources of livelihood, fishing the area’s populous shrimp and snow crabs instead.
“People retool, people change, and it always evolves,” he said. Last year, province fishermen harvested about 50 tons of shrimp, Boland said, and about 51,800 tons of snow crab.
Meanwhile, the area’s historically cherished fish popuation appears to be rebounding—albeit slowly.
“It’s shown good signs of recovery,” Boland said of the cod population. “We’re starting to find fish that are ten, 12, 14 years old.”
Boland attributed cod’s recovery not only to the moratorium but to changing environmental conditions, namely a warmer ocean temperature that’s beneficial for finfish like cod. But even as cod continue to multiply, the ban stands and only a tiny amount of “index fishery,” mainly used to advance scientific research, is allowed in the province.
And Boland thinks it will remain that way for a long time.
“I’m not sure we’re just wake up one day and someone will say, ‘This will be over tomorrow,’” he said of the moratorium. “I suspect we’ll be more cautious this time.” He said that as opposed to just opening cod fishing back up one day, harvests will likely be allowed to increase slowly over time.
Hopefully, such prudent measures will avert another large-scale cod apocalypse.