The collapse of the Canadian Newfoundland cod fishery

Page - May 8, 2009
In 1992, the collapse of the Newfoundland Grand Banks cod fishery in Canada put 40,000 people out of work. The area, once renowned as the world’s most productive fishing grounds, was devastated by years of overfishing and incompetent fisheries management. The environmental, social and economic damages are still being paid for today.

Child with cod. Newfoundland, Canada 1895.

On 1 July, 1992 Canada celebrated its 125th anniversary, but the then fisheries minister John Crosbie was not enjoying the party. He had just been confronted by a crowd of hostile cod fishermen in Bay Bulls, a small community in Newfoundland. They had demanded to know why there were no fish left in their waters, and what he was going to do about it. Crosbie angrily responded, "There's no need to abuse me, I didn't take the fish from the Goddamn water."

The next day, under police protection, Crosbie announced a two-year moratorium on cod fishing in St. John's, the Newfoundland capital. A mob of angry fishermen had tried to force their way into the hotel ballroom where he was making his speech, and Crosbie was forced to make a hasty retreat.

The Newfoundland Grand Banks were once renowned as the world's most productive fishing grounds. The first European explorers described the waters as being so full, one just had to lower a basket into the water and it would come up filled with cod. Up to the 1950s the bounty of the Grand Banks was enough to supply local small-scale fishing, as well as feed millions of harp seals. .

But this happy picture was not to last. The Grand Banks fishery was destroyed by technological advances in fishing techniques in the 1950s and 60s. Small artisan fishing boats found themselves competing with trawlers modelled on the factory whaling ships that had devastated the last remaining whale populations.

The giant trawlers came from distant countries, attracted by the seemingly endless bounty of the fishery. Their huge nets took unprecedented amounts of fish, which they would quickly process and deep-freeze. The trawlers worked around the clock, in all but the very worst weather. In an hour they would haul up to 200 tonnes of fish; twice the amount a typical 16th century ship would catch in an entire season.

In 1968, the cod catch peaked at 800,000 tonnes. By 1975, the annual catch had fallen by more than 60 per cent. Catches of other fish species were also plummeting. In a desperate attempt to increase catches Canada extended its fishing limit for foreign vessels from 12 to 200 miles from the coast.

As cod catches declined, factory trawlers used ever more powerful sonar and satellite navigation to target what was left. This led to overall catches remaining steady throughout the 1980s. But traditional inshore fishermen noticed their catches declining. The government, most members of which owned shares in industrial fishing companies, refused to listen to them, or to the growing scientific warnings that cod was in crisis.  

Politicians also feared that cutting the quota would lead to politically unacceptable job losses, but their short-term thinking led to catastrophe.

By 1992, when the cod catch was the lowest ever measured, the government was forced to close the fishery.

In what may be the biggest single lay-off in history, the moratorium put 40,000 people out of work in 5 Canadian provinces, and required a several billion dollar relief package to be disbursed to coastal communities.

In 1993 the moratorium, initially put in place for two years, was extended indefinitely. It is still in place 14 years later. In 2003, the two main populations of Atlantic cod were added to Canada's list of endangered species. Recovery efforts are hampered by the trawling for other species that still goes on in the area, and which often leads to high levels of cod as bycatch.