History of the Grand Banks Cod Fishery

Page - April 11, 2005
The Newfoundland Grand Banks, off the east coast of Canada, used to be famous as amazingly productive fishing grounds. The first European explorers described the waters as being so full of cod you just had to lower a basket into the water to bring it up full of cod. In the centuries that followed, abundant fish stocks drew many people to Newfoundland. Small inshore boats took sustainable amounts of cod for centuries up to the 1950s. The bounty of the Grand Banks was enough for local and small-scale fishing and a healthy population of millions of harp seals.

A Greenpeace activist sprays a seal with harmless dye to render its pelt worthless to commercial hunters in 1982.

Invasion of the Fishing Factories

All of this changed for the worse during the 1950s 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 huge nets they could haul 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 can haul up as much as 200 tons of fish, twice as much as a typical 16th century ship would have caught in an entire season.

The cod catch steadily increased to 800,000 tons in 1968 but this was the peak of the clearly unsustainable catches. By 1975 the annual catch had fallen by more than 60 percent. Catches of other fish were also plummeting under the relentless fishing pressure. This forced Canada to extend its fishing limit for foreign vessels from 12 miles to 200 miles from its coast.

Thinking Big

Rather than viewing this as a signal to reduce fishing pressure on the cod, the Canadian government and fishing industry saw a massive cash bonanza - now exclusively for Canadians. The government poured huge investments into constructing the same destructive factory trawlers so big money could be made from the cod. In the short term, catches rose again and the industry prospered. But beneath the waves, the huge trawl nets were not only scooping up cod and anything in their path, the heavy gear was ploughing up the seabed and destroying the delicate ecosystem. The Grand Banks ecosystem was in trouble.

As the cod declined, the factory trawlers used powerful sonar and satellite navigation to target the few remaining large shoals of cod, especially during the breeding season when they gather in large numbers. Again, short-term expediency was winning out over the long-term health of the fishery.

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. The government was forced to close the fishery, throwing 30,000 people 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.