The history of Newfoundland and Labrador has been written through the cod fishery. Over 500 years, the fishery forged a unique people and culture, and for a time made
Newfoundland the richest place in North America.
When Newfoundland's financial distress in the early to mid-20th century led to confederation with Canada, mismanagement and massive over-fishing ensued. The resultant stock declines constitute one of the great ecological disasters of the 20th century.
At the beginning of the 21st century, the fishing culture and communities of Newfound-land and Labrador have an uncertain future.
Photo by Rob Johnston.
In April 2003, the closure of the northern and Gulf cod fisheries drove the final nail in the coffin of one of the world's premier fisheries. What went so badly wrong? There is no real puzzle here.
Since WWII, fishing power burgeoned, with 5m skiffs giving way to 70m freezer trawlers. To makes matters worse, fisheries science and management failed to understand how such increases would devastate fish populations, especially in ecosystems such as ours, characterized by highly variable climatic and ocean conditions. Of approximately 100 million tonnes of cod caught since 1500, half was caught in the 20th century, and one-third since 1950.
Problems in 20th century fisheries are not unique to Canada or to Newfoundland and Labrador. However, they have been exacerbated here by successions of governments, the federal government preferring to dole out EI and make-work projects rather than tend to fisheries management, and the Province unwilling or unable to restrain industry and develop our own institutions to research and manage fisheries. Iceland and Norway, our sister states with similar large cod ecosystems in the North Atlantic, faced similar problems, but handled them better, and their scientific and political efforts have paid off handsomely. Icelandic and Norwegian fisheries prosper, while those in Newfoundland and Labrador continue to founder. Through all this, our industry clings truculently to an age-old "fish killing" attitude, failing to understand that technology benefits are self-defeating without parallel control of fishing effort and real progress towards stewardship and conservation.
The past year has witnessed several major pronouncements on our cod stocks. The Fisheries Resource Conservation Council (FRCC) recommended severe conservation measures to help rebuild the northern cod fishery, including closing cod and capelin fisheries, protecting large areas of the Banks, reducing seal herds, and con-trolling foreign fisheries. The FRCC recommended that a reduced northern Gulf of St. Lawrence fishery continue with a suite of new conservation measures. The federal Minister did not agree. The Provincial All-Party Committee took a view similar to the FRCC on most issues, but wanted the northern cod fishery to continue, too. Both the FRCC and All-Party Committee concluded that simply closing existing fisheries (2% of1980s fisheries) would not rebuild stocks. The union (FFAW) wants fisheries open—the federal government wants them closed. The Committee on the Endangered Species in Canada (COSEWIC) waved a wand and deemed the northern and Grand Bank cod "endangered" and the northern Gulf and south coast cod "threatened" (these threatened stocks appear to be abundant, which puzzles fishermen to no end). Many fishermen believe seals are a serious problem. Academics offer up doomsday scenarios about all fisheries. Icy waters killed hundreds of thousands of large cod in Smith Sound in April 2003. Cod are disappearing on the northern banks, but there is no agreement on their fate. What can be made of all this?
Answers require getting the facts straight. First, it is important to realize that Newfoundland and Labrador cod make up 4 stocks (groups of biological populations that share common features and are managed together). Not all are in the same condition.
The formerly dominant northern and Grand Bank stocks are in the poorest condition. Historically, each once comprised several million tonnes but now has less than 100,000t. Stock declines occurred in two giant steps, first in the 1960s with foreign trawlers, and again in the 1980s with Canadian fisheries. The latter decline was exacerbated by poor environmental conditions that led to poor growth, recruitment, and distribution shifts. The hangover from these poor environmental conditions, and the lack of fish living to spawning age, has hampered recovery.
Historically, the northern cod consisted of small and genetically diverse coastal groups embedded within the range of the dominant migrating bank fish. Coastal cod rebuilt fairly quickly after the moratorium in 1992; with strong 1990 and 1992 year-classes. Smith Sound, Trinity Bay became the over-wintering and spawning centre. Large fish up to 14 years old are common there. Fishing of various sorts (sentinel, bycatch, index directed) occurred from 1992-2002, with maximum annual removals of 9,000t in 2000 (average of 4,000t per year). Since 2000, the coastal cod have declined. Seal predation and fishing, both legal and not, are likely responsible.
