Remembering the mighty cod fishery 20 years after moratorium

Twenty years ago, on July 2, 1992, the federal government closed the northern cod fishery that had come almost to define Canada until further notice. It is still closed.

Memories of a once plentiful cod fishery are mostly all that the fishermen of Newfoundland and Atlantic Canada have now.

It has been 20 years since the Canadian moratorium was declared on fishing the North Atlantic cod, capping a centuries-long history of incredible bounty, pillage and sudden collapse that shut down the livelihood of tens of thousands of Canadians who had lived off the sea.

"In Newfoundland, when we say fish we mean cod," Stella Bury told a CBC radio interviewer in 1979.

Bury grew up on Newfoundland's Greenspond Island in the early 1900s when just getting by was a daily concern. She said as a child she remembers how hurt the family felt to see a schooner come home without a full load, after toiling all summer, and knowing they would have to live on credit.

At its peak in the mid-1980s, Canadian fishermen were hauling in 266,000 tonnes of cod each year under continuously more generous federal quotas. Foreign trawlers fishing off the 200-mile limit were supposedly limited to 36,000 tonnes by international agreements but were routinely sailing home with almost three times that amount.

A young boy stands between two 'blowers,' giant northern cod, in the iconic photo by Newfoundland photographer Robert Holloway taken in Battle Harbour, Labrador, in 1901. (Robert E. Holloway / Public Archives Canada)

Today, under the moratorium, Newfoundland and Labrador's inshore fishers are allowed an annual take of just over 3,600 pounds in what is called a recreational fishing quota.

In a 1989 interview with CBC, Justin McGrath, a fisherman from Fogo Island remembered a time when he'd be out in his fishing boat, "and the fish would gladly leap into the boat just to get out of the crowded sea."

But even then, he said, he hadn't had a really good season for 15 years.

"I'm hoping for a good year but I haven't seen one yet," he said. I see the fish getting scarce and it's sad but there's not a thing anyone can do about it".

According to Mark Kurlansky, author of the 1997 book Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, the Canadian government had once said that overfishing cod was impossible and "unless nature reversed there would not be any reduction of cod stocks in the foreseeable future."

But it wasn't nature that changed, it was the nature of fishing.

With more and more powerful engines, the use of sonar to locate whole schools of cod and ever-bigger dredgers, the cod, which are bottom feeders, were literally vacuumed off the ocean floor.

As Kurlansky put it, "nets the size of an airport drag along the ocean bottom scooping up everything that's there for miles and miles. It just cleans out the ocean."

By July 2, 1992, even though most fishing families were already seeing smaller and smaller hauls, and much smaller fish, they woke up to what seemed a cruel joke.

Newfoundland's John Crosbie, the federal minister of fisheries and oceans, announced that he was heeding the advice of ministry scientists and that the northern cod fishery of Newfoundland and Labrador would be shut down until further notice.

For some it came as a huge shock because as recently as 1984 scientists were saying there were still lots of cod to catch.

At first, Crosbie was defensive about his decision. When the fishermen protested, he shot back famously, "Why are you abusing me, I didn't take the fish out of the goddamned water."

But there was no arguing the fact that the cod was gone.

Now, 20 years on there are signs that some species of cod are recovering in other parts of the world, but there is little sign that the northern cod that once thrived off the coast of Atlantic Canada is making a comeback.

As Colleen Field, from the Centre for Newfoundland Studies at Memorial University, writes, "20 years later, the moratorium is still in place, with no sign of it being lifted."