Who Took the Fish from the Goddamn Water?

Thirty years on from the 1992 cod moratorium, many questions remain: how did this happen? What have we learned? Will the cod ever come back?

“Why are you yelling at me? I didn’t take the fish from the goddamn water, so don’t go abusing me,” says John Crosbie, then Canada’s federal fisheries minister. Confronted by throngs of fishers, plant-workers, men, women, and children on July 1st, 1992 in Bay Bulls, on the southeastern shores of Newfoundland, Crosbie holds his ground.

“Well, who took it then?” yells an unseen voice, as the people erupt into taunts and jeers.

“You and your goddamn people took it,” a man shouts above the crowd. “You and your people took it.” 

The next day—in what Crosbie calls “a decision based on the desire to ensure that the Northern cod survives as a species”—the fisheries minister formally closes the commercial Atlantic cod fishery. 

Thirty years on, the cod moratorium is still in effect and Atlantic cod have been critically depleted for nearly half a century, many still ask: who took the fish from the water? And, more than that, is there any hope they’ll ever come home? 

What Led to the Cod Collapse?

Atlantic cod was fished commercially, and mostly sustainably, since the late 1400s at levels less than 250,000 metric tonnes annually. But the post-WWII, post-industrialization period upended the half-millennium long human-cod relationship in the Northwest Atlantic Ocean. With upwards of one thousand bottom trawlers fishing the Northwest Atlantic Ocean for cod by the early 1960s, and with cod landings peaking at more than 800,000 metric tonnes in 1968, the species proved no match for the new and unregulated fishing technology of the day. These trawlers, many of which were foreign-owned and -operated, were among the largest fishing vessels on the planet. Many were of the factory-freezer variety, built to catch and process massive quantities of cod at sea.

By the time an exclusive economic zone (EEZ), or what’s commonly referred to as the 200-mile limit, was in place–granting Canada geographically protected fishing rights under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea–much of the damage to what was once Canada’s largest fishery was already done. 

While the implementation of the EEZ, as well as Canada’s newly enforced annual fishing quotas slowed some of the fishing, it picked up again in the 1980s. Then, by the early 1990s, cod collapsed.

The late fisheries conservation biologists, Jeffrey Hutchings and Ransom Myers, estimated in 1995 that as much Northern cod (a population of the species, Atlantic cod) had been fished in a fifteen-year period (between 1960-1975) as had been fished in the 250 years between 1500 and 1750. In 2021, the year before his untimely passing, Hutchings would declare “the collapse of Atlantic cod represents the greatest numerical loss of a vertebrate in Canada” with a decline of 90 percent between the 1960s and early 1990s. 

Today, there’s widespread agreement that overfishing accounted for the decline of cod through the 1960s and ‘70s. But there are competing arguments for what ultimately led to the unprecedented implosion of biomass in the early 1990s. Here’s what we know.

Overfishing 

In 2019, George Rose and Carl Walters published a study arguing that Fisheries and Oceans Canada had underestimated the role of overfishing. They also overestimated the role of natural causes like starvation and environmental changes in the collapse, as well as in more recent cod population recovery efforts.

Illustration: Jenn Thornhill Verma.

“Fishing more now means a longer rebuilding timeframe by slowing stock growth,” wrote Rose and Walters. “We are well aware that management decisions often have, and should have, socio-economic inputs that influence fishery policies and rebuilding strategies. We stress that we support redevelopment of fisheries as the stock rebuilds, but it is self-defeating if these fisheries harm long-term sustainable harvests by overly prolonging recruitment overfishing.” Recruitment overfishing, it is worth noting, is overfishing that specifically impedes the process whereby new individuals are added to a population.

Meanwhile, a 2021 study by Rebecca Schijns and colleagues—which modelled 500 years of cod landings—found if fisheries managers in the 1980s had established annual catches at around 200,000 tonnes, then fishermen could be catching as much annually today. Instead, fishing peaked in the late 1960s at 800,000 tonnes. It dropped following the implementation of Canada’s EEZ, but then picked up again in the 1980s with the catastrophic cod collapse ten years later. Now, the federal government permits a small inshore commercial cod fishery. This  “stewardship” fishery, which has operated since 2006, allows cod landings at around 12,000 tonnes annually. In addition, the federal government permits a recreational (or “food”) fishery and grants Indigenous communities the right to fish for Food, Social and Ceremonial (FSC) purposes. 

As noted in a previous Seasplainer, the spawning biomass of Northern cod reached 1.6 million metric tonnes in 1962, dropping to between 72,000 and 110,000 tonnes  in 1992 (the year of the collapse). It now lingers somewhere around 300,000 to 500,000 tonnes. That means cod is in the “critical zone,” a status it has held for three decades. Hutchings, the aforementioned fisheries biologist, has argued it’s been in that zone for as long as 45-50 years, even accounting for the slight Northern cod comeback observed in 2014-15.

In addition to considering how much we fish,  how or what ways we fish also must be taken into account. Area closures and gear restrictions can and do protect habitats that are affected by some kinds of trawl gear.

Pre-moratorium bottom trawls were a dominant kind of gear, but these trawls are banned in today’s inshore commercial cod fishery, as are cod traps. Gillnets are now the gear of choice. There are other methods like handlining or cod pots which require expending more effort but their quality over quantity approach yields better outcomes for the fish and the environment. (See more on this topic from last March, showing how hook and line, cod pot, and auto-line offer conservation and commercial benefits over gillnets and longlines.)

Another consideration is that the reason wild fisheries have been successful for fishers is because they knew to fish what was in season. 1992, for example, was a bad year for cod and capelin, but it actually proved to be a good year for crab and shrimp. Knowing this seasonal difference is critical and it explains why Newfoundland and Labrador is able to maintain strong wild fisheries today.

Prey Scarcity (e.g. Capelin)

Illustration: Jenn Thornhill Verma.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) argues that natural mortality or natural causes have been the major driver of the 1990s cod collapse with fishing being relatively unimportant. The largest contributor to this mortality is the critical depletion of capelin, cod’s primary food source. Capelin, in the area known as 2J3KL (which includes the southeast coast of Labrador and the northeast coast of Newfoundland), has a current biomass of around 200,000 tonnes. This  is less than five percent of the six million tonnes reported in the spring survey of 1990, capelin’s highest ever recorded biomass). Capelin has seen a similar trajectory as cod with a collapse in the early ‘90s and a slight recovery in 2014-15. However, it has been declining ever since and remains well below its one-time abundance. 

If capelin are a major factor hampering a cod comeback, then scientists have asked: why does DFO not enforce greater capelin fishing limits? Meanwhile, conservation organizations such as Oceana Canada and the World Wildlife Fund have recommended a capelin moratorium. (Canada was also the only country operating a capelin fishery in 2020.)

Environmental Conditions (e.g. Climate Change)

In addition to declining capelin prey as a natural cause of cod mortality, DFO reports that changing environmental conditions, particularly warming waters, are preventing cod from coming back. And yet DFO’s Rebuilding plan for Atlantic cod doesn’t cite the word “climate” or “climate change.”

Illustration: Jenn Thornhill Verma.

If the overfishing of cod and capelin is what got us in this situation, many would argue that climate change will only make it harder for us to get out of it. As The Independent reported last year,  DFO first recognized the need to study changes in climate back in the 1990s as a potential explanation for fluctuations in marine resources. However, even with more climate data than ever before, at the time of that writing, DFO still wasn’t routinely relying on the existing data to make fisheries management decisions.

A recent DFO study on the topic shows that out of 212 stock assessments, 48 per cent, just under half, use environmental or ecological data. Meanwhile, the other 62 percent of the remaining 110 stock assessments could incorporate ecosystem data if resources and funding were allocated. 

Predator Abundance (e.g. Seals) 

The Northwest Atlantic Harp seal population, based on 2017 DFO data, stands at about 7.6 million, making it the highest count on record—triple what it was 50 years ago. It is expected to keep growing. However, DFO scientists do not think predation by seals is a major factor in cod’s decline. Their stance on this leans on one main argument.

Illustration: Jenn Thornhill Verma.

The theory is this: if seals are so dependent on cod as a food source, then the decline of  cod should mean a decline of seals too. But in 1992, when the cod stocks drastically declined, the seal population continued to flourish. 

Meanwhile, what is confusing to many is the case of grey seals in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.  There, scientists have argued, Atlantic cod is likely to be extirpated unless the grey seal population is reduced. DFO maintains the grey seal phenomenon is limited to the Gulf . And yet, this year, the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans (and the Canadian Coast Guard) announced that Fisheries and Oceans Canada will host a Seal Summit this fall in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. The event is meant as a response to one of the nine recommendations made by the Atlantic Seal Science Task Team.

Data Gaps

In our recent Seasplainer, we noted (quoting Jeffrey Hutchings’ A Primer of Life Histories) that “[t]he most sustainable harvests today tend to be those blessed with the greatest amount of data.” But as Hutchings observes, it’s rare for the gold standard of data to be available. This, in turn, “makes it challenging to determine harvest or catch levels that are sustainable, i.e., able to be maintained at the same levels for the foreseeable future.”

Illustration: Jenn Thornhill Verma.

While Northern cod is one of the most data-rich stocks, Fisheries and Oceans Canada shared in March 2022 that this was the first year a full stock assessment was cancelled due to data gaps. In the fall, the at-sea survey was unable to proceed due to ongoing maintenance on a research vessel. One could argue that the absence of this data not only shortchanges science efforts, it also shortchanges cod rebuilding efforts.  

Could Cod Make a Comeback?

While cod remains critically depleted – and has for the last thirty years – wild fish are a renewable resource. We know cod were fished sustainably for five hundred years. We also know Northern cod has, relatively recently, showed signs of a comeback. While that comeback has yet to play out, it inspires hope. As Wade Kearley, author of Here’s the Catch: The fish we harvest from the Northwest Atlantic, once said: if we want to see a future for wild fisheries, then we have to care about the fish as much, and arguably more, than we care about the fishery.

Seasplainer is The Independent’s monthly fisheries and oceans explainer series by journalist Jenn Thornhill Verma. Canada is a country of coastlines – the longest on the planet. The magnitude of that coastline is only overshadowed by the knowledge of those who call these coastlines home. Seasplainer travels to the boots and boats in harbours of the Northwest Atlantic to relay the best-available evidence on fisheries and oceans in Canada. Our explainer series covers a range of topics relevant to fisheries management, marine biodiversity, oceans climate, environment, natural resources and more. Each issue is reviewed by those with on-the-ground, bench or policy strengths and expertise. Note: this issue was not reviewed as it pulls from extensive reporting.

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