Discussion Group – Cod don’t vote

Elizabeth Brubaker
The Next City
December 21, 1998

ON JULY 2, 1992, CANADA’S FISHERIES MINISTER BANNED COD FISHING off the northeast coast of Newfoundland and off the southern half of Labrador. The northern cod stock, once one of the richest in the world, had collapsed.

The moratorium on northern cod marked an unprecedented disaster for virtually all of Canada’s Atlantic groundfisheries — the fisheries for species that feed near the ocean floor. In the following year, the government scaled back the cod fishery in the northern part of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and closed it entirely off Newfoundland’s south coast, Nova Scotia’s east coast, and in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence. Then came further reductions and new moratoriums, not only on cod but also on redfish, white hake, American plaice, turbot, and witch flounder.

Despite the fishing bans, many stocks continued to decline, setting new historical lows year after year. Cod populations dropped to one-hundredth of their former sizes. In 1997, fishing for 22 stocks remained prohibited; most other groundfish stocks supported only severely limited fishing. The Fisheries Resource Conservation Council, responsible for advising the fisheries minister on catch levels, warned that the outlook was “even more bleak than at the beginning of the moratorium.” Some scientists worried that the worst hit stocks might never fully recover.

The collapse of the Atlantic groundfish stocks was both an ecological and an economic disaster. Groundfish hauls in the 1980s averaged a landed value of $345 million and a considerably higher processed value. According to Gus Etchegary, former chairman of the Fisheries Council of Canada and former president of Newfoundland’s largest fishing and processing company, had catches off Newfoundland and Labrador not declined in the preceding 25 years, they would have had an annual export value of $3 billion by 1997.

The fishery closures, which threw 40,000 fishermen and fish processors out of work, created social and economic chaos throughout Atlantic Canada, where half of the region’s 1,300 fishing communities depend entirely on the fisheries. According to Earle McCurdy, president of the Fish, Food, and Allied Workers Union, “What we have is not an adjustment problem, but the most wrenching societal upheaval since the Great Depression. Our communities are in crisis. The people of the fishery are in turmoil.”

The fact that this ecological and economic disaster could have been avoided makes it even more tragic. For too much of the history of the Atlantic fisheries, the wrong people have been making the wrong decisions for the wrong reasons. Politicians have permitted catch levels far beyond those recommended by their own scientists. They have subsidized expansion of the fishery despite countless warnings of overcapacity. Like political piranhas, they have cleaned out the fisheries in their greed to snatch the next election; this species of leader leaves nothing behind to sustain those who will soon follow.

Nature overthrown

FIVE CENTURIES AGO, THE AREA NOW KNOWN AS CANADA’S ATLANTIC COAST offered some of the world’s best fishing. After John Cabot’s voyage to Newfoundland in 1497, the crew returned to England with tales of a sea “swarming with fish, which could be taken not only with the net but in baskets let down with a stone, so that it sinks in the water.” The fish were as large as they were plentiful: Cabot likely found five- and six-foot-long cod weighing up to 200 pounds.

Throughout the following centuries, fishermen sailed from Portugal, France, Spain, and England to catch between 100,000 and 200,000 tonnes of cod a year. The ocean remained bountiful; one 17th-century discourse on Newfoundland reported that cod were so dense “that we heardlie have been able to row a boate through them.” All assumed boundless cod stocks. And given the fleets’ technological limitations, they probably were. In 1885, the Canadian Ministry of Agriculture predicted, “Unless the order of nature is overthrown, for centuries to come our fisheries will continue to be fertile.”

The overthrow took less than a century. Western Europeans intensified fishing in the northwest Atlantic in the 1950s, as did Eastern Europeans in the next decade. High-powered all-season factory trawlers located fish on their spawning grounds with sonar equipment, caught them in huge nets dragged across the seabed, and then filleted and froze the fish in on-board processing plants. Cod catches tripled from an annual average of 500,000 tonnes in the first half of this century to 1,475,000 tonnes in 1968. In the 15 years between 1960 and 1975, the 200 factory trawlers plying the waters off Newfoundland took as many northern cod as had been caught in the 250 years following Cabot’s arrival in Newfoundland.

The glory days would soon end. By 1978, cod catches were just 404,000 tonnes. Many hoped that Canada’s establishment of a 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone would allow stocks to recover. But chasing foreign boats from Canadian waters did little for the stocks, since Canadian boats soon took their places. After a brief recovery in the 1980s, cod catches plummeted, falling from 508,000 tonnes in 1982, to 475,000 tonnes in 1986, to 461,000 tonnes in 1988, to 384,000 tonnes in 1990, and to 183,000 tonnes in 1992. In 1996, four years after the first moratorium, fishermen caught only 13,000 tonnes of cod.

