Two decades later

Barbara Dean-Simmons
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It was hard to imagine 20 years ago and it’s difficult to comprehend today

Newfoundland and Labrador has no cod fishery.

Bureaucrats might disagree, pointing to the fact that inshore fishing enterprises - mainly in boats less than 35 feet - are allowed to take up to 3,700 pounds each year.

However, in the overall scheme of things, measured up against the heyday of cod when millions of pounds fed fish plants from one end of the North East coast to the other, the cod are gone.

The historical data still stands as the worst example of resource mismanagement in all of Canada - and perhaps the world.

To simplify - up until the 1970s the northern cod population was in the millions of tonnes; it fed not only inshore Newfoundland fishermen but also trawlers from foreign countries that fished as close as just six miles offshore. Inshore fishermen complained but governments choose to ignore their concerns of what those inshore draggers were doing to fish stocks.

Following the Law of the Sea Convention and the declaration of Canada’s 200-mile limit in 1977, this country had a chance to better control and manage the northern cod stock.

Instead, Canadian trawlers replaced foreign trawlers and the dragger fishery continued inside 200 miles.

And the Canadian government went crazy handing out quotas; starting with 136,000 tonnes in 1978 and reaching 266,000 tonnes from 1984-88.

Inshore fishermen complained but successive governments chose to ignore their concerns of what dragging in known cod-spawning grounds was doing to the stock.

Meanwhile, the foreign trawlers fishing outside the 200-mile limit - at the edge of the Continental Shelf, on the “nose and tail” of the Grand Bank, where cod also congregated on their yearly migration - were overfishing.

The North Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO), of which Canada was a member, would set quotas that were blatantly ignored by NAFO member countries.

Various reports for the federal government confirmed this. The last report before to the moratorium, compiled by a committee headed by Dr. Leslie Harris, cited 1986 as an example.

That year the Canadian government set the Total Allowable Catch for Northern Cod at 266,000 tonnes, from which NAFO proposed a TAC of 36,000 tonnes for the European trawlers fishing on the Nose and Tail of the Banks.

The foreign trawlers took nearly three times that allocation, sailing back to their homeports with 100,000 tonnes of cod.

NAFO became known as the “toothless tiger” and Newfoundland and Labrador inshore fishermen wondered when, if ever, their government would stand up for them.

They waited in vain.

The Canadian government simply didn’t care.

Beyond the decimation of a fish stock - caused purely and simply by greed, ignorance and lack of action by those who had the power to change things - is the sadder reality that we have lost not only a way of life, but a future for the next generation and rural communities.

Sadder still is, as a society, we seem to have stop caring as well.

Crab and shrimp replaced cod; and oil revenues now fire the economic engines of this province - at least for the St. John’s and North East Avalon.

It’s easy to forget the past when your neighbourhood is awash with black gold money.

It’s not so easy, however, the further you get from the cities and towns fed by Hibernia and Hebron crude.

In places where cod was once king, the younger people have moved on. What some consider the last generation of fishers is still hanging on, too old to switch gears now and too young to settle back for a government pension cheque.

The towns have gone grey and are slowly fading.

One can’t help but think that the announcement of the moratorium in 1992 was never meant, as we first thought, to be a temporary measure; that the goal of the government right from the start was to eliminate the next generation of fishers.

They knew it couldn’t be done overnight, but that - bit by bit - the sons and daughters of the fishing generation of 1992 would drift away and, eventually, their fathers would too.

It’s not the fact of wishing for the good old days that we suggest there could be a different way.

Cod is back on the inshore grounds - fishermen who are on the water see the evidence, just like years ago they knew the cod were in trouble. They were right then, and we have no reason to think they’re not right now.

Trouble is the government of today, just like the governments of the past, are not listening.

The theory that they would rather the inshore fishery die altogether does not appear to be so far-fetched, 20 years after July 2, 1992.

As a few more years pass, they will have succeeded - if that was their true aim two decades ago - in killing the inshore fishery of Newfoundland and Labrador.

The reality is, it doesn’t have to be this way.

The fish that appear to have returned to the inshore could provide a decent living for another generation of fishers.

In a world where a supply of clean, chemical-free, nutritious food is becoming more and more of a priority, cod could be king once again.

Now we don’t foresee a day when trawlers could ply the ocean to scoop up tonnes of cod in one go. History has shown us that’s not sustainable. However, an inshore fishery could supply dinner tables with nutrition from the sea, for a decent price.

It’s not so far fetched.

Twenty years on we have the devices at our fingertips to market any product and we still have people in the fishing industry who are passionate about its potential.

It’s time to use our past as a starting point for our future.

Barbara Dean-Simmons, associate managing editor, Newfoundland and Labrador Weeklies

Organizations: Sea Convention, Grand Bank, The North Atlantic Fisheries Organization Total Allowable Catch for Northern Cod

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, North East Hebron

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