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Sounding the alarm over diminishing cod stocks

The Story

To many fishermen and environmentalists, 1977 marks a crucial turning point in the history of Canada's cod fishing industry. This was the year that the federal government finalized an exclusive 200-mile fishing limit off Canada's eastern shores in the hopes of curbing foreign overfishing. But instead of conservation, the new limit was seen as an opportunity to expand the fishery's offshore trawling boat industry to exploit what government scientists said was an inexhaustible supply of cod. This CBC Television clip recounts the offshore cod boom, in what one fishery insider calls "a madness." 

Medium: Television
Program: Countrywide
Broadcast Date: July 2, 2002
Guests: Walter Carter, Richard Cashin
Reporter: Doug Letto
Duration: 2:06

Did You know?

• The 1970s saw several changes to international law that would forever alter the fisheries. In 1973 a series of quotas on Atlantic cod catches were introduced by the International Commission for Northwest Atlantic Fisheries.

• The new Total Allowable Catch (or TAC) was based on scientific advice and was intended as a conservation measure. But over-exploitation continued, in part because the limits were set too high, and because there was little international effort made to enforce them.

• In addition, in 1977 Canada enacted an exclusive 200-mile limit on fishing off its shores. The new law was the final step in a 150-year shift away from the ancient "law of the sea" which barred any country from claiming jurisdiction over the oceans.

• In 1822 the North Sea Fisheries Convention established a three-mile limit off the shores of several European countries including France, Germany, Denmark and Britain, and later other countries such as the Netherlands and Iceland.

• In 1945 U.S. President Harry Truman declared a four-mile zone off America's shores in an attempt to protect its offshore oil production and fishery resources. This sparked a flurry of similar laws throughout Latin America and Europe.

• Iceland became the first country to extend its exclusive zone to 12 miles in 1958. Their zone was extended to 50 miles in 1972 and to 200 miles in 1975. These controversial moves prompted a series of high seas standoffs dubbed "The Cod Wars." One such standoff between Iceland and a British-led coalition in 1973 left trawler nets cut and a British boat with a hole in its hull after an Icelandic boat fired on it.

• In 1976 the European Economic Community extended Iceland's 200-mile limit to all of its coasts. The following year Canada and the United States followed suit, with 90 per cent of the world's countries adopting the same zone in short order.

• The Department of Fisheries and Oceans saw the new limit as a chance to make fishing a viable economic base for Newfoundland and the Atlantic provinces.

• In 1977 all of Newfoundland's seafood companies were merged into one corporation called Fishery Products International in an effort to maximize the offshore cod stock.

• Fisheries and Oceans officials were acting on what former Fisheries minister Walter Carter called "fantastic" predictions that the cod stocks would double in the 1980s. In fact the move away from traditional inshore fishing boats to larger offshore fishing trawlers proved profitable. The number of Newfoundland fishermen more than doubled from 1975 to 1980 to 35,000.

• The traditional backbone of the fisheries, inshore fishing typically takes place in small boats (or "skiffs") not far from the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador.

• The offshore fishery operates further out at sea and employs factory ships with larger crews and a wide range of newer technologies.

• In 1987 the Department of Fisheries and Oceans declared Newfoundland's fishery a financial success -- but this proved a hasty assessment. While the offshore fishery was hauling in huge catches, the inshore fishermen were recording severely smaller hauls.

• Environmentalists and inshore fishermen began to argue that the boom in the fishery was simply a result of massive overfishing on the part of offshore factory ships. Ransom Myers, a Fisheries and Oceans scientist at the time, later claimed that several of his reports warning of high fishing quotas were ignored to suit political ends. One of his reports stated in Latin that the Department's assessments about fish stocks were non gratum anus rodentum or "not worth a rat's ass."

• In 1989, DFO scientists would admit that their predictions had been overly optimistic and that the cod stocks on the Grand Banks were actually declining, not doubling in size.


Fished Out: The Rise and Fall of the Cod Fishery more