The Atlantic Cod Fishery
Off the northeastern shore of North America, from the island of Newfoundland in Canada south to new England in the United States, there is a series of shallow areas called banks. Several large banks off Newfoundland are together called Grand Banks, huge shoals on the edge of North American continental shelf, where the warm waters of the Gulf Stream meet the cold waters of Labrador Current. As the currents brush each other, they stir up mineral from the ocean floor, providing nutrients for plankton and tiny shrimp-like creatures called krill, which feed on the plankton. Herring and other small fish rise to the surface to eat the krill. Groundfish, such as the Atlantic cod, live in the ocean’s bottom layer, congregating in the shallow waters where they prey on krill and small fish. This rich environment has produced cod by the millions and once had a greater density of cod than anywhere else on Earth.
Beginning in the eleventh century, boats from the ports of north western Europe arrived to fish the Grand Banks. For the next eight centuries, the entire Newfoundland economy taking fish back to European markets. Cod laid out to dry on wooden “flakes” was a common sight in the fishing villages dotting the coast. Settlers in the region used to think the only sea creature worth talking about was cod, and in the local speech the word “fish” became synonymous with cod. Newfoundland’s national dish was a pudding whose main ingredient was cod.
By the nineteenth century, the Newfoundland fishery was largely controlled by merchants based in the capital at St. John’s. They marketed the catch supplied by the fishers working out of more than 600 villages around the long coastline. In return, the merchants provided fishing equipment, clothing, and all the food that could not be grown in the island’s thin, rocky soil. This system kept the fishers in a continuous state of debt and dependence on the merchants.
Until the twentieth century, fishers believed in the cod’s ability to replenish itself and thought that overfishing was impossible. However, Newfoundland’s cod fishery began to show signs of trouble during the 1930s, when cod failed to support the fishers and thousands were unemployed. The slump lasted for the next few decades. Then when an international agreement decided to build up the modern Grand Banks fleet and make fishing a viable economic base for Newfoundland again. All of Newfoundland’s seafood companies were merged into one conglomerate. By the 1980s, the conglomerate was prospering, and cod were commanding excellent prices in the market. Consequently, there was a significant increase in the number of fishers and fish—processing plant workers.
However, while the offshore fishery was prospering, the inshore fishermen found their catches dropping off. In 1992, the Canadian government responded by closing the Grand Banks to groundfishing. Newfoundland’s cod fishing and processing industries were shut down in a bid to let the vanishing stocks recover. The moratorium was extended in 1994, when all of the Atlantic cod fisheries in Canada were closed, except for one in Nova Scotia, and strict quotas were placed on other species of groundfish. Canada’s cod fishing industry collapsed, and around 40,000 fishers and other industry workers were put out of work.
Atlantic cod stocks had once been so plentiful that early explorers joked about walking on the backs of the teeming fish. Today, cod stocks are at historically low levels and show no signs of imminent recovery, even after drastic conservation measures and severely limited fishing. Fishermen often blame the diminishing stocks on seals, which prey on cod and other species, but scientists believe that decades of overfishing are to blame. Studies on fish populations have shown that cod disappeared from Newfoundland at the same time that stocks started rebuilding in Norway, raising the possibility that the cod had migrated. Still, no one can predict whether and when the cod will return to the Grand Banks.