Crosbie calls cod moratorium his hardest political moment

John Crosbie said shutting down Newfoundland and Labrador's northern cod fishery was the toughest thing he ever had to do during three decades in politics.
Then federal fisheries minister John Crosbie confronts fishermen in Bay Bulls on July 1, 1992. (CBC)

John Crosbie said shutting down Newfoundland and Labrador's northern cod fishery was the toughest thing he ever had to do during three decades in politics.

Crosbie, now Newfoundland and Labrador's Lieutenant Governor, was Canada's fisheries minister in the Progressive Conservative government of Brian Mulroney.

Crosbie announced the closure of the commercial northern cod fishery on July 2,1992, which caused the layoff of 20,000 fishermen and plant workers.

Rumours about the grim state of the northern cod stocks had been swirling in the province for weeks beforehand. 

On July 1, the day before Crosbie's announcement, he was confronted by a mob of about 1,000 fishermen and their supporters at a community event in Bay Bulls, a fishing community near St. John's.

It was there during a heated argument with several fishermen that Crosbie uttered the now-famous phrase, "I didn't take the fish from the God damn water."

Lt.-Gov. John Crosbie recalls the events surrounding the 1992 cod moratorium. (CBC)

"If there's a mob after you, you must not show fear," said Crosbie, recalling the tension of the moment. "My philosophy is attack is the best form of defence."

Crosbie said he had been monitoring the work of scientific advisors at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans for about a decade. He noted that in the early 1980's, scientists overestimated the number of cod available for commercial fishing. By the late 1980's and early 1990's, scientists were telling him that cod stocks were dangerously low.

Today, there is still no large-scale commercial cod fishery in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Crosbie said it's possible the cod stock might bounce back, but he's concerned about international overfishing of capelin and other smaller species, which provide food for cod.

"Now it's not just off Canada, every country in the world is equally guilty," he said.

Crosbie had cautionary words for today's Canadian lawmakers and politicians.

"We could do something more, but we're not."