People & Culture

The cod delusion

A moratorium on cod fishing that was supposed to last two years has now lasted 30. What will it take to rebuild cod stocks — and a way of life?

  • Jul 01, 2022
  • 3,119 words
  • 13 minutes
Abandoned fishing boats, like these grounded in Pinsent’s Arm, N.L., are a legacy of the extended moratorium on cod fishing. (Photo: Jenn Thornhill Verma)
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The arrival of Captain Alex Saunders’ longliner in Pinsent’s Arm begins a symphony at the fishing wharf in the southern Labrador community. The motor emits a bassline hum as the captain manoeuvres the boat alongside the dock. Pleasantries pass like melody between the half-dozen crew members and handful of dockside staff, punctuated by the piercing calls of seagulls hovering over the fish hold. Down below, some 2,700 kilograms of northern cod are the inspiration for today’s performance, and the fish are about to take centre stage. Two men tie the boat onto the cleat hitch, while another few affix the winch to the fish tubs.

The thrum of the winch hoisting the cod-packed tubs to the wharf picks up where the motor, now cut, left off. On the wharf, the thud of fish tubs landing on the weigh scale breaks up the crunch and scrape of a shovel digging and spreading crushed ice. Then comes the sloshing as two men pour smaller fish tubs into larger ones. To complete today’s set, a forklift whirs and beeps the filled tubs to the back of the wharf for transport to a processing plant down the coast.

Days like this on wharves like this are the lifeblood of places like Pinsent’s Arm, a fishing community of about 50 residents. And yet, days like this — as hopeful as this one appears — may be numbered. That’s because Atlantic cod (of which northern cod is one stock) is nowhere near its one-time level of abundance. Thirty years ago, in a last-ditch effort to bring cod back from the brink of total collapse, the Canadian government closed the commercial cod fishery.

Meant to last two years, the cod moratorium remains in effect, although the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada reopened an inshore commercial fishery called the “stewardship fishery” in 2006. Three decades on, the latest DFO science still puts Atlantic cod in the critical zone.

Captain Alex Saunders pictured in September 2021. (Photo: Jenn Thornhill Verma)
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“I hope politicians and bureaucrats in Ottawa have learned something, because I’ve learned something: the moratorium was the biggest catastrophe ever heaped on the people in this province, ever. Nothing has been as bad as this,” says Captain Saunders, an 80-year-old Inuk. 

Seated in the wheelhouse of his longliner, docked in Pinsent’s Arm in late September 2021, Saunders speaks with the authority of someone with six decades of fishing experience, backed by centuries of hindsight.

“Newfoundland and Labrador people fished for 500 years and didn’t damage the stocks. What Canada done was an atrocity in my opinion. It ruined a way of life. It ruined culture. All the

stages, stage heads, they’re all falling apart, they’re all deteriorated — that’s the government did that.”

Zoom out from the captain’s wheelhouse and the Pinsent’s Arm wharf, and you’ll find the quiet remnants of that lost way of life. Adjacent centre stage, where today’s performance is taking place, is the old wooden community fishing wharf. Further afield, a grounded schooner sits upright, its wheelhouse like a headstone marking its final resting place. On the gravel road into Pinsent’s Arm, another schooner, its wooden bones faded grey, sinks into a grassy knoll alongside a collapsed fishing shed. Similar remnants of past lives mark similar resting places all along this coastline. They serve as reminders that the fish weren’t the only population to plummet; 10 per cent of the province’s population left in the decade following the moratorium. 

Today, while the population of every other province — and Canada as a whole — grows, Newfoundland and Labrador’s population declines. And yet, there are days like this one, on wharves like this one, when fishermen land their cod and the orchestra still plays.

“What Canada done was an atrocity in my opinion. It ruined a way of life. It ruined culture.’’

“What will the next 30 years look like? Probably a lot like the last 30 years, and the 30 years before that, and the 30 years before that,” says Daniel Banoub, an Ocean Frontier Institute post-doctoral fellow at Memorial University of Newfoundland and author of the 2021 book Fishing Measures: A Critique of Desk-Bound Reason. The stage was set for a cod collapse long before Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949, he adds.

