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Cod Haven’t Fully Returned, but We Still Return for the Cod

in Featured/Opinion by

“Fish, fish,” my daughter, then 18-months-old, eagerly repeated, overemphasizing the sh sounds, drawing attention to the rush of ocean spray around us. She took immediately to her sea legs, giggling as the fishing boat pitched and rolled on the Atlantic. Last year, it was my eldest daughter’s first fishing trip. We were a mile-and-a-half off of Petty Harbour, a fishing community about a 15-minute drive south of St. John’s in Newfoundland and Labrador. “Big fish” and “little fishies” was how she distinguished between the cod we were there to catch and the caplin (as it’s spelled in these parts, without an e) we brought for bait.

The day was filled with light-hearted moments like that, but I was personally conflicted about having brought us there. It had taken everything to make it happen. We didn’t have a fishing boat or fishing gear. We couldn’t cast off from the community wharf because we didn’t live by the sea. We didn’t even live in Newfoundland anymore. I had more relatives six feet under than I did living in the outports where my fishing family lived for over a hundred years.

The only way this day was possible was because we had travelled from our home in Ottawa and paid for a fishing excursion. The food fishery had also just opened (that’s the vernacular name for the recreational fishery, which opens every year around July through to early fall—and this year’s fishery closes today on Sunday, October 4), allowing locals and visitors designated weekends to fish. Now, with the day upon us and the means to fish readily at our disposal, I wondered if I should have arranged the trip at all. I was about to publish a book called Cod Collapse, and I knew that northern cod remained critically depleted in the Northwest Atlantic as it did nearly three decades ago.

The cod collapse seemed to happen overnight, shuttering the fishery and the communities that depended on it on July 2, 1992. Canadians of my generation and older are familiar with this story because they either felt—like me—in some way defined by it, or if they were from other parts of Canada, it defined Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to them. What people from outside the province likely didn’t appreciate was cod was far more than a big fish. Cod was the fish, inspiring Newfoundland and Labrador’s settlement (and resettlement) patterns, architecture, art, cuisine, and traditions.

The moratorium was meant to last two years—presumably long enough for the cod population to bounce back after rampant overfishing. It wasn’t and it remains in effect today. The closure put nearly 40,000 out of work overnight (by comparison, that’s the equivalent of half-a-million people in 1992 Ontario becoming unemployed). When it came to the fish, the calculations were far more devastating. Fisheries scientists hypothesized that more cod had been commercially fished from the Northwest Atlantic in a fifteen-year period between 1960 to 1975 than over two-hundred-and-fifty-years between 1500 to 1750. That was less than 20 years before the moratorium.

One of those scientists, Jeffrey Hutchings, a Newfoundlander who holds the Izaak Walton Killam Memorial Chair in Fish, Fisheries, and Oceans at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, told me last fall that northern cod still represents the greatest numerical reduction of a species in Canadian history.

“Once supporting Canada’s largest fishery, between the early 1960s and the early 1990s, the 30-year diminution of cod throughout Canadian waters was roughly equivalent to a reduction of 27 million humans,” writes Hutchings in a review of my book for Atlantic Books Today.

Back out in boat last summer, bouncing on the Atlantic on a perfect July day, Captain Leo Hearn closes in on the cod-fishing grounds. Co-Captain, Kimberly Orren, drops anchor, while Leo shows me the below-surface movements of fish picked up on the fishfinder. Today, we’ll be handlining, using a single-hook jigger, or lure, attached to a line. Dropping the weighted lure into the ocean, then pulling the line up and down, attracts cod. While cod will go for lures alone, we’re baiting ours with caplin.

Encouraging the cod to bite when they’re hungry is a necessary part of maintaining the fish-fisher equilibrium, Orren tells us (and a practice the Independent reported on in April). So too is relying on fishing techniques like handlining. For most commercial cod fishers in the province—the federal government allows a small commercial/stewardship fishery even though the 1992 moratorium continues—gillnets are the gear of choice. But the nets come with inherent problems from capturing other species to being swept away in ocean currents, leading to ocean waste and ghost fishingwhen lost gear continues to catch fish to no one’s benefit.

