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2009-03-08Cod: The Ecological History of the North Atlantic Fisheries

Cod: The Ecological History of the North Atlantic Fisheries
George A. Rose

It's been more than fifteen years since the Newfoundland cod fishery was shut down following the collapse of the stock, throwing 40,000 people out of work. Cod stocks of the North Atlantic have not recovered, and there's little evidence that they will in the foreseeable future. As George Rose shows in this consistently interesting book, it took less than 40 years for modern industrial fishing to destroy one of the world's great ecosystems.

Rose attempts to cover the entire ecological history of the North Atlantic, starting with a reasonably brief overview of the tectonic forces that shaped the physical environment, and then discussing the various species that inhabit the ecosystem - not just cod, pollock, haddock, arctic cod, hake, herring, plaice, flounder, capelin, etc but also the crustaceans, birds, seals, whales, and other species. There's also a chapter on Aboriginal fisheries and the arrival of Europeans. By the time we reach 1450, we're already 200+ pages into the book.

Another 170 pages covers the fishery from 1450 to Confederation. It's hardly an inspiring story - despite the endless hard work by generations of fishermen poverty was endemic, the system of buying and selling fish was grossly exploitative, product quality was often poor, scientific study was minimal, and there was very little regulation. However, the limited technical capability of the mostly-inshore fishermen meant that the ecosystem itself was largely intact. As Rose says:
The warming ocean conditions of the 1940's fostered increases in the stocks of cod and other species. The reduction in fishing during WWII lowered removal rates and added further growth to the stocks. By the late 1940s, strong production in cod and haddock led to expanding numbers of large fish on the Grand Banks and adjacent areas of the continental shelf. Cod stocks were strong in all regions, especially to the north off Labrador where the long-protected and largest spawning aggregations occurred. Haddock on the Grand Banks were abundant, perhaps near a million tonnes. Redfish and American plaice stocks were virtually untouched, and the vital capelin - the most important food for all the other fishes, seabirds, and whales - were likely at all-time highs. The warming conditions led to changing migration patterns of some southern species, which in turn led to new fisheries. The ecosystem was highly productive, with an abundance of many species.

And then we have the first sentence of the next chapter:
From 1950 to 1992, after sustaining an intensive fishery for over 350 years, many of the commercial stocks on the Grand Banks and continental shelf of Newfoundland and Labrador were fished to near annihilation.

Rose argues strongly that the destruction of the stocks was largely caused by unrestricted European trawling, especially by the Russians, Spanish, and Portuguese. By the late 1960s much of the damage had already been done (the Russians alone were taking an almost unbelievable 900,000 tons per year by this time), and later overfishing - right up until the 1992 closure - put the final nails in the coffin. The ocean environment is very dynamic, and changed several times over this period - mostly cooling, which decreased overall ecosystem productivity. Combined with this was a regulatory system that was frequently useless - Canada's emphasis on multilateral agreements is shown to have been especially destructive, as many other nations simply refused to abide by even the slight restrictions occasionally proffered by Canada. There was also a sense - both in Newfoundland and in the federal government - that the fishery was "backwards", and that the future lay in industrialization and non-fisheries "modernization". As a consequence, "the fishery was neither protected nor developed." The 150 pages or so that Rose spends on this period is for me the heart of the book - he provides detailed scientific information on the fishing rates, stock abundance for various species, climate-driven ecological changes, the endless political maneuverings, and the developing state of scientific knowledge. On page 474 is an echogram of the last known large aggregation of northern cod ever found on the Grand Banks - found in 1993, outside of the 200 mile limit, and in the middle of the foreign trawler fleet. By the next year, no large aggregations could be found.

In the last chapters Rose discusses the existing state of the fishery, and the underlying ecosystems. The crab and shrimp fisheries have entirely replaced cod, and the dollar value of landings has never been higher. Despite localized abundances - 20,000 tons of cod in Smith Sound, Trinity Bay - the great abundances of the past seem to be entirely gone, perhaps for good. Despite what is essentially the documentation of a catastrophe, Rose ends on an optimistic note - arguing that "Nature never forgets", that the ecosystem is at least potentially as productive as it has been in the past, and that with the right management and with a new emphasis on sustainability, we may yet again see a functional fishery, and a restored ecosystem in the North Atlantic.

BottomFeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood
Taras Grescoe, HarperCollins

This is an excellent book. Grescoe travels worldwide, from the lobster fishery in Nova Scotia to shrimp farms in Thailand, salmon fisheries in British Columbia to bluefin tuna restaurants in Tokyo. He's critical and tough-minded, well informed, and offers detailed, useful advice on how to eat seafood without contributing to the ongoing destruction of the world's marine ecosystems. Highly recommended.
2008-11-24A few old links
LA Times - "Altered Oceans" - a great 5-part series from August 2006.

2008-11-23A new hope!
Well, the site has been reconfigured. I'm attempting to focus on a few subjects, just to make site maintenance remotely possible. MPAs, ITQs, Coral Reefs, the Cod fishery.

Of course, there are a few more general documents as well.