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Cod fishing: Cataclysm in the fisheries

It's greedy, it's ugly and it's built to last. For more than 500 years the Atlantic cod was the king of the global fish market, helping build empires, spark wars and found Britain's first colonies in North America. CBC Archives looks at how Canada's abundant cod stocks off of Newfoundland and Labrador were fished to the brink of extinction in what is considered one of the biggest ecological disasters of the 20th century.

It's 1994. Cod fishing has been banned for two years and the cod stock is still declining. Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Brian Tobin is forced to widen the ban to include recreational fishing - which means it's illegal for fishermen to catch even one cod to feed their family.
In this eloquent CBC Television piece, native Newfoundlander Rex Murphy looks at the impact of the ban on the province's hundreds of fishing communities and comes to the "one inescapable conclusion: the outports no longer have a reason to be." 
. By the early 1990s there were an estimated 800 outport fishing villages scattered along the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador.
. As Rex Murphy explains in this clip, the "cataclysm" in the fisheries was threatening the very existence of these towns that count among the oldest in Canada.

. The 1994 announcement of a wider fishing ban squelched the hope of many in these towns that the cod stocks would rebound.
. John Crispo, an economist with the University of Toronto, compared the continuing fishery closure to the destruction of "the auto industry in Ontario, or the agriculture industry out West or the forestry industry in B.C."

. Rex Murphy, who was born in Carbonear, N.L., in 1947, blames the moratorium on excessive fishing which the Department of Fisheries and Oceans failed to reign in.
. In this clip he states that the "undisgested villain of this piece is the deep sea dragger" which he believes was responsible for "underwater strip mining" or "clear cutting with nets."

. The impact of the ban extended beyond the estimated 40,000 fishery workers. The cod industry had supported rural Newfoundland society and culture for more than 400 years, helping to employ truck drivers to grocery store clerks.
. Throughout the late 1990s the federal government reopened limited cod fisheries several times, including the reinstatement of the recreational cod fishery in 1996. Lasting anywhere from two days to six weeks, the abbreviated fishing periods offered some hope to fishermen but did little to help the industry rebound economically.

. The largest annual cod catch in Atlantic Canada was recorded in 1968 and totalled more than 800,000 tonnes.
. By 2001, with select small fisheries still operating in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the annual catch was just over 23,000 tonnes.

. On April 24, 2003, federal fisheries minister Robert Thibault announced the closure of the last of the remaining small cod fisheries in Atlantic Canada.
. At the time, Thibault said the total biomass of cod had dipped to two per cent of its levels in the 1980s, and he estimated it would continue to drop despite the closure.

. The population in Newfoundland in 1984 was 570,181. Twenty years after the initial closure (and further extended bans) the population had dropped to just over 517,000 people.
. The number of young people between 20 to 29 years old leaving the island was even more drastic. In 1984 there were nearly 53,000 people in this age group. That had dropped to just over 34,000 by 2004.
Medium: Television
Program: Prime Time News
Broadcast Date: March 2, 1994
Guest(s): Winston Colbourne, Leslie Harris, Clyde Wells
Reporter: Rex Murphy
Duration: 16:03

Last updated: March 20, 2012

Page consulted on February 18, 2014

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