We’re fishing today as part of the annual food fishery—a name residents prefer because it better reflects the reasons we fish. Most of us are not fishing for recreation or sport. We’re not interested in monetizing our catch. Instead, we want to enjoy a meal of cod fished from the waters off our front stoops. Perversely, if you visit a local grocer to buy cod, then you’ll take home frozen fillets from Iceland, Norway, or Russia.

Also perversely, while these shores boast access to an enviable supply of fresh seafood, the latest national data on food insecurity shows NL has among the highest rates across Canadian provinces. As the Independent reported back in April, the same 2017 data (from Statistics Canada’s Canadian Community Health Survey) shows nearby St. John’s is the most food insecure city in the country. And with this year’s record-breaking snowfall, followed by the ongoing pandemic, the fragility of the province’s food systems became even more visible. Sadly, when it comes to food, many in Newfoundland and Labrador live on the brink of going without.

My family isn’t in that situation—we’ve travelled at great personal expense to be here. It’s a privilege and I know it. But Orren and Hearn’s social enterprise, Fishing for Success, stays afloat in large part because people like us, many from away, pay for this experience. When they’re not offering excursions, the charitable arm of Fishing for Success is helping those who need it most to take up fishing and enjoy a meal of local cod. After all, fishing ought not be reserved for those with the ability to pay.

However, when we refer to the food fishery as recreation, it suggests it’s a luxury. It becomes easier to make arguments against the food fishery. But when it comes to the cod harvested in Newfoundland and Labrador, the majority comes from the commercial fishery, with the food fishery and other causes as a much smaller minority.

By way of example, estimates from Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) presented to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans focused on a portion of the inshore fishery from 2016 (the last year for which data broken down in this way is available). Of the harvest levels at the time, which by then totalled 13,500 tonnes, the commercial fishery took home 10,525 tonnes (comprising about 80 per cent) followed by the recreational (food) fishery (2000 t; 15 per cent share) followed by everything else—cod quality and science projects (750 t; 5.5 per cent); bycatch (175 t; 1.2 per cent); and lastly, by Indigenous communities for food, social, and ceremonial purposes (50 t; 0.3 per cent).

While the commercial fishery represents the highest share of cod landings, Canada does not yet have a recovery plan for northern cod (however, a recovery plan is reportedly in the works following revisions to the federal Fisheries Act last year). This example also shows the modest share afforded to the food fishery (non-Indigenous and Indigenous alike). It also shows the holes in relying on conservation arguments to justify food fishery restrictions. Without question, Canada needs a long-term, recovery-oriented approach for northern cod (and other species). But first we need to return to the reasons we fish—and if not as a local food source, then what?

For my daughter, today is mostly about the experience. I catch her licking her lips, the salty taste spit straight from the sea. Her eyes widen and she shouts, “fish,” every time we haul up our lines. In no time we have our daily limit, which DFO sets at fifteen fish for three or more people in a boat. Experiences like this can lead people to believe cod are more plentiful than they are. Despite talk of a “cod comeback” a few years ago, northern cod is nowhere near its one-time levels of abundance. Best estimates put the species at less than half of what the population was in pre-moratorium years and even that’s optimistic considering the variety of challenges to their existence still ahead.

So why, in these troublesome times for northern cod, have I gone to such lengths for my daughter to experience cod jigging? The cod fishery propped up our boats, our piers, the livelihoods of our communities, and our spirits for hundreds of years. Fishing was once and can still be an important part of our lives. Preservation of the fish and traditional fishing approaches too requires a relationship and reverence for this big fish. I want her to gain a respect for the fish that shaped us, our people. Doing so requires she see for herself where these fish live and how we can fish in a way that protects the integrity of their habitats, their homes, indeed, our homes too.

At two-years-old, my daughter won’t learn all of this today. For today, it’s about instilling the joy of fishing—a pleasure that can stay with us from our childhood memories. That’s what has brought me back to these fishing grounds today with my daughter.

We haul up anchor and make our way back to the fishing stage, where Hearn fillets our catch. Tonight, we’ll eat what the ocean provided, not taking for granted what it took to make it happen.

Art by Kat Frick Miller.

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