Dried Newfoundland cod being unloaded from a schooner on the Halifax docks in 1961. (Photo: Library and Archives Canada)
“I come from a fishing outport [in southeast Newfoundland] called Bay Bulls, from six generations of fish harvesters,” says Janice Ryan, fisheries and conservation advisor for WWF Canada. “I was 16 when the moratorium hit. My family was part of that story.” That’s helpful, she adds, because today her work sees her on the ground across the province, working with fish harvesters and plant workers, fisheries scientists and governments to help develop and implement sustainable fishing practices.
The ban on commercial fishing, initially expected to last two years, stands to this day. In the intervening years, collective memory of the collapse and scientific surveys and government reviews have transformed attitudes and approaches to the harvesting of groundfish such as cod, halibut and flounder in Canada. The DFO’s 2004 Atlantic Fisheries Policy Review and its 2009 Sustainable Fisheries Framework made conservation, sustainable use and more transparent management of stocks top priorities, and while harvesters are anxious for the return of the industry, they too are now acting out of a vested interest in stewardship.
In spring 2016 — in anticipation of an eventual reopening of the Grand Banks to commercial cod fishing — Newfoundland’s Fish, Food & Allied Workers Union and various processing companies banded together to create the Newfoundland and Labrador Groundfish Industry Development Council (of which WWF Canada is an ex officio member).
“We are at a critical juncture in our province’s history,” said Keith Sullivan, President of FFAW-Unifor, at the time. “A revitalized groundfish industry that is sustainable, economically viable and internationally competitive will act as an economic driver for coastal communities across Newfoundland and Labrador.”
The group’s whole focus is the sustainable rebuilding of the cod fishery, says Ryan. And while many fishing communities were abandoned or resettled in the wake of the moratorium, there are hundreds of still-vibrant outports and towns that stand to benefit from even a cautious return to cod fishing.
“This council is especially promising because it’s the first time we’ve ever seen local harvesters and processors come together and willingly form a consortium on their own,” says Ryan. “If you know Newfoundland, you know that’s not something you see every day.”