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Cod fishing: The empty seas of the 1980s

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.

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Twelve years after Ottawa announced a massive expansion in Atlantic Canada's offshore fishing industry, Newfoundland's inshore fishermen are coming home with empty nets and fading hopes. Many towns, like Fogo Island, are struggling to survive in a rapidly changing fishery.
In this 1989 CBC Television clip Allen Abel surveys the residents of Fogo Island as they face the reality of a future without cod. As one fisherman tells Abel, "This year the cod just didn't come."
• For much of the 1980s the federal government insisted that the cod fishery was a financial success. In reality, a storm was brewing between inshore and offshore fishermen in Newfoundland and elsewhere. The inshore fishermen, who used smaller boats and older methods, were growing increasingly angry at the larger company trawlers which were fishing in the 200-mile zone.

• Inshore fishermen on Fogo Island reported a drop of almost two-thirds in their annual catch - a fact they blamed on rampant overfishing. One fisherman interviewed in this clip says his 1989 income from inshore fishing was only $2,000.

• In 1989 a group of inshore fishermen organized and sued the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in an attempt to get an injunction to stop offshore trawling.

• The Inshore Fisheries Association, led by lawyer Cabot Martin, argued that the Ministry was ignoring environmental assessments in favour of political gains.

• But a judge dismissed their request, saying that stopping the trawling posed too much of a threat to the region's economy.

• The offshore fishermen, for their part, blamed Spanish and Portuguese boats for overfishing on a small section of the Grand Banks that fell outside the 200-mile limit.

• Dubbed the "nose" and "tail" of the Banks, the small slivers only account for about five per cent of the total area of the lucrative banks. But by the late 1980s the areas had become home to upwards of 90 per cent of the remaining cod stock.

• Prompted by the complaints of offshore fishermen, in 1986 the federal government resorted to denying foreign fishing vessels access to supplies and repairs.

• Things got so heated in the early 1990s that offshore fishermen pledged to sail into international waters to cut the nets of European fishing vessels plundering codfish. A fishery analyst even recommended sending in the Canadian Navy to enforce the ban.

• Amidst all the finger-pointing, in January 1989 scientists with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans admitted that they had greatly overestimated cod stocks in the late 1970s.

• Rather than building to a population of 450,000 tonnes, scientists said the stock was actually shrinking and recommended slashing that year's quota from 266,000 to 125,000 tonnes.

• Federal Fisheries Minister Tom Siddon appointed a commission to study the problem. At the same time he chose to set the quota at 235,000 tonnes - almost twice the scientific recommendation.

• Over the next three years Ottawa slowly reduced the quotas in the hopes of stemming the tide. By 1991, the year before the cod moratorium was announced, the quota was set at 190,000 tonnes.

• That year, Newfoundland's massive fishing fleet was only able to catch 127,000 tonnes. To many in the fishery this was a perfect example of how the federal government was ultimately responsible for the mismanagement of the cod fishery.

• As of February 2005 The Fogo Island Co-op talked about in this clip was still operating, largely as a processing centre for crab.

• For more about the science behind the decline see the clip "Science subverted?"
Medium: Television
Program: The Journal
Broadcast Date: Dec. 12, 1989
Guest(s): Abe Cull , Bernadette Dwyer, Justin McGrath, Gerald Reardon
Reporter: Allen Abel
Duration: 11:33

Last updated: December 15, 2014

Page consulted on December 15, 2014

All Clips from this Topic

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