Cod moratorium: How Newfoundland’s cod industry disappeared overnight 

A bountiful cod industry is pictured on a 1920s map. Decades later, a moratorium would change everything. 

  • Published Jul 11, 2022
  • Updated Jul 18
  • 543 words
  • 3 minutes
One of a series of advertising posters to promote Canadian exports and trade within the British empire, this map was displayed in British train stations, schools, shops and factories. (Image: "Canada and Newfoundland. Portraying their products and fisheries." Library and Archives Canada, ACC. No. 1983-27-36)
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An ocean breeze whistles through a broken window pane, floating a tattered curtain. Once-cheery crimson paint is now just a whisper on the house’s salt-worn siding. The front door has blown off, leaving a hole like a gaping mouth.

Motor along Newfoundland’s meandering coastline, and you’ll find similar scenes in hundreds of ghost towns — relics of the cod fishery that put food on the table for almost 500 years. That way of life came to a grinding halt on July 2, 1992, when federal fisheries minister John Crosbie made a televised announcement from a hotel in St. John’s: commercial cod fishing was banned on the East Coast for at least two years. In that instant, the province’s fishers, many with parents, grand-parents and great-grandparents who had fished the seas, were told to find something else to do.

“I’m making a decision based on the desire to ensure the northern cod survives as a species,” Crosbie told reporters, while 400 fishers, cordoned off in a nearby ballroom, banged on the barricaded doors to the conference room. “They don’t need to go berserk, trying to batter on doors to frighten me. In the first place, I don’t frighten,” said Crosbie defiantly.

But the fishers were frightened. How would they pay the bills on the government’s compensation package of $225 a week?

This closeup image shows Newfoundland's bustling cod industry which employed more than 65,000 people.
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The moratorium was a long time coming. North Atlantic cod stocks had been dwindling for at least three decades before the ban, as fishing technology led to unprecedented harvests that outpaced the cod’s ability to regenerate. And though there’s no recorded data, scientists say cod stocks likely started falling even earlier, at the turn of the century, when steam-and diesel-powered ships gave fleets the power to fish in any weather and to venture farther from shore than ever before. In the 1920s and ’30s, Newfoundland’s cod industry employed more than 65,000 people “catching and curing fish,” according to the map, and bringing in more than £2.5 million in 1928-29 (the equivalent of $265 million dollars in today’s terms).

Two decades later, the mammoth 60-metre factory-freezer trawlers of the 1950s and ’60s cast their sweeping nets and fished the very heart out of the stock (see page 30). By the end of the 1960s, cod stocks were on the decline. And though quotas were put in place starting in the 1970s, the hoped-for recovery never happened. In the early 1990s, nets were coming up shorter and shorter — northern cod were on the brink of extinction, and the federal government’s hand was finally forced. The cod moratorium was — and still is — Canada’s single largest industrial layoff, affecting more than 30,000 people in Newfoundland and Labrador, from fishers to ship builders to cannery workers. 

Today, the moratorium that was supposed to last two years is passing 30, and many people once tied to Newfoundland and Labrador’s fishing heritage have moved on or away. Little has changed in the fishery — cod are still scarce. New generations have grown up hearing stories about cod fishing but have never done it for themselves. Coastal communities lie abandoned and largely forgotten, slowly crumbling into the sea, returning to the place from which they came.



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This story is from the July/August 2022 Issue

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