THE DISAPPEARANCE OF THE NORTHERN COD
- Debbie MacKenzie
Perhaps the most dramatic example of a “collapsing fishery” is the story of the Northern Cod. When the first European settlers came to North America, the waters were apparently “alive” with cod. There are accounts of ships having had their progress slowed by the abundance of fish in the water, and cod were so easy to catch that a basket merely had to be lowered into the sea. Whether or not these incidents were exaggerated, the Northern Cod sustained a major fishery in the Northwest Atlantic for centuries, and it was the mainstay of the economy of the province of Newfoundland. (This history has been nicely documented in a recent book entitled “Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World” by Mark Kurlansky.) An article on the internet that summarizes the history of the northern cod fishery can be read at: www.greenpeace.org/~comms/cbio/cancod.html
In the last half of the twentieth century it became increasingly difficult to catch “enough” cod. A decade ago the (Newfoundland - Grand Banks) stock had suffered such a serious decline that it was considered to have “collapsed” and the fishery was closed in 1992. The plan was to give the fish a few years to “recover,” and then presumably fishing could be restarted and it would be business as usual. The expected “recovery” has not happened. The loss of the traditional cod fishery has resulted in a major economic crisis for Atlantic Canada. Much blaming and finger-pointing has been done in efforts to explain what went wrong. (A good recent example of this is found in the book “Lament for an Ocean: The Collapse of the Atlantic Cod Fishery: A True Crime Story” by Michael Harris.) Blaming individual politicians, scientists, and fishermen is pointless. No-one really understood the system and what was happening to it.
The worst part of the Northern cod story is this: despite almost eight years of relief from fishing, the cod stock on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, formerly an incredibly rich fishing ground, CONTINUES TO DECLINE. Surveys have been done yearly, and the abundance of the cod is less each year. "Weight-at-age" remains at an all time low. The few cod that are there are only little ones - virtually none older than 5 years were found in 1999. Cod mature at three years, so in a situation of adequate feeding (and no fishing), significant reproduction should have taken place by now....but it has not. Why the continued decline? Why cannot cod grow to larger sizes? It is because this area of the ocean offers a prime example of the STARVING MARINE ECOSYSTEM. The cod are starving. And continued fishing in the area (now mainly for plankton-feeding shrimp) further depletes the ecosystem as a whole, ensures the continued decline of the “groundfish,” and helps to seal the fate of the northern cod. They are clearly headed for extinction...and if we continue our present practices many other marine species will soon follow. (Also see update on Atlantic cod, posted Nov/02)
codfish specimen, 1994...codfish caught today are often noticeably smaller and thinner than this one...
(historical illustration at top of page from NOAA)