• Fishermen harvest northern cod in southeast Newfoundland

    Todd (left) and Craig Chafe harvest northern cod using gill nets near Petty Harbour-Maddox Cove, a town of approximately 950 people south of St. John's, N.L. Only restricted recreational cod fishing and a small amount of “index fishery” — for scientific research — is currently allowed in Newfoundland. (Photo: Neil Ever Osborne/Canadian Geographic)

For 500 years, European fleets sailed west to fish the cod that crammed Newfoundland’s Grand Banks and other regions of the North Atlantic. Wars were waged and northern nations built on the backs of Gadus morhua, and small communities sprang up all along the Newfoundland coast. But it wasn’t until the 1900s that new fishing techniques and technologies truly transformed the waters.

First came the longliners, larger, faster boats than ever before, ships that could reach new and abundant areas, dropping lines with hundreds of baited hooks. In deeper waters, schooners were made obsolete by steam- and diesel-powered trawlers, powerful large vessels that could drag for cod in any weather, and that by the 1950s had evolved into ruthlessly efficient factory freezer trawlers capable of pulling in and preserving fish without seeing shore for months.

The estimated 1.6 million tonnes of northern cod teeming in the Grand Banks in 1962 couldn’t out-spawn the annual harvest, which by 1968 had reached a staggering 810,000 tonnes — most of it taken by foreign vessels. And an extension of Canada’s maritime boundaries and controls, more rigorous international management and a 40 per cent reduction in catch quotas couldn’t stop the drain, as adjacent international waters continued to be plundered and the Canadian government’s fishery scientists and managers themselves repeatedly overestimated their stocks, at times by more than double.

When 1992 arrived and as little as 72,000 tonnes of cod remained in the Grand Banks, Canada declared a total commercial moratorium. Just as the fish had all but disappeared, so too was there an exodus of fishermen and their families. In less than 10 years, almost 50,000 Newfoundlanders — 18 per cent of rural Newfoundland — had vanished from the province’s outports and coastal towns.

Newfoundland cod being unloaded in Halifax in 1961

Dried Newfoundland cod being unloaded from a schooner on the Halifax docks in 1961. (Photo: Library and Archives Canada)

“I come from a fishing outport [in southeast Newfoundland] called Bay Bulls, from six generations of fish harvesters,” says Janice Ryan, fisheries and conservation advisor for WWF Canada. “I was 16 when the moratorium hit. My family was part of that story.” That’s helpful, she adds, because today her work sees her on the ground across the province, working with fish harvesters and plant workers, fisheries scientists and governments to help develop and implement sustainable fishing practices. 

The ban on commercial fishing, initially expected to last two years, stands to this day. In the intervening years, collective memory of the collapse and scientific surveys and government reviews have transformed attitudes and approaches to the harvesting of groundfish such as cod, halibut and flounder in Canada. The DFO’s 2004 Atlantic Fisheries Policy Review and its 2009 Sustainable Fisheries Framework made conservation, sustainable use and more transparent management of stocks top priorities, and while harvesters are anxious for the return of the industry, they too are now acting out of a vested interest in stewardship.

In spring 2016 — in anticipation of an eventual reopening of the Grand Banks to commercial cod fishing — Newfoundland’s Fish, Food & Allied Workers Union and various processing companies banded together to create the Newfoundland and Labrador Groundfish Industry Development Council (of which WWF Canada is an ex officio member).

“We are at a critical juncture in our province’s history,” said Keith Sullivan, President of FFAW-Unifor, at the time. “A revitalized groundfish industry that is sustainable, economically viable and internationally competitive will act as an economic driver for coastal communities across Newfoundland and Labrador.”

The group’s whole focus is the sustainable rebuilding of the cod fishery, says Ryan. And while many fishing communities were abandoned or resettled in the wake of the moratorium, there are hundreds of still-vibrant outports and towns that stand to benefit from even a cautious return to cod fishing.

“This council is especially promising because it’s the first time we’ve ever seen local harvesters and processors come together and willingly form a consortium on their own,” says Ryan. “If you know Newfoundland, you know that’s not something you see every day.”

Cod fishing in Petty Harbour, Nfld

Todd (left) and Craig Chafe move fresh northern cod from holding containers so they can be weighed in Petty Harbour, N.L. (Photo: Neil Ever Osborne/Canadian Geographic)

As for the northern cod stocks, things are finally looking up, and with greater certainty than has been seen in the last 25 years.

In 2008, massive schoolings of cod were first observed in the Bonavista Corridor, north of Newfoundland’s Avalon peninsula in the species’ historical Grand Banks range. And in spring 2015, Canadian researchers running acoustic-trawl surveys discovered that more northerly stocks had also been resurrected, though they don’t yet have reliable biomass estimates. 

Part of the reason for this resurgence, explains Ryan, is the simultaneous reappearance of capelin, a small, silver smelt and cod’s chief prey, which appears to be thriving again as ocean temperatures rise — one local benefit, at least, of global warming. “Without capelin and other forage fish you wouldn’t have many cod around,” she says.

Ryan, who takes part in Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s regular groundfish assessments, is enthusiastic about the reports of annual cod increases of more than 30 per cent in recent years, but cautions that stocks are still far from historic levels.

“We still need a ‘go slow’ approach,” she says, “but we’re very optimistic that things are going to continue getting better, that we’re seeing a regime shift out in the ocean.”