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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

Four years ago, the Canadian government shut down the cod fisheries in the northeast Altlantic because the cod stocks had dropped to almost nothing. As the moratorium dragged on, tens of thousands of unemployed fishermen put pressure on the government to let them go back to work. This summer, the government finally relented. It's a move that will have great implications for the fishing industry around the world. And as reporter Ted Blades found out, the decision has as much to do with politics as it does science. His story begins on the waters of Placentia Bay off the south coast of Newfoundland.


CURWOOD: Four years ago the Canadian government shut down the cod fisheries in the northwest Atlantic because the cod stocks had dropped to almost nothing. As the moratorium dragged on, tens of thousands of unemployed fishermen and women put pressure on the government to let them go back to work. This summer, the government finally relented, and the move is being closely watched by the fishing industry around the world. As reporter Ted Blades found out, the decision has as much to do with politics as it has to do with science. His story begins in the waters off Placentia Bay off the south coast of Newfoundland.

(Radio voice interacting with crew; whistling)

BLADES: It's pitch black on the bridge of the HMS Cormorant.

(Radio voice continues, with static)

BLADES: The faces of the navy crew are barely visible in the green glow of the radar. Out there in the dark, a quarter mile ahead of us and 50 meters down, is a miniature submarine with 4 men inside.

MAN: Circuit control, SDL on the bottom, bottom type gravel and mud. Visibility two zero feet. Key ballasting.

BLADES: The navy has loaned a sub for 3 days to George Rose. He's a scientist at the marine institute in St. John’s.

ROSE: It's interesting how those cod stay together as a group like that.

BLADES: Right now, he's peering out the sub's bubble window at a handful of fish, as they circle in the beam of the sub's searchlights.

(Loud air vents in the background)

ROSE: Yeah, and look at that little bunch of red fish there, eh? Stuck under that rock. That's kinda neat.

BLADES: Rose's specialty is cod behavior. He tracks them from the surface using a type of sonar so precise, it can pick out individual fish on the bottom of the ocean. Now he's down there on the bottom to see if his instruments agree with his eyes.

(Loud air vents)

ROSE: So what what I want to do now is, as we're going down this line, if we can plot every minute, and every minute we'll do a tally of the number of fish we saw and some indication of fish size, just small or large...

BLADES: After 500 years of fishing, this is the state of scientific knowledge. George Rose, one of the leading experts on cod, says 90% of its biology and behavior remains a mystery.

ROSE: (Phone ringing in background) We know that they come from the east around Cape St. Mary's and into the bay.

BLADES: This way.

ROSE: Right. That happens some time in the fall. And then they seem to stay in this area for a couple of months. Then they leave. We have no idea where they go. The fishermen don't have any idea where they go. And this is one of the big management questions now, with the opening of the fishery and so on, is that it's not known even which population is being fished. You know, the full life cycle, if you want to look at it that way, of this particular group of fish, is not known at all.

BLADES: George Rose and his submarine find his corner of the bay almost empty of fish. But 3 miles to the north and 2 weeks later, the Johnson brothers are hauling gill nets fat with cod.

JOHNSON: I have 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11. There's 11 there in the space of 10 fathom. Fish afoot. And there's probably more there hanging in the water, another 4, 5 feet. It's unreal, it was never like this. I mean looking at this since I was a youngster, it was never like this not back 30 years ago. And that’s when there was supposed to be fish.

BLADES: Earl and Oakley Johnson aren't fishing for themselves or for profit. They're doing research for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in what's called the Sentinel Fishery, conducting their own survey on the state of the fish stocks. This cold day in December, the nets come up from 40 fathoms down full of cod, one after another, nose over tail, with little green or empty net between them. The boat's winch slips with the string.

(String squeaking; hammering sounds)

BLADES: Seventeen hundred codfish in just 3 hours, or about 5,500 pounds. To the fishermen, proof positive that the bay is blocked with fish. But to George Rose, less persuasive evidence.

ROSE: We know that the distribution of the fish is not uniform throughout the bay. That is, you know, you might have been right over top of one of the heaviest concentrations that migrated into the bay. The whole bay is not like that.

