Chronic fishery mismanagement Confederation’s dismal failure

November 1, 2011

It has been called “managed annihilation,” “Confederation’s greatest failure,” “a national embarrassment, a national shame.” The demise of the cod fishery off Newfoundland and Labrador two decades ago is now legendary as an environmental and economic disaster. Over 19,000 fishers and plant workers laid off indefinitely, another 20,000 jobs directly impacted – the biggest layoff in Canadian history. And yet, for most mainland Canadians the loss of the Northern cod is at most a distant misfortune – something that was probably inevitable and had nothing to do with the rest of us in any case. 

Wrong on both counts. Wherever we may live in Canada, we all have a stake in the fisheries off our coasts, and we share responsibility both for their past and for their future.

That is why NDP MP Ryan Cleary is bringing the cause of the Atlantic fishery to the mainland. The feisty Newfoundland journalist-turned-politician introduced his private member’s bill, The Newfoundland and Labrador Fishery Rebuilding Act, in the Commons on October 3, with seconders from every region of Canada. The bill’s premise is that this great natural resource could be rebuilt, restoring the ocean to health and revitalizing the coastal economy, along with the rich and generous culture it has spawned.

What is needed for that to happen is political will, and that must be based on the solidarity and involvement of Canadians across the country. 

Such nation-wide solidarity, however, has yet to be cultivated. This is largely because, beyond the communities involved, the ongoing story of the East Coast fishery collapse barely registers on the public radar. In Canada’s urban mainstream, fisheries are essentially invisible. Farming and forestry, though neglected and misunderstood, still register as “industries” and command some token attention in political debates and in the media. But fishing seldom even qualifies for honourable mention. 

The fishery is agriculture’s poor cousin. Almost all public discourse around food production and food policy deals with land-based agriculture. Media reports and even university courses purporting to deal with those issues rarely even mention fish. While debate rages over intensive livestock operations, family farms, biotech seeds, food safety, and all the rest, fisheries languish in oblivion. 

This generalized equating of “food” with farming persists despite the fact that large swaths of modern agriculture – notably the bio-fuels sector and genetically modified pharmaceutical plants – no longer have anything to do with producing food. Fishing, on the other hand, is almost entirely geared towards what we eat, with fish supplying essential protein for people around the world.

If the vast breadbasket of North America’s Great Plains has long provided the loaves for the world’s multitudes, the Atlantic Ocean off Newfoundland and Labrador has provided the fishes. For hundreds of years, the men of the outports plied the waters in schooners and dories, trap skiffs and punts, risking life and limb to harvest the cod. Back on the flakes and beaches, women and children laboured to “make” the fish for the merchants to ship to Europe, Brazil, and the Caribbean. Salt cod functioned as currency, not only locally, but also to some degree internationally, where it was a major trade staple and a contributing cause of more than one war.

 When Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949, cod was the dowry she brought to that forced marriage. Her enormous ocean resource was a prize that Canada coveted. Vulnerable though it was to the whims of both nature and markets, the cod fishery was the equivalent of today’s offshore oil in terms of the wealth it could offer. But the low-tech, community-based fishery of that era was renewable, whereas the oil is not. 

Offshore oil is currently fuelling a boom in Newfoundland’s economy and, although most of the new wealth is concentrated around St. John’s, the province has discarded its “have-not” status. For now, that is. The oil boom will eventually end, and that will mean tough times for all of us, not just for the oil-producing provinces. Wise stewardship of our renewable resource industries – notably energy, agriculture, and fisheries – will determine how well we survive when that time comes.

Ryan Cleary made that point in putting forward his private member’s bill. “Newfoundland and Labrador has been warned to prepare now for life after oil,” he said. “The time has come to pull the fishery out of perpetual crisis and create a new economic model that works.”

Just how to do that is, of course, the question, and there are no simple answers. There are, however, many clues as to what has gone wrong in the North-West Atlantic over the past 60 years.

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When Newfoundland and Labrador became a province, the “Canadian wolf” was more than happy to take over the fisheries jurisdiction and subject it to federal priorities. By then, the industry was already undergoing rapid change, with the traditional salt-fish trade giving way to frozen fish, deep-sea steam trawlers replacing schooners and dories on the Grand Banks, and corporations taking over from the merchants of St. John’s and the outports.

In 1964, the first factory-freezer trawler arrived, and soon both Canadian and foreign vessels were dragging the ocean floor for the largest catches in history. In 1968, a record 810,000 tonnes of northern cod were harvested – more than three times the estimated maximum sustainable catch at the time. 

These excesses were made possible by the new capital-intensive mega-technology and a shortsighted mentality that had no respect for either the fishing communities or the ocean itself. The big offshore trawlers, or draggers, stayed at sea for weeks at a time, stripping the fishing grounds of every living thing, processing the profitable portion of their catch on board and tossing the rest back overboard – dead. 

