Chapter 18 preface: Newfoundland cod fishery collapse


Collapse of the Newfoundland Cod Fishery

In 1992, the devastating collapse of the cod stocks off the east coast of Newfoundland forced the Canadian government to take drastic measures and close the fishery. Over 40,000 people lost their jobs. The communities are still struggling to recover. The marine ecosystem is still in a state of collapse.

The collapse of this vital and important fishery sounded a warning bell to governments around the world who were shocked that a relatively sophisticated, scientifically-based fisheries management program, not unlike their own, could have gone so wrong. The Canadian government had been warned by scientists and environmentalists that the cod stocks were overexploited and that their fleets were employing destructive fishing practices. They refused to significantly reduce quotas sighting the loss of jobs as too great a concern. The cost of their short term outlook and refusal to acknowledge ecological limits was devastating.


The ocean around the rocky shores of Newfoundland were once so full of cod that explorer John Cabot marveled in 1497 that they virtually blocked his ship. In the centuries to follow, fish became the one of the only reasons anyone ever came to Newfoundland, or stayed. Until the mid-twentieth century, Canadians had traditionally fished mainly in waters relatively closer to shore, in small craft using traditional techniques such as traps, jigging from a dory, or small inshore gill-nets, longlines or small trawlers. They joined fishing boats from Spain and Portugal whose crews had also traditionally fished in the northwest Atlantic since before Newfoundland was colonized.

The most productive cod fishing area in the vast northwest Atlantic region was located off southern Labrador and to the east of Newfoundland where the highly productive population of "northern cod" had yielded an overall annual catch of about 250,000 tons for more than a century prior to the mid-1950s.


The northern cod fishery entered its boom-bust phase in the mid-1950s. It was then that Newfoundland's "banks" or "deep sea" schooner and dory fishery, which had been established in the late nineteenth century, was displaced by a new breed of factory-fishing vessel. Modeled on the distant-water whaling factory ships, these new "factory trawlers" came from countries thousands of miles away in search of herring, haddock, flatfish, capelin, redfish, and, of course, the valuable northwest Atlantic cod. Up until the late 1970s these distant-water factory trawlers from Germany (East and West), Great Britain, Spain and Portugal, Poland, the Soviet Union, Cuba and even from as far as east Asia had legally fished to within 12 miles of the eastern Canadian and New England (US) seaboards. They set and hauled their colossal nets from the stern, quickly processing and deep-freezing nearly all the fish they caught, working around the clock in all but the worst weather conditions.


With the increased effort by distant-water fleets, catches of northern cod increased in the late 1950s and early 1960s and peaked at just over 800,000 tons by 1968. The distant-water fleet was subjecting the northern cod to intense, unprecedented fishing pressure, and by 1975 the declining northern cod population was insufficient to yield even 300,000 tons, while various species of hake, and other groundfish populations showed dramatic drops too. Canada (and the U.S.), concerned that stocks were being reduced to almost nothing, passed legislation in 1976 to extend their national jurisdictions over marine living resources out to 200 nautical miles. The "foreign" fishing fleets were banished to the "high seas".

Catches naturally declined after the departure of the foreigners to just 139,000 tons in 1978, which is probably the level where the federal government should have capped it then, and left it for many years, to give the stock the chance to recover. Instead, government and investors in fishing were, like the foreigners, thinking big. Soon, the stern factory-trawlers, or draggers as they became known, became the mainstay of Canada's Atlantic offshore fishing fleet, and the northern cod catch began a steady rise again as a result. By the mid-1980s, it was the Canadians who were landing more than 250,000 tons of northern cod annually.4


Massive investments poured into constructing these huge "draggers". Draggers haul enormous, baglike nets, as long as a football field, held open by a combination of huge steel plates or "doors" and heavy chains and rollers that plow and scrape the ocean bottom. They drag up whole schools of fish and anything else in the way, inflicting immense damage to immature target and non-target fish and the benthic (bottom-dwelling) community. They were not only destroying critical habitat, but they also contributed to destabilizing the ecosystem of the northern cod.

The draggers targeted huge aggregations of cod while they were spawning, a time when the fish population is highly vulnerable to capture and to the physical impacts of the bottom-trawling gear on the environment. Detractors of the technology claim that the excessive trawling on spawning stocks became highly disruptive to the spawning process, negatively impacting the reproductive behavior of the fish. In addition, the trawling activity is thought to result in a physical dispersion of eggs and milt leading to a higher fertilization failure. Physical and chemical damage to larvae caused by the trawling action may also reduce their chances of survival.

The effect of selective fishing on spawning grounds - that is, selectively over-exploiting one species in an ecosystem -- can have disastrous effect on the feeding relationships in that ecosystem. This contributes to the overall reduction of spawning stock biomass of the targeted species, but also an increase in the number of invertebrate and vertebrate predators such as crustaceans and fish which will prey on cod eggs, larvae, and younger fish. It is little wonder that a species like cod would eventually run into difficulties struggling to survive when its habitat is being continuously destroyed and the balance of their food chain has been disrupted.


