Updated on October 3, 2019
Updated on October 3, 2019
By Paul Greenberg, Safina Center Fellow
For the last week I have been circling the island of Newfoundland aboard the National Geographic Explorer, passing over the grounds of what was once the most commercially important fish in the world and trying to determine whether or not that decimated nation of fish might at last be staging a comeback.
The two populations or “stocks” of codfish that straddle a submerged highland known as the Grand Banks are mythical in the minds of both conservationists and fishermen. Seemingly inexhaustible, the codfish of these storied grounds propelled the development of Spain’s ocean going fleets, formed the basis of colonial America’s economy and fed both African slaves and the British working class for centuries. After providing post-World War II Europe with much needed protein, humans showed their gratitude by building the largest fishing vessels ever constructed and pommeled Gadus morhua until a moratorium was finally declared in 1992 that remains largely in place to this day.
But as our ship rounded the northern tip and passed between Cape Norman and Labrador of I came across the faintest cause for hope. At the beginning of the Grand Banks moratorium fisheries scientists put total cod biomass in the tens of thousands of tons at most. A recent series of trawl samples by the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) showed that the combined population of the northern and southern Grand Banks stocks may now measure several hundred thousand tons. An order of magnitude larger than when the moratorium was put into effect and about 30% of what the stocks were recorded as being in the 1980s.
Nevertheless, with fisheries, one must always take a moment to pause before getting overly excited by a “recovery.” Several years ago while working on my book Four Fish I interviewed Dr. Jeffrey Hutchings, a ecologist, who studies the fisheries of the Grand Banks at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. Hutchings reminded me that the historical cod population of the Grand Banks was probably even greater than that of the American buffalo, and the collapse of cod represents the greatest loss of a vertebrate in Canadian history—somewhere on the order of 2 billion individuals. “What’s the equivalent loss in human weight of two billion cod?” Hutchings wondered aloud. “That’s twenty-seven million people.” After speaking with Hutchings, I cast around for a nation that had a population of around 27 million people—fishing for a good metaphor, so to speak. Ironically, a country that has a pretty close equivalent in human biomass to the lost Canadian cod biomass is Canada.
So any recovery of cod has to be put in context. As Hutchings readily acknowledges, lack of hard data prior to the emergence of modern fisheries science makes it difficult to say for sure what the historical biomass of the Grand Banks population was but based on stock-assessment model outputs (and reported catches) from the early 1960s, Hutchings felt it to be “defensible to say that cod on the Grand Banks is likely to be at less than 95% of what it was in the 19th Century.”
When you put Hutchings’ 19th Century estimate next to the Canadian government’s stock assessments from 1992 and 2015, the population increase during the moratorium sinks to the level of insignificance.
When I checked back in with Hutchings this September just before heading to Newfoundland, and asked him if he believed a comeback was in the works, he said he didn’t think the numbers added up to a strong long term trend. “There has been no sustained increase in cod inhabiting the two Grand Banks stocks,” he wrote me. “What positive signs we have seen can likely be attributed primarily to reduced fishing mortality and fishery closures.” And, unfortunately, of late Canada’s Department of Ocean and Fisheries has been chipping away at those closures. “An offshore moratorium still exists for the entire Grand Banks for the directed/targeted fishing for cod,” Hutchings continued, “However, in the inshore northern cod zone, DFO has steadily permitted increasing catch quotas in response to sustained pressure from the fishery union in Newfoundland. It is noteworthy that DFO’s recent permitted quota increase is inconsistent with DFO’s sustainable fisheries framework policy.”
And it’s not as if fishermen don’t have anything else to catch on the Grand Banks. Today snow crab and lobster are a multi-million dollar industry in Newfoundland. It has even been put forth that in the absence of predatory codfish these much more profitable crustacean-based fisheries have boomed and are worth vastly more per pound than codfish. But an economy and an ecology centered around crabs and lobsters is neither representative of the historical carrying capacity of the bioregion nor good for the long term stability of the region’s coastal economy. For codfish to make a real comeback in Canada, Canadians will have to take a long hard look at the Grand Banks ecosystem, past and present, and try to make decisions that truly benefit the future.