As offshore vessels from Canada and Europe vacuumed up the fish and took over the markets, the smaller, more sustainable community-based fisheries of Newfoundland and Labrador were increasingly marginalized. The massive investments required for that new kind of fishing were far beyond the reach of most outport skippers, and many had no taste for it, in any case. Having worked their local fishing grounds for generations, they knew the ocean floor as intimately as an urban cyclist knows the pavement along her usual route. Newfoundland fishers didn’t need years of studies to understand that bottom dragging was a very bad idea, and their declining catches bore mute witness to the devastation. 

Indeed, large-scale dragging was – and is – extremely destructive. Not only does it strip the fishing grounds of cod and other bottom-feeding fish, but it also damages the structure of the ocean floor, shattering corals, destroying habitat, and decimating biodiversity. All sizes and types of fish are caught – mature or immature, legal or illegal, marketable or otherwise – leading to enormous waste as the by-catch is discarded. The massive trawls also stir up huge plumes of sediment containing toxic pollutants and nutrients like phosphorous, which disrupt the essential plankton ecology of the ocean, increase oxygen demand, and create oxygen-deficient dead zones.

Throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, Newfoundland and Labrador’s groundfish stocks were being overfished at all levels, with foreign distant-water fleets taking a lion’s share. After Canada extended its jurisdiction out to the 200-mile limit in 1977, the federal and provincial governments subsidized an expansion of the industry. In the 1980s, as stocks began to recover from the effects of the foreign overfishing, the domestic fishery took up the slack, without any understanding of the fragile state of the resource.

It was only a matter of time, then, before the whole thing would collapse. By 1992, the policy of denial and political manoeuvering had run its course. The resulting moratorium was disastrous for the economy and society of Newfoundland and Labrador, and the sacrifice came too late to generate the needed recovery – especially without a plan.

Exactly how the disaster happened, and who owns what share of the blame, continues to be debated wherever Newfoundlanders and Labradorians gather. That discussion is important, for without clarity about the grave errors of the past, the path towards a liveable future is shrouded in fog. That is why Cleary is calling for a comprehensive public inquiry to develop a strategy for ecological and economic renewal. As he puts it, “The fishery is broken. The fishery is in perpetual crisis. The fishery can still be fixed. But it cannot be fixed without the facts.”

The inquiry Cleary proposes would examine the complex scientific and management issues involved, including the environmental impacts of fishing technologies, the distribution of inshore and offshore quotas, the impact of accelerating cuts to Fisheries and Oceans staff, the monitoring and forecasting of stocks, the setting and enforcement of allowable catches, and the dilemmas posed by “straddling stocks” which overlap the 200-mile limit. 

At the international level, the Harper government’s abysmal record includes its opposition to a proposed United Nations ban on deep-sea dragging and its inexcusable capitulation – or back-room dealing – at the negotiating table of the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO), which opens the door to control of Canadian waters by other NAFO nations. This, too, would be investigated. 

Ideally, the open, participatory inquiry process would open up deeper questions around the role of global corporations in fishery policy and practice, the part played by the union of fish harvesters and plant workers, and the impact of present and future trade agreements such as the one now under negotiation with the European Union. 

An honest and diligent inquiry into the fishery could provide a radical analysis whose implications would resonate for us all. It could address head-on the common elements of corporate greed, shortsighted self-interest, and callous disrespect for people and nature which underlie not only the mess in the fishery, but also the disasters elsewhere throughout the economy. It would draw revealing parallels with agriculture – the small-boat inshore fishery as the equivalent of the family farm, the big freezer-trawlers as the ocean-going version of factory-style mega-barns. Such an analysis would inevitably lead to the understanding – basic to all solidarity – that, one way or another, we are all in the same boat. 

No wonder the Harper government won’t take seriously Cleary’s call for an inquiry. Could we even imagine any commission appointed by the present government conducting the kind of inquiry that is needed? 

The 2005 report by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans, Northern Cod: A Failure of Canadian Fisheries Management, recognized “mismanagement” as one of the reasons for the stock collapse, and questioned why there was still no real recovery plan. But that report, like everything else the Harper government doesn’t like, has been indefinitely shelved. 

Still, with luck – and with enough public awareness and support – this one could be different. If the inquiry goes ahead, offers a fearless analysis, and proposes a comprehensive strategy, the broad-based support it should garner would put major pressure on both the provincial and federal governments to implement it. Meanwhile, the discussion itself is important. 

There is hope, even if only a glimmer. Cleary’s bill – adopted or not – is part of that hope.


(Writer and activist Helen Forsey spends three months a year in Newfoundland, where her book “The Caboose at the Cape – a Story of Coming Home” has just been published. Her upcoming book “Eugene Forsey: Canada’s Maverick Sage” will be available in the spring.)