The Death of a Fishery and a Coastal Community it Supported

I’ve reported previously on the precipitous decline of the cod fishery along the coast of Maine, here Tragedy of the Commons Strikes Again.  Yet another story, which I’m including in its entirety, written by Peter Behr of E&E, of the death of a Canadian fishery and the community it supported for so long.  Note the Canadian government is paying $120,000 to relocate families to other regions rather than continue to provide subsidies indefinitely.  A tale of greed, overharvesting, habitat destruction, optimistic projections and a changing climate.  So many lessons to be learned from this sad tale.  And raises some serious questions about the legitimacy of precautionary principles as a model for decision-making involving certain natural resources.  [Update: Also linking here Risky Decisions Brief_FINAL to the new Pew Environmental Group report mentioned below.]

How a fishery that was once ‘a marvel of the world’ died

GRAND BRUIT, Newfoundland — This old fishing port is a welcoming refuge for Atlantic sailors to tuck into on Newfoundland’s rocky, fog-draped south coast — except that it is empty of people today as if a plague had swept through it.

Bright-colored houses still perch on the steep hillsides that fall to the water, but they are padlocked, the paint is flaking off and the electric meters have been yanked out. A small, overgrown cemetery is all that remains of the generations of families who fished for cod and salted and dried the catch for shipment.

Grand Bruit, like other isolated “outports” on Newfoundland’s coasts, never had road connections to the rest of the island. Fishing was its sum and substance, and the collapse of the once-teeming cod populations that began in the 1960s caused the “plague” that fixed its decline.

Rather than continue government support for a place with no future, four years ago Canada offered the several dozen remaining Grand Bruit families a one-time “buyout.” They were paid $120,000 per household to move away and never come back. The resettlement now is complete, and other outports are to follow.

The demise of Newfoundland’s cod bears a message that should be included in the debate over climate change.

Years of indiscriminate overfishing by packs of factory ships from a half-dozen nations pushed cod populations to the brink, leaving them too vulnerable to withstand sudden, quirky shocks to their environment.

Now New England’s cod fishery faces the same threat.

Throwing precaution to the wind

Overoptimistic assessments of the condition of the cod schools by Canadian authorities permitted overfishing to continue until the population crashed in 1992, John Waldman, a biology professor at Queens College in New York, writes in a current article in Yale Environment 360.

It was, he says, an extraordinary example of disregarding what scientists called the “precautionary principle” — that managers of natural resources demonstrate that management policies are sustainable.

Fast-moving but hard-to-predict climate-based changes to many other sensitive environments are underway, scientists confirm. “It isn’t always warming,” said Jud Crawford, a biologist and policy manager of the Pew Environment Group’s Northeast fisheries investigations.

“There are parts of the Gulf of Maine that appear to be getting colder,” he said. Other shocks are not directly linked to temperature, he added, such as changes in precipitation and increases in particulate matter on ocean surfaces that reduce sunlight penetration.

In Newfoundland’s case, a fateful weather change in the 1980s altered the cod’s ecosystem abruptly and drastically. Canadian officials could have managed the cod fisheries with acute caution, recognizing uncertainties about how the cod might be threatened by changes to their entire ecosystem, but they didn’t.

The empty outports may simply be a reminder that economies change, industries rise and fall, and old ways give way to new. Young people who grow up in Newfoundland’s interior are most likely to head to its bustling capital St. John’s or pack up for oil field jobs in Alberta, said June Hiscock, harbor supervisor in the Newfoundland town of Burgeo. But to those like Crawford who are invested in the future of the environment, what happened to the northern cod was a collective carelessness that caused the loss of a massive resource.

Greed, optimistic projections and nature

Canadian fisheries scientist George Rose, author of the definitive book “Cod — The Ecological History of the North Atlantic Fisheries,” said the fish once numbered in the millions. They were so abundant that explorer John Cabot reported catching them in baskets.

The cod attracted a growing armada of factory ships, beginning in the 1950s, and these initial mammoth catches reduced the number and size of breeding adults.

“The lack of detailed understanding that growth and recruitment were falling led to overly optimistic projections of stock increases, and fishing quotas that were set far too high,” Rose wrote.

When catch numbers plummeted, Canada responded by pushing its territorial fishing boundaries out to 200 miles from shore in 1978 and declared the cod had been saved. But excessive quotas continued to stress the population.

Then came the first of a series of unpredicted shocks — a siege of bitter cold weather beginning in the mid-1980s that dramatically reduced populations of capelin, the cod’s principal food source, and pushed them southward, away from the cod’s historical territory. Rose reports that the estimated size of the capelin schools fell from 6 million tons to 200,000 tons in one year, in the early 1990s.

By then, the remaining cod, tracking the capelin, also moved south, funneling through a span of water between eastern Newfoundland and the Grand Banks called the Bonavista Corridor. “The fish were becoming ‘hyper-aggregated’ into a few large and very dense schools — and these super-concentrations of the remaining fish played right into the hands of both the Canadian fisheries and foreign trawler fleets,” he explained.

With cod catches plummeting, in 1992 Canada declared the closing of Canadian fisheries for northern and Grand Banks cod. “It had taken only forty-odd years to reduce the formerly vital Grand Banks and adjacent continental shelf — once a marvel of the world and a centre of human food production — to a virtual desert,” Rose wrote.

About 40,000 Newfoundlanders and Labradorians lost their livelihoods. There are signs of a limited recovery for the cod in the past few years, but far from the levels that could survive concerted fishing again, he said.

A lesson for New England?

New England’s cod fishing industry faces a similar crisis of fast-declining catches, Crawford said. Its fishing towns are not as vulnerable as the outports along Newfoundland’s coast, but its fishing industry and culture are.

In 2013, the New England Fishery Management Council ordered sharp cuts in the amount of fish that could be harvested, following evidence that earlier assessments of the size of the cod stock had been wildly off target. Specifically, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration concluded that a 2008 analysis of Gulf of Maine cod estimating a stock of 75 million tons was 300 percent too high.

On one side of this dilemma is New England’s cod fishing industry, whose members face the loss of a way of life, taking with it a defining seam of the region’s culture and tradition. They challenge NOAA’s foreboding estimates, pointing to increased catches lately.

That kind of thinking is a trap, Crawford said.

“When fisheries managers are faced with setting catch limits for things like cod, they are inclined always to set that catch as high it possibly can be. They are very reluctant to recognize the sources of uncertainty and scale back,” Crawford said. And the managers often assume that recovery simply requires adjusting the catch limit, so they ignore the need to protect the habitat as well.

“Everyone should be paying more attention to the Canadian example and trying to understand what they did and didn’t do,” he said.

Crucial decisions are coming from the Fishery Management Council this month about emergency catch limits for New England cod fishermen.

“Maybe now that things are so seriously in trouble, the issue will be taken more seriously. It possible that it’s too late. And it will be too late if we keep doing business as usual,” Crawford said.

Recently, the captain and the crew of a visiting sailboat wandered through Grand Bruit. They found one family had left their abandoned house unlocked. It was empty except for a pair of jackets, some furniture and a few food staples.

But taped to a cabinet door was a family photo and a note. “Take anything you want — all free now. We’d appreciate your leaving the cabin itself in good shape. We may be back someday. Best wishes and good health. The Jensens.”

“Someday” is not likely to come soon, if ever, for the Jensens and the cod.