The ocean around Newfoundland’s rocky shores was once so full of cod that explorer John Cabot marvelled that they virtually blocked his ship upon arrival in 1497. Canadians had traditionally fished in waters close to shore, in small crafts using traditional techniques such as traps, jigging from dories or small inshore gill-nets or longlines. For more than a century prior to the mid-1950s, the highly productive population of northern cod had yielded an overall annual catch of about 250,000 tonnes.
All this changed for the worse during the ‘50s and ‘60s. Technological advances in trawler design and power were modeled on the factory whaling ships that had devastated the last remaining whale populations. These huge factory trawlers came from distant countries attracted by the seemingly endless bounty of the fishery. With giant nets they could hoover up massive quantities of fish, quickly processing and deep-freezing the catch, working around the clock in all but the worst weather conditions. In an hour they could haul up as much as 200 tonnes of fish, twice as much as a typical 16th century ship would have caught in an entire season.
The cod catch steadily increased to a peak of 800,000 tonnes in 1968, though it was becoming clear that catches of this size were unsustainable. By 1975, the annual catch had fallen by more than 60 per cent. Catches of other groundfish were also plummeting under the relentless fishing pressure. In response, Canada extended its fishing limit for foreign vessels from 19 to 322 kilometres from its coast, but also provided huge investments and subsidies for the construction of factory trawlers. In the short term, catches rose again and the industry prospered.
During the 1980s, cod catches remained steady but that was because larger, more powerful and sophisticated vessels were chasing the few remaining fish. Traditional inshore fishermen had already noticed their catches declining but the government preferred to listen to the industrial fishing companies which claimed there was no problem. Scientific warnings in the late ‘80s went unheeded because any cut in catches would cause politically unacceptable job losses.
By 1992 the levels of northern cod were the lowest ever measured, declining by some 99 per cent. The government was forced to close the fishery in Newfoundland, throwing tens of thousands out of work and devastating many fishing communities. Despite the ban, stocks have yet to recover and it is uncertain if they will fully recover given the changes wrought on the Grand Banks ecosystem by decades of industrial fishing. But trawlers still fish for cod in the international waters of the Grand Banks and some Canadian catches are still allowed in some years.