On the banks, there has been little rebuilding, despite the fishing moratorium and little known bycatch in other fisheries. Cod do not survive past age five. There are no large fish. Hence, spawning numbers have not increased much over the past decade.
The Grand Bank cod stock has also not rebuilt under moratorium. This stock is managed by the North Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO), which consists of 17 countries, some as distant as Cuba and Japan, and several that do not border on the north Atlantic. NAFO trawler fisheries take cod, and other species, as "bycatch," particularly on the southern Grand Bank. There is no Newfoundland fishery on this stock, although some bycatch. There is no coastal fishery so there is nothing more for Canada to close.
Photo by Rob Johnston.
The south coast cod stock rebuilt quickly after the moratorium in 1993, with relatively strong 1989, 1990 and 1992 year-classes. The fishery reopened in 1997 with annual catches averaging 15,000t. There has been good growth and recruitment in recent years, and no unusual mortality. In spite of questionable fishing practices (too much fishing in Placentia Bay, gillnets, trawlers), this stock has held its own with a current stock estimate of about 150-175,000t.
The northern gulf cod stock declined dramatically in the 1980s, but grew steadily after a moratorium in 1993 to about 100,000t, with a strong 1993 year-class. From 1998-2002, fishery removals averaged 6,000t per year. This stock is subjected to heavy seal predation. Since 2000, there has been scientific evidence of stock de-cline (disputed by fishermen and local knowledge in 2003).
So here we have a conundrum. Some fished cod, on the northeast and south coast, have fared better than cod under moratoria! The situation is clearly complex. In marine ecosystems, fishing always reduces fish numbers substantially, and partly by design, and has no doubt been the dominant effect on cod over the entire North Atlantic for the past 100 years. But our conundrum shows that recent fishing patterns cannot fully account for present stock performance. In truth, the greatest impact that fishing may have is long-term and at the ecosystem level, in which the relative abundance of species, or the physical habitat, become so modified that different species and a different balance takes over. This may have happened to our cod, and their companion capelin, now replaced by shrimp and crab. Such shifts need not be caused solely by fishing, but may be caused or amplified by natural long-term fluctuations in the ocean environment.
Fishing is not the sole determinant of fish abundance in our oceans. This is why fished stocks can at times do better than un-fished stocks. The two main factors of production—reproductive success and growth—are both dependent on ocean climate through variable water temperatures and food availability. That uncertainty is a prime reason why many adults are needed to sustain a population over time, as most eggs and larvae will die. In addition, predators (seals) take their toll of juvenile and adult cod, and healthy fish can die of natural catastrophes. For some species, like the all-important capelin, it is hard to see how direct effects of fishing could be responsible for the abrupt changes in the 1990s. Declines in capelin growth and abundance must be related to ecosystem change.
For cod, stock performance in most areas has been poor in the past two decades. For many populations, their chief food, capelin, became suddenly scarce, and their chief predator, harp and hood seals, increasingly abundant. Poor growth, survival and recruitment have resulted. Cod have done well only where capelin have been abundant and seals scarce (e.g., Smith Sound and Placentia Bay). However, there is an added complexity that brings us back to fishing. With stocks fished down to very low levels, environmental conditions not only take over the future of cod, they may conspire against rebuilding, in a clear demonstration of ecosystem-level effects on the coastal ocean. Environmental pressures may differ among stocks, but the results for cod are the same.
There is little disputing these facts (not that some won't give it their best shot!). What is more difficult is what to do about them. Ocean climate change is real and will set the boundaries within which recovery can occur. But given present boundaries, our fisheries are hardly sustainable. Over-capacity, whether from groundfish trawlers, small crab boats, or the number of plants, comes down to the same thing—a politicized fishery driven by short-term economics and not by long-term conservation. So end fisheries.
It does not have to be this way. The choice is ours.
Choice and action imply purpose and goals. In Newfoundland and Labrador, there is no universal agreement that cod stocks should be rebuilt. Some fishermen are content to see cod gone. Such shortsightedness will be starkly revealed when crab stocks fail. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and some advocates have focused on closing existing cod fisheries (although to their credit DFO is now implementing area closures and other conservation measures). What is clear, despite the sometimes narrow and, at times, perverse interests of COSEWIC, animal rights groups, the European Union and our own fisheries, is that a far more comprehensive rebuilding plan incorporating a full suite of conservation measures is necessary to rebuild not only our cod but our marine ecosystems upon which cod and all other species depend. As DFO brings the hammer down on the Newfoundland and Labrador fisheries, most other conservation methods have been forgotten.
