Fishing Disaster

Fishing Disaster

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Fishing Disaster


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. Cod was the center of life in the Canadian Maritimes from the beginning.

Starting in the 1950's, Huge European trawlers began to travel across the Atlantic to fish the waters off Newfoundland. Some refered to these super-ships as "Fish Factories". With the increased effort by these 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. However, by 1975 the Candian Government realized the devastating effect this was having on its fish populations and closed its waters to foriegn fishing boats. Although this temporarily staved off the growing crisis, European intervention had changed the nature of Canadian fishing, leading to the development of Canadian owned super-trawlers.

Disaster Strikes:

Throughout the 1980s, the annual catch of Canada's northern cod fishing fleet hovered around the 250,000 tonnes 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.

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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 tonnes by the end of 1994, down from a 1990 biomass survey showing 400,000 tonnes,and showed no sign of recovery - just 1700 tonnes 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.

The Aftermath:

As a result of the Canadian Government's decision to close the Cod industry, over 40,000 people lost thier jobs in Newfoundland alone. A way of life was destroyed. The Maritime provinces became a disaster area. The Seas may never fully recover. Canada's experience with commercial fishing demonstrates a clear example of what unregulated commercial fishing can do to an economy and an eco-system.
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