“The moratorium was an outcome of understanding the ocean and cod in capitalist and colonial ways. If we want the next 30 years to look different, we really have to confront and dismantle deeply rooted ideas and institutions in Western society.”

Industrialized fishing with large fossil-fuelled fishing vessels began around the turn of the 20th century, spreading from the United Kingdom across the globe. After the Second World War, an estimated 500 trawlers were fishing cod in the Northwest Atlantic. By the early 1960s, that number had doubled, and many of those trawlers were foreign fleets, among the largest fishing vessels in the world.

Although bottom trawlers — so named because they haul wide-mouthed fishing nets, or trawls, along the ocean floor — are banned in today’s commercial cod fishery, they made up an estimated 80 to 100 per cent of offshore cod landings pre-moratorium. Many of these vessels were also factory freezers, equipped to process and then freeze blocks of cod at sea.

The longliner belonging to Captain Alex Saunders arrives in the southern Labrador community of Pinsent’s Arm to unload the catch.
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To drive home the severity of that intense period of fishing, fisheries scientists Jeffrey Hutchings, George Rose and Peter Shelton estimated in a 2021 paper that between the 1960s and 1990s, the cod population declined by “as much as 95 per cent”, an amount Hutchings would later quantify as more than two million tonnes of cod caught. And yet, despite that evidence of overfishing, the scientists argue the federal government created its own narrative of what led to the cod collapse — one that “counters the consensus that the collapse was predicated by overfishing and that ongoing fishing is contributing to the lack of recovery.”

While it’s universally accepted — by scientists and government — that overfishing began in the 1960s, the causes of the early 1990s cod collapse and the reasons for cod’s stalled growth today remain controversial. Most science acknowledges a range of factors are at play, from declining reproduction (leading to slow population growth) to natural causes (starving and predation) to overfishing. But Hutchings, Rose and Shelton argue the federal government has downplayed the role of overfishing in the collapse and cod’s lagging recovery — and the latest proof appears in the federal government’s cod rebuilding plan.

“I don’t even really see it as a rebuilding plan. What’s the goal of this? What are we trying to rebuild and how will we know when we get there? It’s more of a short-term fisheries management plan,” says Rose, a Newfoundland-born fisheries scientist who has extensively studied cod, having spent four decades of his career (much of it at sea) in the province, including eight years working as a DFO research scientist. Now semi-retired, Rose is an honorary professor at the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries at the University of British Columbia.

In 2019, long-awaited changes to the federal Fisheries Act — one of Canada’s oldest pieces of legislation — required DFO to rebuild and protect habitat for commercial fishing stocks in the critical zone. The following December, DFO tabled its first rebuilding plan for Atlantic cod, to guide allowable catch decisions in the stewardship fishery in a region of the Northwest Atlantic Ocean extending from Hopedale in southern Labrador to the northern part of the Grand Banks off Newfoundland.

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According to Rose and colleagues Hutchings and Shelton, the plan, which attributes exceptional cod mortality to environmental factors rather than fishing, appears to discount the bulk of science that has been undertaken on cod since 1992. A 2019 modelling study co-authored by Rose found DFO had underestimated the role of overfishing and overestimated the role of natural causes, such as prey availability and warming waters, in the collapse as well as in more recent recovery efforts. And yet, while DFO reports natural causes are what’s predominantly hampering a cod comeback, the plan doesn’t present measures to address them.

For example, the plan cites lack of capelin prey as one of the top inhibitors of cod recovery but makes no suggestion to cut capelin quotas or up DFO’s capelin science (which currently doesn’t offer accurate population estimates). That’s troubling, says Rose, given that capelin are nowhere near their one-time level of abundance and are a keystone species — meaning cod, whales and seabirds all depend on them.

Last year, DFO reduced the capelin quota in the province, from 19,377 tonnes in 2020 to 14,842 tonnes in 2021, but conservation scientists argue that quota should be cut dramatically or put under moratorium to support rebuilding the capelin stock. Meanwhile, the quota for cod increased slightly last year, from 12,350 tonnes in 2020 to 12,999 tonnes in 2021. While that’s a fraction of pre-moratorium levels (the quota in 1992 was 185,000 tonnes, for example), it’s triple 2015 limits.

But why would it be in DFO’s interest to maintain a quota, even a reduced one, on imperiled fish species like cod and capelin?

