Collapse of the Atlantic northwest cod fishery
In 1992 the Canadian government declared a moratorium on the Northern Cod fishery, which for the past 500 years had largely shaped the lives and communities of Canada’s eastern coast. The interplay between fishing societies and the resources which they depend on is obvious to almost any observer: fisheries transform the ecosystem, which pushes the fishery and society to adapt. In 1992 summer, when the Northern Cod biomass fell to 1% of its earlier level, Canada’s federal government saw that this relationship had been pushed to breaking point, and they declared a moratorium, ending the region’s 500-year run with the Northern Cod.
The collapse of the Northern Cod fishery marked a profound change in the ecological, economic and socio-cultural structure of Atlantic Canada. The change was expressed most acutely in Newfoundland, whose continental shelf lay under the region most heavily fished, and whose communities were nearly all of those who lost employment because of the moratorium. Considering the importance of the cod fishery to the livelihood of Canada’s coastal communities, and the Northern Cod’s initial abundance in the region, the fishery being mismanaged until it collapsed – from which to this day it has not recovered – is nothing short of shocking.
In an attempt to make sense of a blunder of such large proportion, academics have highlighted these three contributing factors in the eventual collapse of the cod fishery:
A major factor that contributed to the depletion of the cod stocks off the shores of Newfoundland included the introduction and proliferation of equipment and technology that increased the volume of landed fish. For centuries local fishermen used technology that limited the volume of their catch, the area they fished, and let them target specific species and ages of fish. From the 1950s onwards, as was common in all industries at the time, new technology was introduced that allowed fishermen to trawl a larger area, fish to a deeper depth and for a longer time. By the 1960s, powerful trawlers equipped with radar, electronic navigation systems and sonar allowed crews to pursue fish with unparalleled success, and Canadian catches peaked in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
These new technologies adversely affected the Northern Cod population in two important ways: by increasing the area and depth that was fished, the cod were being depleted until the surviving fish could not replenish the stock lost each year; and secondly, the trawlers caught enormous amounts of non-commercial fish, which were economically unimportant but very important ecologically: incidental catch undermines the whole ecosystem, depleting stocks of important predator and prey species. With the Northern Cod, significant amounts of capelin – an important prey species for the cod – were caught as bycatch, further undermining the survival of the remaining cod stock.
In addition to ecological considerations, decisions regarding the future of the fisheries were also influenced by social and economic factors. Throughout Atlantic Canada, however most pronounced in Newfoundland, the cod fishery was a source of social and cultural identity. For many families, it also represented their livelihood: most families were connected either directly or indirectly with the fishery as fishers, fish plant workers, fish sellers, fish transporters, or as employees in related businesses. Additionally, many companies, both foreign and domestic, as well as individuals, had invested heavily in the boats, equipment and the infrastructure of the fishery, and therefore felt it was in their best interest to maintain an open-access policy to the ocean and its resources. What this alludes to is the unfortunate paradox that often accompanies open-access resources and is known by most as the Tragedy of the Commons: what is in the individual's best interest is not always in the best interest of a society at whole. In the case of Newfoundland and the Northern Cod fishery this meant that from the perspective of the individual participating in the fishing industry, maximizing their catch was in their best interest; however when the government failed to intervene – due largely to the highly sensitive nature of the political discourse created by the expansive group of stakeholders – the ecosystem was brought past its threshold and collapsed, leaving everyone worse-off.
When the government finally acted, it was too late. The 1992 moratorium was at first meant to last two years, hoping that the Northern Cod population would recover, and along with it the fishery. Unfortunately, the damage done to Newfoundland’s coastal ecosystem was indelible, and even after sixteen years, the Northern Cod population has not rebounded and the Cod Fishery remains closed.
Impact of the collapse on Newfoundland
The moratorium in 1992 marked the largest industrial closure in Canadian history. In Newfoundland over 35,000 fishers and plant workers from over 400 coastal communities became unemployed. In response to dire warnings of social and economic consequences, the federal government intervened, initially providing income assistance through the Northern Cod Adjustment and Recovery Program, and later through the Atlantic Groundfish Strategy, which included money specifically for the retraining of those workers displaced by the closing of the fishery. Newfoundland has since experienced a dramatic environmental, industrial, economic, and social restructuring, including considerable outmigration, but also increased economic diversification, an increased emphasis on education, and the emergence of a thriving invertebrates fishing industry (as the predatory groundfish population declined, snow crab and northern shrimp proliferated, providing the basis for a new industry that is roughly equivalent in economic value as the cod fishery it replaced).
Present recovery status
In November of 2006, Fisheries and Oceans Canada released an article suggesting that the unexpectedly slow recovery of the cod stock is due to inadequate food supplies, cooling of the North Atlantic, and a poor genetic stock due to the overfishing of larger cod. During the summer of 2011, a study was announced to show that recovery of East Coast cod stocks around Nova Scotia showed promises of recovery, despite earlier thoughts of complete collapse. It was found that initial stages of recovery began around 2005, though more time and studies were needed to study the long-term stability of the stock increase. In addition in 2010 a study by the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization found that stocks in Grand Banks near Newfoundland & Labrador had recovered by 69% since 2007, though that number only equates to 10% of the original stock.
- Kenneth T. Frank, Brian Petrie, Jae S. Choi, William C. Leggett (2005). "Trophic Cascades in a Formerly Cod-Dominated Ecosystem". Science 308 (5728): 1621–1623. doi:10.1126/science.1113075. PMID 15947186.
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