The collective trauma of the great cod collapse

The fisheries are ours to squander or sustain
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The evolution of cultures, economies and languages has long been underpinned by fisheries. For Newfoundland’s European immigrants and their descendants, Atlantic cod anchored coastal communities for centuries, leading to an inexorable dependence on the natural environment unique in the Canadian experience.

The key fish was northern cod, a “stock” extending from southern Labrador to the Grand Banks, first exploited by the Basques and Portuguese in the late 1400s. Once supporting Canada’s largest fishery, between the early 1960s and the early 1990s, the 30-year diminution of cod throughout Canadian waters was roughly equivalent to a reduction of 27 million humans. The collapse remains the greatest numerical reduction of an animal in Canadian history.

The societal consequences of Newfoundland’s cod moratorium in 1992 were equally staggering. Thirty to forty thousand jobs vanished overnight. Corrected for population size, this would have amounted to 650,000 job losses in Ontario. Politicians would have been tripping over themselves to take corrective measures.

But this was Newfoundland, an island out of sight and out of mind for most federal politicians whose interest in coastal fisheries ranged from negligible to nil. This might account for the government’s deceitful announcement that the moratorium would end in 1994. The scientifically indefensible two-year timeframe was apparently used to sway cabinet ministers reluctant to provide Newfoundland with financial assistance.

As a scientist who has researched northern cod for almost 30 years, the biological and ecological consequences of the collapse are distressingly familiar. But until I read Cod Collapse: The Rise and Fall of Newfoundland’s Saltwater Cowboys, by Jennifer Thornhill Verma, I hadn’t appreciated how little attention has been directed to the human dimensions of the cod moratorium (Nigel Markham’s 1994 film Taking Stock being a notable exception). Stoked by the ancestral fuel of eight Newfoundland generations, I was enthused to read a perspective motivated neither by science nor special interests. I was not disappointed.

Verma’s thoughtful and thought-provoking book combines personal, familial and societal experiences with historical and contemporary accounts of the fishery. She has produced a remarkably engaging blend of memoir, history, science and humanism.

The first of the book’s three parts (Roots), skilfully intersperses family history and some wonderful stories (“wheelbarrow” has been splendidly redefined) with outport Newfoundland’s experiences with cod. The reader unfamiliar with Newfoundland’s history will learn a great deal (including the visceral response many Newfoundlanders have for “Canada’s N-word”: Newfie).  

In Part II (Resurgence), Verma eases the reader into the years preceding and following the collapse. She does a fine job explaining the science, including the underlying sputtering “comeback” of northern cod, for which progress has been hindered by the remarkable absence of a recovery target and inconsistent implementation of government’s sustainable fisheries policy. Verma follows this with the harrowing and rather disarming experiences of an individual whom CBC Newfoundland once described as being “determined to be at the vanguard of the reimagined cod business.”

The theme of re-imagining the cod business grows as the book progresses into Part III. Revival begins with a visit to houses left behind by Newfoundland’s resettlement programme, a visit colourfully accompanied by an individual with an intriguing (or ever-so-slightly off-putting, depending on your perspective) sense of what the vacant dwellings might reveal about the re-settlers. After recounting a memorable trip to Quirpon on the northwestern tip of the island, Verma rounds off with a chapter imbued with personal reflection and forward thinking.

While Verma embraces the past, she does not yearn for its repetition. Aided by interviews with fishermen, scientists, union activists and journalists, she spends considerable text looking ahead to what a future cod fishery might, if not must, embrace. An emphasis on fishing practices and fishing gear—such as cod pots and handlines—that value quality over quantity. The necessity of traceable chains of custody for fish and fish products. A change in mindset towards achieving long-term, rather than short-term, sustainability.

Regarding the science, I might have a scattered quibble. Not everyone realized the stocks were failing in the late 1980s. Many inshore fishermen did experience declining catch rates, a trend usually indicative of declining stock size. But most scientists and managers did not discern a major problem, primarily because they didn’t consider the inshore fishery to be a reliable source of information. And not all scientists would agree with the hypothesized link between the recent positive trajectory of cod abundance and the abundance of capelin and a warming ocean. But these are quibbles, and scientists are natural quibblers.

Verma aptly and emotionally describes the collapse as one of the greatest collective traumas in the history of Newfoundland. Who is to blame? Ottawa? Bottom trawlers? Foreigners? I’m not sure it’s that simple (fisheries never are).

Perhaps we should look at ourselves. Collectively, Canadians are apathetic towards our fisheries, and there are few if any political costs in Canada to making bad or poorly conceived fishery management decisions. The result is a cumulative set of fishery collapses—encompassing many species—comparable to, if not greater than, that of any other country.

Implicitly put by the Supreme Court of Canada, Canadians have a collective responsibility to maintain and conserve fisheries. In 1997, the court concluded that “Canada’s fisheries are a ‘common property resource,’ belonging to all the people of Canada. Under the Fisheries Act, it is the Minister’s duty to manage, conserve and develop the fishery on behalf of Canadians in the public interest.”

The fisheries are ours to squander or sustain. Verma shows us how good we have been at the former and provides enormous justification for why we should strive to achieve the latter. ■

Written By

Jeffrey Hutchings is Professor of Biology and Killam Memorial Chair at Dalhousie University. His work on the evolutionary ecology of fish has influenced sustainable fisheries policies, sourcing of sustainable seafood and recovery of species at risk. He has researched northern cod since 1992.

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