Laying blame

CANADA’S FISHERIES MANAGERS TRIED DESPERATELY TO BLAME the groundfish collapse on forces beyond their control. Colder water temperatures, they suggested, had driven the cod away, while an exploding seal population had eaten both the cod and the capelin, the cod’s favorite food. In fact, such environmental factors played minor roles. The real problem, scientists now widely agree, was that the politicians and bureaucrats in charge not only permitted but actually encouraged overfishing.

Following the northern cod stock collapse, scientists published numerous papers documenting the unambiguous role of overfishing. “Cold water and other environmental factors have been suggested as the underlying cause of the observed declines, but the data now emerging show that overfishing has been the prime agent,” concluded one researcher. Others stated: “Our analysis suggests that even if natural mortality has been higher in recent years, overfishing was responsible for the collapse in this population before 1991.” In study after study, it became increasingly indisputable that the northern cod stock “had been overfished to commercial extinction.”

Fisheries managers stuck to their discredited story. In its 1995 overview of the causes of stock collapses, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans barely mentioned overfishing, focusing instead on environmental change.

In addition to ignoring the evidence of overfishing, the government actively concealed it. After reading the conclusion of a 1995 DFO draft report on the status of the Gulf of St. Lawrence groundfish stocks that “It is unlikely that seal predation or environmental conditions are responsible for these trends in total mortality,” the assistant deputy fisheries minister fired off a memo asking whether this evidence was consistent with the department’s previous statements on seals. Not surprisingly, the statement blaming overfishing disappeared from the report’s final version.

This was not an isolated incident: DFO routinely suppressed politically inconvenient research into the causes of the cod decline. An internal government report, based on meetings with almost every member of DFO’s science branch in 1992, charged that “Scientific information surrounding the northern cod moratorium, specifically the role of the environment, was gruesomely mangled and corrupted to meet political ends.” It noted that the department routinely gagged its scientists, leaving communication with the public to “ill-informed” spokespersons. According to the report, “It appears that science is too much integrated into the politics of the department.”

The federal government’s suppression of Ransom Myers’s research reflects its attitude toward scientific evidence. Myers, who worked for DFO between 1984 and 1997 and whom his peers have called “the best fish scientist in Canada,” was one of the first to challenge the official view of the cod collapse. In 1994, he co-authored an article that stated: “We reject hypotheses that attribute the collapse of the northern cod to environmental change. . . . We conclude that the collapse of the northern cod can be attributed solely to overexploitation.”

Once the government got wise to the threat posed by Myers, it did its best to silence him. In one instance, it forbade him and two colleagues from distributing written copies of a paper to an international conference on marine mammals. When a member of Parliament requested the paper, then fisheries minister Brian Tobin denied its existence, later complaining that scientists could be petulant, pompous prima donnas: “Take all of these scientists if they feel constrained working within government and make them free.”

Myers’s 1995 comment to the Globe and Mail — “what happened to the fish stocks had nothing to do with the environment, nothing to do with seals. It is simply overfishing” — earned him this formal upbraiding from DFO: “Your comments, as presented by the media, did not give a balanced perspective on the issue of the status of the cod stocks and were inconsistent with the June 1995 Newfoundland Stock Status Report. . . . In the future, you are expected to respect both the system of primary spokespersons and peer conclusions on matters within your area of expertise.” Myers was lucky: The assistant deputy minister of science had wanted to fire him, but his science director had bargained him down to a reprimand.

Even Myers’s departure from DFO didn’t spare him the department’s wrath. In 1997, after he told the Ottawa Citizen about the department’s efforts to suppress his research, two senior bureaucrats sued both the paper and the scientist for libel. David Schindler, a scientist at DFO for 22 years, called the lawsuit “the worst form of intimidation.” But the suppression and intimidation hardly surprised him: “It’s almost a tradition in the Canadian civil service to act this way.” Tradition or not, Myers refused to be cowed. He told a government committee, “I believe it is simply a suit to get me to shut up. . . . This is not a private suit. This is a suit by bureaucrats who are doing it on government time and who are using government resources to harass citizens whose opinions they don’t like.”

Despite the federal government’s efforts to point the finger at nature rather than its own policies, no one else is to blame for the collapse of the stocks. The government has long had jurisdiction over inland fishing and, from 1977, has controlled fishing within 200 miles of Canada’s shores. Economists have described the tidal fishery as “among the most closely regulated of industries in Canada and comparable industrial democracies.” Over the decades, the Fisheries Act and other fishing regulations have governed virtually every detail of the fishery — from where fishing can take place, to the number and size of boats fishing, to the type of gear used, to the amount of drinking water fishing boats must carry.

How many jobs?

IN HIS 1980 PAPER ON THE HISTORY OF FISHERIES MANAGEMENT, DFO’s T. D. Iles spelled out four questions that can be asked about a fishery: the biological question, how many fish?; the economic question, how many dollars?; the social question, how many jobs?; and the political question, how many votes? The politicians and bureaucrats managing Canada’s Atlantic fisheries have too often asked only the social and political questions. The inevitable answers spelled doom for a once great biological and economic resource.

