The Atlantic Cod Fishery
Off the northeastern shore of North America， from the island of Newfoundland in Canadasouth to new England in the United States， there is a series of shallow areas called banks.Several large banks off Newfoundland are together called Grand Banks， huge shoals on theedge of North American continental shelf， where the warm waters of the Gulf Stream meet thecold waters of Labrador Current. As the currents brush each other， they stir up mineral fromthe ocean floor， providing nutrients for plankton and tiny shrimp-like creatures called krill， whichfeed on the plankton. Herring and other small fish rise to the surface to eat the krill.Groundfish， such as the Atlantic cod， live in the ocean’s bottom layer， congregating in theshallow waters where they prey on krill and small fish. This rich environment has producedcod by the millions and once had a greater density of cod than anywhere else on Earth.
Beginning in the eleventh century， boats from the ports of north western Europe arrived tofish the Grand Banks. For the next eight centuries， the entire Newfoundland economy takingfish back to European markets. Cod laid out to dry on wooden “flakes” was a common sight inthe fishing villages dotting the coast. Settlers in the region used to think the only sea creatureworth talking about was cod， and in the local speech the word “fish” became synonymous withcod. Newfoundland’s national dish was a pudding whose main ingredient was cod.
By the nineteenth century， the Newfoundland fishery was largely controlled by merchantsbased in the capital at St. John’s. They marketed the catch supplied by the fishers working outof more than 600 villages around the long coastline. In return， the merchants provided fishingequipment， clothing， and all the food that could not be grown in the island’s thin， rocky soil.This system kept the fishers in a continuous state of debt and dependence on themerchants.
Until the twentieth century， fishers believed in the cod’s ability to replenish itself andthought that overfishing was impossible. However， Newfoundland’s cod fishery began to showsigns of trouble during the 1930s， when cod failed to support the fishers and thousands wereunemployed. The slump lasted for the next few decades. Then when an international agreementdecided to build up the modern Grand Banks fleet and make fishing a viable economic base forNewfoundland again. All of Newfoundland’s seafood companies were merged into oneconglomerate. By the 1980s， the conglomerate was prospering， and cod were commandingexcellent prices in the market. Consequently， there was a significant increase in the number offishers and fish—processing plant workers.
However， while the offshore fishery was prospering， the inshore fishermen found theircatches dropping off. In 1992， the Canadian government responded by closing the Grand Banksto groundfishing. Newfoundland’s cod fishing and processing industries were shut down in a bidto let the vanishing stocks recover. The moratorium was extended in 1994， when all of theAtlantic cod fisheries in Canada were closed， except for one in Nova Scotia， and strict quotaswere placed on other species of groundfish. Canada’s cod fishing industry collapsed， andaround 40，000 fishers and other industry workers were put out of work.
Atlantic cod stocks had once been so plentiful that early explorers joked about walking onthe backs of the teeming fish. Today， cod stocks are at historically low levels and show no signsof imminent recovery， even after drastic conservation measures and severely limited fishing.Fishermen often blame the diminishing stocks on seals， which prey on cod and otherspecies， but scientists believe that decades of overfishing are to blame. Studies on fishpopulations have shown that cod disappeared from Newfoundland at the same time that stocksstarted rebuilding in Norway， raising the possibility that the cod had migrated. Still， no one canpredict whether and when the cod will return to the Grand Banks.