Photo by Rob Johnston.
In my view, this is all backwards. Conservation methods should be implemented first. Complete closures of fisheries should be the last resort, used only when all other methods have come up short. Worldwide experience shows that effective conservation requires that resource users, those closest to the resource, be empowered, not disenfranchised. DFO barely recognizes this. Academics are no better, and despite much theory and talk about using local knowledge, ignore it when there is a real issue. Far reaching conservation suggested by local knowledge of the northern Gulf cod stock in 2003, including hook-and-line-only fishing, protecting spawning and juveniles, and closed areas, was summarily dismissed when it opposed complete closure agendas.
Since the moratoria, we have wasted 10 years. To date, few conservation measures have been implemented to help rebuild our cod stocks. Coastal fishery closures, the last resort, are suggested first. This may be politically correct with various advocacy groups, but no-one should be fooled into thinking this will have much effect on rebuilding the formerly large stocks, in particular the northern and Grand Bank cod.
Within limits set by ocean productivity, the future of cod depends on our actions. We can continue to roll the dice with unsustainable fishing practices, and, as species decline, hope that replacements appear; or, we can attempt to foster a steady rebuilding of a more robust marine ecosystem, with more cod among other species and a stronger resilience to environmental vagaries. To do this requires tough medicine. Here are some guidelines:
reduce fishing effort to approximately half its current level for all fisheries and species, with a stronger emphasis on local stewardship and ownership of the resources;
use technologically enhanced lines and traps in cod fisheries (gillnet and trawler fisheries prohibited);
push industry to contribute knowledge and funds to management and science;
protect spawning and juvenile areas from all fishing and oil exploration by developing a network of no-take zones from St. Pierre to Hamilton Bank;
prohibit capelin fishery (cod and other capelin eaters need them), and protect capelin beaches and the nearshore environment from pollution and development;
penalize ocean polluters heavily;
manage the seal herd sustainably at approximately half its current level;
make the long distance factory freezer fishery an historical relic.
It is unlikely that these things can be accomplished under present fisheries institutions. Fisheries policy must be crafted objectively in Newfoundland and Labrador, outside all short-term political agendas. Fisheries science needs support and independence (the traditional snub at Memorial University needs rethinking). Coalitions of fisheries and conservation interests are needed to take on unsustainable fishing practices, such as European freezer fleets on the Grand Bank. At the management and operational level, major changes are needed, too. Authority and responsibility should be increasingly down-loaded to our major fishing communities, and as hard as this might be, "stamp" fisheries and undue local subsidies should join the heavily subsidized foreign trawlers as historic relics of the 20th century. Our fisheries must regain the ability to stand on their own.
If we can make these things happen, cod and our ocean ecosystems can have a bright future. If not, Ottawa can spend millions on seal research and beat fishing communities into submission, to no avail. Foreign fisheries will continue to plunder the Grand Bank, and shrimp fisheries and oil interests will run unfettered across former cod grounds. Poorly managed crab and turbot fisheries will follow suit and fail. Short-sighted policies will remain in full control, including misguided attempts to replace natural ocean production with environmentally unsustainable aquaculture, and there will be little future for cod or cod fisheries in Newfoundland and Labrador.
In Canada's just society, it is simply unjust to ascribe most of the blame and shift most of the consequences of the historical decline of our cod onto rural small boat fishermen and communities. They did not catch the fish that led to the present state of the stocks—foreign and Canadian trawlers did—and if theirs had been the only fisheries, we would not be in our present state. An argument can be made to stop small boat fishing now, given the state of some stocks, but in doing so, it is likely that this fishery will be gone forever, and if cod does return, the rewards will go to the very interests that destroyed it. It is also temptingly simple to think that we can plan our way out of the present situation. Perhaps we can, but it might be better to allow for adaptation and try to learn our way out. There is still a window of opportunity to do this, but it is .closing quickly, and will not open again. — G.R.