Skip to main content

The final closing of three major East Coast cod fisheries has left some enraged fishermen and processing plant workers wondering if they've caught their last cod.

"I'm 50 years of age, and I don't think I'll ever fish for cod again," Gilbert Penney, a fisherman from the eastern Newfoundland community of Hickman's Harbour, said in an interview yesterday.

Earlier in the day, federal Fisheries Minister Robert Thibault announced that the stocks of northern cod, which have supported the rural Newfoundland economy for more than 500 years, are so depleted that all fishing must stop off the northeastern part of the province and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Cod can still be caught off the southeast coast of the province.

The move will likely close 16 plants, most of them in Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador, putting about 700 people out of work. It will also slash the incomes of more than 2,000 fishermen, some of whom rely almost entirely on cod catches.

The government of Canada will spend about $44-million on economic development projects in affected communities, much of it in temporary job-creation projects. It will spend another $6-million to study the relationship between seals and the cod stocks.

Reaction to the closings was swift. Late yesterday afternoon, a group of fishery workers in Port aux Basques, Nfld., blockaded the main road through the community, which is the main ferry connection to the mainland.

"The government of Canada turned their backs on us today, and we're severing our ties to Canada," Craig Collier, a western Newfoundland fisherman participating in the blockade, said in an interview. He said closing the cod fishery would have a devastating effect on many communities in western Newfoundland, where small-boat fishermen earn as much as $40,000 a year from cod.

"We don't have alternatives. We have to get somebody to recognize that this is ridiculous," said Mr. Collier, whose family has been fishing in Newfoundland waters for 300 years. He added that fishermen believe the cod stocks in the Gulf of St. Lawrence are recovering and could support a small fishery. "They're going to put all the fishermen out on make-work projects. That's a slap in the face if you ever got one," he said.

In 1992, the cod fishery was closed in much of Eastern Canada, leaving more than 30,000 people without jobs. The federal government came up with close to $4-billion to try to diversify the economy and allow some people to stay in their communities, hoping the stocks would recover.

The small-scale cod fisheries were opened about five years ago, but government scientists insist that the fish stocks are not rebuilding and may have been so depleted that they will never recover.

This time, no one in the Fisheries Department is willing to speculate when -- or whether -- the depleted stocks will recover to the point that a commercial fishery can be reopened.

Mr. Thibault said scientific assessments of the cod stocks paint a grim picture. The number of northern cod of spawning age are only 2 per cent of what they were in the 1980s.

He acknowledged that it would have been more popular to allow the small-scale cod fisheries to continue, as had been recommended by the Newfoundland and Labrador government and the federal Fisheries Resources Conservation Council.

But Mr. Thibault insisted that continued fishing could have wiped out the stocks.

"Keeping these fisheries open would reduce the spawning stocks and increase the risk of commercial extinction of these stocks," he said. "When stocks are fished to extinction, what would these fishermen and generations following them have left?"

Gerry Byrne, minister responsible for the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, said the Newfoundland fishery has diversified over the past decade with shrimp, crab and lobster. He said the new federal money would help create local economic development projects in sectors such as aquaculture.

Chris Collier, who has fished for 12 years off western Newfoundland and Labrador, said in an interview from Port aux Basques that the fishing ban will be the death of many small communities.

"There's no way we can survive without it," he said of the cod. "The community is dead now. The fish plants rely on cod, and the workers will have to leave, and all these communities are going to die."

Some fishermen are privately vowing to defy the fishing ban.

Gilbert Penney said Mr. Thibault's announcement would cut his income as much as 50 per cent, but he isn't interested in a temporary government job.

"The fish harvesters and plant workers aren't going to be cutting brush or moving rocks from one place to another. I'll board up my house and head out of here. I'm not going to be degrading myself to that point," he said.

Newfoundland and Labrador Fisheries Minister Yvonne Jones said the cod fishery closings had taken away the lifeblood of many communities and will prompt another wave of out-migration.

"It is a woefully inadequate response and an offence to Newfoundlanders and Labradorians," she said.

Depleted stocks

After a decade of research and debate, fishery scientists acknowledge that they don't know why the East Coast cod stocks have not recovered despite limits on fishing over the past decade. A recent meeting of 70 scientists and fishery managers in Halifax came up with 40 possible reasons.

They narrowed those down to four broad areas.

Overfishing: Heavy commercial fishing in the late 1980s may have depleted the cod stocks. Even after moratoriums were announced in the early 1990s, there was poaching and even dumping of cod caught by fisherman as a bycatch.

Reproduction: When the stocks collapsed, few older adult fish were left to spawn, and the eggs of younger cod produced few offspring.

Seals and scrawny fish: The cod left in the water after the heavy fishing of the 1980s were small and in poor condition and may have died before spawning. The cod were also a favourite food of a growing number of seals.

Cold water: Water temperatures off Newfoundland and Labrador and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence were abnormally low in the early 1990s, so cod didn't grow quickly or spawn successfully Recently, a bizarre incident of icy water in Trinity Bay, Nfld., froze more than 650 tonnes of cod.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct