Cod and company.

A translation by Judith Turcotte

The waters of the St. Lawrence River hide an aquatic life which evolves in a piecemeal fashion. All the changes, especially those initiated by humans, can have unexpected consequences on the dynamics between the different species. Cod is a good example. There exist two distinct populations of cod in the Gulf and they are both at risk. In the south around the Gaspé Peninsula and the Magdalen Islands and in the north from the North Shore and Anticosti Island to Newfoundland. The two populations have been the subject of an uncontrolled commercial fishery for decades.

Cod fishing in the Gulf and in the waters of Newfoundland was considered as an important attribute of Canada for centuries. As far back as 1497, the crew of the explorer John Cabot declared that the cod was in such abundance: “that it was fished not only with a net but also with a basket deposited in the water with a stone.” Once this abundance became known, the fishing boats of Great Britain, France, Spain and Portugal crossed the Atlantic to fish cod. This fishing continued for centuries, so what happened?

In the 1950s and the years that followed, the fishing technology developed with the arrival of sonars and factory vessels that could remain in the ocean for months. According to statistics, the exploitable biomass of the cod dropped 82% between 1962 and 1977.

In my first blog in this series, I wrote that the ministries responsible for protecting our resources are dysfunctional: the scientists observe and prepare reports, the civil servants ignore these reports and comply with the objectives of their minister whatever the consequences and the politicians respond to voters’ pressure. The cod is a good example of this situation. As early as 1986, scientific reports were published indicating that overfishing was in the process of making the cod disappear. The officials of Fisheries and Oceans Canada ignored the warning which went against their first objective being the promotion of commercial marine activities aimed at creating jobs for villages often isolated. The politicians, for whom the matter was a hot potato, did not dare to take action in light of the importance of this fishery to their fellow citizens.

Finally, in 1992, the government had no choice but to act. The Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, John Crosbie, imposed a moratorium on cod fishing. The situation was hopeless. Close to 40,000 Newfoundlanders lost their jobs, the province found itself in the middle of an economic crisis and suffered a decrease in its population from which it never recovered from. This moratorium made a lot of noise throughout Canada. At the same time that this moratorium was declared, the European Union imposed an embargo on seal products.

While the cod has trouble making a comeback, the grey seal population has now reached the number of 340,000 in eastern Canada. (10,000 in the 1970s). The abundance of grey seals would explain the difficulties the cod have in returning to the gulf. Thank you Brigitte Bardot; to think that I was once in love with her.

In the face of this moratorium, the cod fishermen turned towards the snow crab. In 2017, the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans announced that the population of snow crab had decreased more than 80% in the last four years; however, that is another story or is it history repeating itself?

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