CBC In Depth
Newfoundland's cod fishery
CBC News Online | May 9, 2004

On April 24, 2003, almost 11 years after the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans imposed a moratorium on cod fishing off Newfoundland, the federal fisheries minister, Robert Thibault, announced the outright closure of what remained of the cod fishery in Newfoundland, the Maritime provinces and Quebec.

It was a momentous and sad decision, a brutal shock to the people who made a living catching fish in waters once so thick with cod it was said you could leave your boat and walk to shore on their backs.

The closure came six years after the previous ban was ended for the south coast of Newfoundland. In 2000, there were dire warnings from fisheries officials who said increased pressure brought on by several years of fishing had sent the cod's spawning stock into decline, with stocks of mature fish dipping 97 per cent below 1990 levels.

In the time leading up to the 2003 moratorium, desperate fishermen tried to earn their living by catching fish further and further from shore, in boats not meant for the waves and weather.

A Canadian Press report by writer Dean Beeby – using material obtained under the Access to Information Act – said the number of fishermen rescued in the rough waters doubled in the time after the cod-fishing moratorium was imposed. The report says there were 382 incidents in 1999, compared with just 193 in 1993. In that period, 46 crewmembers on fishing boats were killed, many of them navigating the waters in boats too small and ill-equipped for the rough conditions.

Many rescue incidents involved boats less than eight metres long, rescued as far away as the Labrador Sea near Greenland, where crews were fishing for shrimp, crab, scallops and turbot. The Canadian Press story quotes a safety report as saying, "Personal fatigue becomes a factor due to relatively few crewmembers working in small quarters under pressure to [fill] quota allocations."

As for the cod, once the engine of the Newfoundland economy, some scientists say if left alone – if the moratorium remained in full effect – the stocks would eventually return to their robust levels of the 1950s and 1960s.

However, a study released in May 2004 suggests that years of overfishing have changed the breeding tactics of cod. Cod in the mid-1980s began reproducing by age six, but a decade later, the researchers said, they began a full year earlier. What's more, the scientists found that the change was genetic, nor simply behavioural. Overfishing led to rapid evolution among the codfish, the researchers said.

Jack Rice, co-ordinator of the stock assessment unit at the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, told the National Post in September, "At some point it becomes a social choice – what does society want? From what you know of the politics of Atlantic fisheries, how likely is it that a cod stock could approach the level seen in the '50s and '60s?"

Answering his own question, Rice said that by the time the cod stock approached levels half of those in the 1950s and 1960s, a decision would be made to allow cod-fishing again.

"They would rather have people fishing… than continue to withhold catch to allow the stock to rebuild," Rice said. "We can put simulations on the table till hell freezes over to show if you stay closed another five years then your catch will be double what it is now and still be sustainable. [But] people want to fish now."

In May 2004, Fisheries Minister Geoff Regan announced a limited re-opening of the cod fishery in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Regan said the decision was based on a report for the Fisheries Resource Conservation Council, and said the industry will have to devise a conservation plan before the fishery is reopened.

Commercial Cod Landings in Canada
Year Live Weight
(metric tonnes)
1988487,885 $266,298,000
1989435,233 $224,249,000
1990401,499 $246,294,000
1991320,941 $233,078,000
1992197,929 $158,738,000
199384,767 $70,917,000
199426,276 $31,864,000
199514,610 $20,251,000
199616,241 $22,061,000
199731,435 $36,857,000
1998 39,095 $57,435,000
1999 56,314 $82,217,000
2000 46,888 $69,683,000
2001 40,913 $59,129,000
2002 36,441 $50,477,000
2003 23,564 $34,641,000
Source: Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada



Quota regulation of Atlantic cod fishing was introduced in 1973 and 1974. The Total Allowable Catch (TAC) for each stock was based upon scientific advice presented to the International Commission for Northwest Atlantic Fisheries, ICNAF, which later became Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization, NAFO.

At first, TACs weren't effective. Over–exploitation continued partly because the TACs were seen as being too high, and partly because enforcement was not effective.

With the introduction of the 200–mile offshore fishing boundary in 1977, the setting and enforcement of TACs in Canadian waters became a Canadian responsibility.

Other common names: Codfish, rock cod, scrod, northern cod, morue franche, morue commune, morue de l'Atlantique, ovak and uugak.

Distinguishing features: Heavy body, large heads, three dorsal fins, two anal fins and an almost-square tail fin.

Weight: Average weight is 3 to 4 kilograms, but some can weigh as much as 90 kilograms.

Colour: Grey, green, brown, black or red.

Diet: Cod are carnivores, feeding mainly on other fish, but also some invertebrates. Diet includes clams, squid, mussles, echinoderms, comb jellies, sea squirts, worms and even unlucky seabirds.

Canadian Habitat: Nunavut, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, PEI, Newfoundland, and the Atlantic Ocean.

Other facts: Cod mature after about five years, being able to spawn each year after that. A female that is one metre long can produce about five million eggs. In 1998, cod was placed in the 'Special Concern' risk category by Environment Canada. This term is used to describe species which have characteristics that make it particularly sensitive to human activities or natural events.

From CBC St. John's:
To the last fish: the codless sea

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Management of the Northern Cod Fishery: A guide to information sources

Map of Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Management Divisions Centre for Newfoundland Studies

Atlantic Cod Environment Canada

The rise and fall of Atlantic cod Canadian Geographic Online

Cod Fishing Industry: Feeding the World Canadian Heirloom Series

Fisheries and Oceans Statstics Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada

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