BLADES: Sentinel fishermen like the Johnson brothers find lots of cod inshore, in the relatively shallow waters of the bays. But in deep water farther offshore, out past the 12-mile mark, where the great masses of codfish once schooled, fishery scientists aren't finding much of anything. And the few codfish they do find are all about 7 years old: too small to have been caught before the moratorium. There's no sign of younger fish coming up behind them, which could mean that the cod have been growing but not reproducing. The Fisheries Resources Conservation Council is the agency that advises the government on fishing policy. It uses a single word to describe its estimate of the total cod population in the area off the south coast of Newfoundland. That word is: uncertain. Nevertheless, last fall the council recommended a limited reopening of the fishery. John Lein is a conservationist at heart and a member of the FRCC.

LEIN: There is no question that, I think, with some fear and trembling we approached this decision, and the consequences of any decision we made. There's no question, there's a contradiction or a disparity between offshore assessments and inshore measures of abundance. There also is a very real question about how well we can manage a fishery on a limited basis. We haven't necessarily managed the moratorium all that well. I think the FRCC felt the need to proceed. The status quo of simply keeping people off the water and not developing better practices in the fishery, not by that harvesting, learning more about the status of the resource, I think we thought that was kind of, that was just not enough.

(Crunching sounds)

BLADES: If the scientific evidence was murky, the politics were clear. Newfoundlanders were tired of waiting. They wanted to go back to work.

FISHERMAN: The only way that's going to work at all was to many boats, is open up a free for all and let whoever the hell can catch it, catch it. Open up and let her go. Catch it and whoever catches the most does the best.

BLADES: There were just as many licensed fishermen on the south coast, 1,400, as before the moratorium, despite the fact that the federal government had spent almost $2 billion on compensation and retraining since 1992. Last December John Crosby, the fisheries minister who imposed the moratorium in the first place, said government and industry had failed to act at a crucial point in history.

CROSBY: I certainly felt and still feel that this was the opportunity forced upon governments, of course, to do something about trying to improve the management of the fishery and the way it was run. But 3 or 4 years have gone by and there's no obvious signs at all of any fundamental change. I mean, with the fundamental failure of the fishery, you would think there would be some fundamental changes in place when the fishery comes back. But that doesn't appear to be the case. So I think it's very discouraging.

(Boat motors)

BLADES: On May 18, this year, the new fisheries minister reopened the fishery on the south coast. Every boat was on the water that day. On the wharves, huge gray plastic tubs were being shoveled full of ice.

(Shoveling, loud beeps, ambient speech)

BLADES: The government set a quota of 10,000 tons, a fraction of the old catch, and the quota was broken down even further, through 4 fishing seasons, with a few hundred tons allocated to this sector and that region or this gear type. In Placentia Bay the first gill net fishery was closed in less than 36 hours because the quota had been caught. The fishermen say optimistically that's a sign there's lots of fish out there. Others argue it is simply proof there are still too many fishermen chasing too few fish. George Rose, the research scientist, applauds the new management regime's small quotas and tight controls.

ROSE: The design was to spread it out right over the year by gear type, by area, which is good. I mean, this is, it's more like a survey, in other words, than a “let's just open it up and clean up 10,000 tons as fast as we can.” I've been out there now for, well, I was out there actually a month before the fishery opened, surveying the fish, and I was there right through the early days, and you really have to say days because the quota was caught so quickly. And it seemed to me that by and large, you know, almost to a man, almost to a boat, the fishermen were prosecuting this fishery in an exemplary fashion. I mean, they were doing everything right.

BLADES: What's going on on top of the water is one thing. But George Rose says researchers are no closer to understanding what's going on below. We still don't know how many fish are left in the sea. We can't tell from these first catches if the cod are reproducing. And there's no way to know what impact the reopening will have on the long-term health of the stock. John Lein of the Fisheries Resources Conservation Council says a carefully controlled fishery may be the best compromise possible. He says the number of fish caught isn't as important as how well Newfoundland fishermen control their practices in the future. It's a lesson people can learn wherever fish stocks are in danger.

(Sounds on deck; ringing)

FISHERMAN 1: If we haven't learned nothing now, Christ help us.

FISHERMAN 2: I mean, you know, after this, if we still didn't learn nothing, there have to be guts and leadership up on top.

FISHERMAN 1: Instead of making the fishery a scapegoat for everybody can't get a job, you got to let the fishermen go fishin' and keep numbers down the way it always was.


BLADES: Scientists, politicians, and the fishermen will be keeping an eye on the catch during the 3 more limited harvests this year. For Living on Earth, I'm Ted Blades on the waters of Placentia Bay, Newfoundland.



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