Cod is removed from a trap in this pre-moratorium photo. (Photo: Derek Keats)
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“Politics,” says Rose. “There’s almost always great political pressure to keep increasing quotas. They give in way too easily to that, but all they’re doing is kicking the ball down the field. It’s going to come back and bite them — almost certainly and usually in very short order, but political thinking tends to be very short term.”

Here’s the catch: wild fisheries in Newfoundland and Labrador are valued at $1 billion annually, and the province’s seafood sector employs 16,000 people from more than 400 communities.

Even though no population of Atlantic cod is considered sustainable, in 2019 — the last year for which these figures are available — cod had a landed value of $21 million and an export value of $26 million. That same year, capelin landings were valued at $17 million with an export value of $41 million, marking a 65 per cent higher return than previous years due to a global capelin shortage (mostly attributable to a European capelin moratorium at the time). And yet, according to a 2019 report commissioned by Oceana Canada, those values could be five times higher if northern cod stocks were given the chance to rebuild.

“With low fishing pressure and favourable environmental conditions, Canada could see a healthy northern cod population supporting economic activities worth $233 million in as little as 11 years,” wrote the report’s authors, UBC fisheries economists Louise Teh and Rashid Sumaila.

A 2021 UBC study by Rebecca Schijns and colleagues draws a similar conclusion. By modelling 500 years of catch data, the researchers found if fisheries managers had stabilized cod fishing in the 1980s to around 200,000 tonnes annually, then fishermen could still be catching that amount annually today. Instead, after falling from a peak of 810,000 tonnes in 1968, landings began to rise again in the 1980s following new measures to protect Canadian jurisdiction with geographical fishing limits. A decade later, the cod population collapsed and now, 30 years post-moratorium, catches hover at around 12,000 tonnes. These figures don’t account for by-catch or fishing from other sources such as the provincial recreational (or food) fishery and the Indigenous food, social and ceremonial fishery.

The bottom line of this fishing history is clear: if the next 30 years are to look different than the last 30, then short- and medium-term sacrifices are required. And if the rebuilding plan is any indication, those sacrifices appear beyond what Canadian fisheries managers are willing and prepared to do.

Trawlers during cod fishing in Newfoundland. (Photo: Jean Guichard/Sygma via Getty Images)
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Fishermen on trawlers during cod fishing outing in Newfoundland. (Photo: Jean Guichard/Sygma via Getty Images)
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A flock of seagulls screams overhead as two young NunatuKavut Inuit fishermen make swift work of hauling gillnets from the cold Labrador Sea. The green monofilament nets deliver codfish after codfish over the rails of their boat in a scene backdropped by two resettled fishing communities — Battle Harbour, resettled in 1966, and Williams’ Harbour, resettled in 2017.

By the time the pair head out on their last trip on September 17, 2021, they have already landed 18,000 kilograms of cod — and that’s just over the last 10 weeks. At 25 and 30 years old, Marc Russell’s and Joey Jenkins’ decision to haul anchor for a living, if even for a time, went against the grain. In Atlantic Canada, one in every three people employed in the fishery are older than 55. Russell and Jenkins would have only ever known cod fishing in Newfoundland and Labrador under moratorium. This was Russell’s first season as an enterprise owner in the inshore (small boat) cod fishery, too. He had experience crewing his father’s longliner in the shrimp and crab fisheries, but had bet big on cod coming back. And why not? The Labrador Fishermen’s Union Shrimp Company had just opened a $14-million, state-of-the-art salt codfish processing plant in his hometown of Mary’s Harbour, a fishing community of about 350 people in southern Labrador.

“Without a fishery, the economy of southern Labrador would disappear,” says Dwight Russell, Marc’s father and a veteran deep-sea captain and fisherman living in Mary’s Harbour. Russell also serves on the board of the Labrador Fishermen’s Union Shrimp Company, which operates processing plants along the coast of Labrador, employing 1,100 plant workers and fishers — about 20 per cent of the population of southern Labrador — for whom fishing remains a way of life.

Tragically, Marc Russell and Joey Jenkins’ way of life was cut short. The men went missing in late September 2021 while cod fishing. Despite an extensive search lasting 10 days and covering over 30,000 square kilometres by air and water, neither the men nor their vessel was ever recovered. “The boys,” as they’d come to be known in the vigils, prayers and hymns on wharves all over the province calling to “bring our boys home,” were yet another reminder of the music that still calls to so many in these harbours. The commercial fishing industry in Canada has the highest death rate of any employment sector, and it’s the smaller inshore boats that account for most of the fatalities.

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“[This life] is a calling in many ways,” says Dwight Russell. “The ocean can give, but when it takes the young, it leaves a void and relentless pain.” It also hardens the commitment to protect the future of wild fisheries — for the fish, fishers and coastal communities who depend on it. NunatuKavut Community Council, the representative governing body for about 6,000 Inuit of south and central Labrador, would like that history to come to bear on fisheries management decisions in Canada.

“We have a national government involved in very serious management decisions. For the most part, those decisions have not resulted in good outcomes for many of the fisheries,” says Todd Russell, president of NunatuKavut Community Council.

“Many times, our Indigenous relationship with cod is not articulated or spoken about or written about. And certainly, it is something that is not appreciated or understood within Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s processes and procedures.”

Todd Russell, who is Marc’s uncle and Dwight’s brother, would like to see greater attention paid to the ways people’s lives are shaped by their natural environment.

“From the earliest times, anywhere along the coast of what is now Labrador, our identity, our way of being and understanding of the world are very much tied up with our experience and understanding of the marine environment, and fishing has been a part of that,” he says.

In an effort to see that relationship continue for generations to come, NunatuKavut Community Council supports a capelin moratorium — a stance Russell says speaks to a “conservation-minded approach to fisheries.” Fishing communities have the most to lose when fisheries management decisions go badly, he adds. By not fishing today and giving stocks a chance to rebound, a community has the chance to fish tomorrow and continue its way of life. 

“Things will not change until we see a change in the fundamental way we conceive of — and interact with — fish as living beings rather than as manageable objects or systems.”

Canada’s cod rebuilding plan represents a “missed opportunity for reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples,” he says, adding DFO has done little to pursue that path in a meaningful way, despite having a mandate to do so. The rebuilding plan states that “traditional ecological knowledge from Indigenous groups [is] considered in science processes and management decisions” and notes that “Canadians, including Indigenous Peoples, may also place a value on conservation and protection of the species in and of itself.”

Dean Bavington, a geography professor at Memorial University and author of Managed Annihilation: An Unnatural History of the Newfoundland Cod Collapse, says one of the biggest impediments the cod fishery has faced is hubris: thinking people can manage fluctuations in the natural environment. Worse, he says, when those management efforts fail, even repeatedly, fisheries management simply calls for better management.

Quota decisions are one such example. While setting quotas should theoretically signal how much fishing can occur while maintaining a healthy fish stock, past and present quota decisions don’t inspire great confidence, says Bavington. In 1992, the same year the cod fishery collapsed, the cod quota was set at 182,000 tonnes. Since 2006, when the commercial (stewardship) cod fishery reopened, quota decisions have prioritized fishing over rebuilding stock.

“The question cannot be how can we shift management paradigms. For the next 30 years to not be like the last, there must be a recognition that management is not the only way, or a particularly good way, to think about relationships between people and fish,” Bavington says. 

“Things will not change until we see a change in the fundamental way we conceive of — and interact with — fish as living beings rather than as manageable objects or systems.”

Back in Pinsent’s Arm, Captain Saunders recounts the places he and his crew have sailed in the last 10 days: Black Tickle, Cartwright, Punchbowl, St. Lewis and Mary’s Harbour, where they were among the 90 to 100 fishing vessels that joined the search for “the boys.”

Saunders says he wishes politicians had mustered the courage to cut the cod quota long before 1992. Maybe if they’d cut fishing back when they had the chance, then Newfoundlanders and Labradorians could still be enjoying the kind of fishing that existed here for centuries.

“For some people, fishing is a way of life,” says Saunders, scanning the horizon as the sun drops over St. Michael’s Bay. “For others, it’s all the opportunity they have because of where they come from, their education or qualifications, life experience, exposure, and culture too. This is my life. This is not a job.”

This story is from the July/August 2022 Issue

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