Throughout the 1980s, the annual catch of Canada's northern cod fishing fleet hovered around the 250,000 tons mark, as the Canadian government kept promoting more investment. Newfoundland's small-scale, inshore cod fishermen, however, were voicing concerns long before anyone else that the abundance of the northern cod population was not as healthy as scientists were reporting. Contradictory to scientific data, traditional inshore fishermen in Newfoundland began to notice declining catches before the mid-1980s. By 1986 the scientists also realized that the stock was declining, and by 1988 had recommended the total allowable catch be cut in half. Instead of acting immediately, in a precautionary manner to protect dwindling fish stocks by substantially reducing catch quotas at the first signs of overfishing, the federal government delayed conservation action, choosing instead quite moderate reductions of the total allowable catch beginning in 1989. It wasn't until 1990, following several years of analysis and re-analysis of data from stock surveys (without simultaneously reducing catch quotas) that the Independent Review of the state of the Northern Cod stock concluded that the population, the biomass, the spawning population, and the spawning biomass of the Northern Cod were all in decline and that fishing-related mortality was at dangerously high levels.

By 1992, the biomass estimate for northern cod was the lowest ever measured. The Canadian Minister of Fisheries and Oceans had no choice but to declare a ban on fishing northern cod. For the first time in 400 years the fishing of northern cod ceased in Newfoundland. The fisheries department issued a warning in 1995 that the entire northern cod population had declined to just 1,700 tons by the end of 1994, down from a 1990 biomass survey showing 400,000 tons, and showed no sign of recovery - just 1700 tons remained in a fishery that had for over a century yielded a quarter-million ton catches, year after year. The fisheries department also predicted that, even in the unlikely event that the fish stock started an immediate recovery, it would take at least 15 years before it would be healthy enough to withstand significant fishing.

Following on the heels of the '92 ban on northern cod fishing, fisheries for cod in other areas and for most other species of groundfish around eastern Canada also had to be either severely curtailed or closed altogether because of serious depletion. An estimated 30 thousand people that had already lost their jobs after the 1992 Northern Cod moratorium took effect, were joined by an additional 12,000 fishermen and plant workers following these additional cutbacks and closures. With more than forty thousand people out of jobs, Newfoundland became an economic disaster area, as processing plants shut down, and vessels from the smallest dory to the monster draggers were made idle or sold overseas at bargain prices. Several hundred Newfoundland communities were devastated.

In response the federal government put up nearly a billion dollars as a stopgap measure to assist with social welfare payments and retraining of dispossessed fishing people in 1993 and 1994. But that would only be the beginning of the taxpayer funded payout to cover the calamity, with forecasts that the social welfare bill would hit at least another billion dollars, and possibly even more.


Government and industry must share the blame for allowing the seemingly limitless stocks of cod to dwindle to near-extinction. They were too busy, following the takeover of the 200 mile zone, with making plans, setting expansive goals, and then allocating fish, and lots of it, instead of making sound, conservative business plans to match fishing effort with the limited availability of the resource. Blame also lies with the federal government for its overly optimistic reliance on science in predicting a large increase in Canada's cod catch in the 1970s and 1980s. Instead of giving the severely stressed cod and other groundfish populations a respite from fishing pressure, Ottawa began freely issuing liscenses, and subsidies were provided big companies to build bigger ships and processing plants. Industry employment rose 60 percent in two decades.

It is at such points that the dynamic known as "the ratchet effect" sets in, as it classically does in virtually all fisheries in modern times. The "ratchet effect" takes hold in the initial stages of exploitation of a new fishery, expansion of an existing fishery, or deployment of a new technology or fishing method. During this stage, harvesting rates increase rapidly and stabilize at excessive, unsustainable levels. Government, which is supposed to regulate the fishery, is motivated instead to remove obstacles so that profits from the fishery can grow. Often, governments offer attractive subsidies, with ready takers drawn by high yields and substantial profits during this initially stable period. Investment in vessels and/or processing grows rapidly.

Conditions soon change, however, and yields start to decline. Then, when the results of additional scientific research and improved knowledge necessitate calls for reductions in the allowable catch, industry appeals to government for help or special consideration, because, by this point, substantial investments and jobs are at risk. The typical response by government at this point is to delay a decision, pending the results of more research. Government procrastinates, arguing that no substantive data is available upon which to base a decision to reduce fishing effort, and without conclusive information the status quo is maintained. The scientific process required to acquire, analyze and respond to such information can take several years. Government often agrees to commit even more subsidies to bolster troubled investors, which only masks the real problem -- the need for (often dramatic) cutbacks. But, the overall effect of government subsidies is to encourage over-harvesting. The ratchet effect thrives on government's failure to regulate the tendency for fisheries investments to expand during good periods, but applies strong pressure not to dis-invest at the first evidence of poor periods.

The Canadian Atlantic fisheries collapse illustrates how government support for the expansionist motivations of private investors in fisheries often results in society at large being long term losers. The profits from capital intensive, hi-tech, industrial scale fisheries are privatized by investors during the boom years, while the costs of such irrational economic behavior are socialized for years after the crash. In Canada's case a two billion dollar recovery bill may only be a part of the total long term costs. The human costs to individuals and desperate communities now deprived of meaningful and sustainable employment is staggering. The trauma suffered by some 40,000 workers and their families in Newfoundland cannot be measured in dollars and cents.

The Canadian calamity also demonstrates that we now have the technological capability to find and annihilate every commercial fish stock, in any ocean and sea, and do irreparable damage to entire ecosystems in the process. Newfoundland and the Northern Cod fishery might still be thriving today if Canada had taken a precautionary approach to the development of its Atlantic fisheries back in the late '70s, instead of the permissive approach which doomed the fishery to collapse.