CBC Digital Archives

The rush to replace the cod

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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Over the decades, numerous development schemes have been proposed to help sustain Newfoundland in a world without cod. Mining, oil drills, hydro dams, even mink farming and hydroponic cucumbers have been trotted out as successors to the mighty Atlantic cod.
But as Rex Murphy points out in this CBC Television clip, some of these ideas "made as much sense as fish farming on the Sahara." 
. Since the 1950s Newfoundland's leaders have brainstormed on how to replace the cod fisheries should they ever run dry.
. Many of these ideas were pet projects of then-premier Joey Smallwood, who was trying to push the province into a new post-Confederation age.
. Some of Smallwood's more bizarre gambits included cattle ranching, sheep farming, textile plants and mink farms. (You can catch a cowboy-clad Smallwood on horseback in this clip.)

. By the 1950s, Murphy says, "the development virus had entered Newfoundland's soul" with millions spent on squandered efforts.
. A plan to build an oil refinery in Come By Chance in the 1960s resulted in an operating plant which opened in 1974 and employed 500 people.

. After a couple of unprofitable years the project was shut down, only to be revived in 1987 by new owners, Petro-Canada. Shortly after, they sold it at a significant loss to a U.S. firm.
. The firm, Cumberland Farms, restarted the operation only to sell it again in the mid-1990s, to a privately-held Swiss company called Vitol SA which invested millions of dollars in the plant's refurbishing.

. The resulting plant, North Atlantic Refining, specializes in the refining of high sulphur crude oil and the production of sulphur for industrial use. Thanks to its success over the next decade it single-handedly managed to revive the fortunes of Come By Chance.

. In February 2005, North Atlantic Refining made headlines when it was revealed that they had profited by refining Iraqi oil under the controversial United Nations food-for-oil program. Its parent company also appeared in a CIA investigation into the U.N. program.

. In 1961, a business coalition was formed to plan a hydroelectric dam to harness the power of Labrador's Churchill Falls. After failing to find sufficient funding, the group signed a letter of intent to supply Hydro-Québec with hydroelectric power from the $946 million dam.
. The dam, which opened in 1971, would prove to be one of Newfoundland's biggest regrets.

. According to a contract signed with Hydro-Quebec, the utility was allowed to buy power from the Churchill Falls plant at a locked-in rate based on the 1969 price.
. Various fruitless efforts, including one by then-premier Brian Tobin in the late 1990s, have been made to renegotiate the contract.

. One of the province's most notorious experiments came in the 1980s, when the government poured millions of dollars into an unsuccessful hydroponic cucumber farming business.
. The failed scheme earned calls for then-premier Brian Peckford's resignation after it was made public in the press. Peckford stayed on and the cucumber farms were quietly phased out.

. Ironically it may be the sea that provided the most productive alternative to the vanishing cod. In the wake of the fishery closure, some fishermen began fishing for the once-lowly stock of snow crab and lobster.
. Thanks to a huge boost in demand from Asian markets, a small but very lucrative lobster and crab fishery has helped make some old cod fishermen wealthy.
Medium: Television
Program: The Journal
Broadcast Date: June 8, 1992
Reporter: Rex Murphy
Duration: 6:07

Last updated: March 20, 2012

Page consulted on September 10, 2014

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