The 1970 Economic Policy for the Fisheries explained the government’s primary objective: maximizing employment. Six years later, the Department of the Environment’s Policy for Canada’s Commercial Fisheries vowed that fisheries management would be guided not by biological factors but by economic and social issues, including “occupational opportunity.” It proposed programs to stabilize and supplement fishermen’s incomes, stating that in the past, “fishing has been regulated in the interest of the fish. In the future it is to be regulated in the interest of the people who depend on the fishing industry.” In the 1980s, ministers and DFO echoed these policies.

As questions arose about the economic viability of policies maximizing employment, the government paid lip service to balancing social concerns with economic reality. The resulting policies often seemed schizophrenic, with contradictory strategies appearing within a single document. Too often, short-term jobs — and the votes they bring — continue to come first.

Fishing for subsidies

TO PUT CONSTITUENTS TO WORK, GOVERNMENTS DEVISED DOZENS of assistance programs for fishermen and fish processors. Federal support for the Atlantic fisheries dates at least as far back as 1930, to the formation of the United Maritime Fishermen and the funding of its cooperative processing and marketing efforts. Subsidies increased over the years, generally in response to periodic crises in the industry. They came in buckets after 1977, as federal and provincial governments pushed the fishing industry to plunder Canada’s new 200-mile fishery zone. One bureaucrat recalled, “It was a gold rush kind of mentality.” Fisheries biologist Richard Haedrich elaborated: “The idea was that the streets were paved with fish and that now that the Europeans were gone it would come to the Canadians.”

In those heady days, provincial boards showered fishermen with loans at concessionary interest rates to help them buy bigger boats and more sophisticated gear. Between 1977 and 1982, fishermen’s indebtedness to the boards increased by 400 per cent to $220 million. Provincial officials gave little thought to the repayment of their 7,917 outstanding loans. By 1982, almost half of the loans made to Newfoundland’s fishermen were overdue.

Governments also helped fishermen and fish processors — some of whom had taken out newspaper advertisements promoting fleet expansion — through tax exemptions for fuel and equipment, by buying insolvent processing companies, by subsidizing workers with various unemployment programs, and by purchasing canned fish for international food aid. By one estimate, public expenditures on the Atlantic fisheries totalled $8 billion in the 1980s.

Worldwide, governments massively subsidize their fisheries: One estimate puts annual subsidies at US$21 billion a year, another at US$54 billion — all for an industry that produces only US$70 billion each year. These subsidies have financed fleets technologically capable of, and economically bound to pursue, increasingly unsustainable catches. Two former senior managers in the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization’s Fisheries Department calculate that the world’s industrial fishing capacity increased by 22 per cent between 1992 and 1997, a level sure to wipe out many stocks. At the beginning of the 1990s, this agency reported that 44 per cent of the world’s marine stocks were fully to heavily exploited, 16 per cent were overexploited, 6 per cent were depleted, and 3 per cent were very slowly recovering from overfishing. As conventional, high-value stocks decline, fishermen set their nets for species lower on the food chain, often jeopardizing both their future economic returns and the conventional species’ chances of recovery.

In Canada, Newfoundland attracted the most assistance. Economists at Memorial University calculate that, between 1981 and 1990, federal and provincial net outlays for Newfoundland’s fisheries totalled $3 billion, far exceeding the value of the catch. Of this, about half took the form of unemployment insurance (UI) benefits. By 1990, Newfoundland’s fishermen were receiving $1.60 in benefits for every dollar they earned in the fishery.

Unemployment insurance supported generations of Atlantic fishermen and processors. Introduced in the mid-1950s, the program became progressively more generous, evolving from insurance to a permanent income-transfer program. In 1971, six weeks of fishing bought five weeks of benefits; by 1976, eight weeks of fishing bought 27 weeks of benefits. Until eligibility requirements tightened in the 1990s, plant workers could work only 10 weeks and qualify for 42 weeks of benefits. In 1992, the average UI benefit for fishing families in Atlantic Canada was $12,219. Families with incomes at or above $80,000 averaged another $16,668 from UI; this wealthy group nabbed nine per cent of the total benefits paid to fishing families.

UI and fishing became institutionalized. The 1982 Task Force on Atlantic Fisheries recommended that fishermen receive “a reasonable income as a result of fishery-related activities, including fishery-related income transfer payments.” In fact, fishermen now consider UI itself, rather than fish, as a resource to be tapped. As former fisheries minister John Crosbie explained: “In recent years, [Newfoundlanders’] economic survival has depended less on the fish they caught than on their ability to qualify for financial-support programs. Federal unemployment insurance is the lifeblood of rural Newfoundland.”

Unemployment insurance: Ensuring unemployment

“LIFEBLOODOR NOT, IT IS HARD TO IMAGINE THAT ANYTHING COULD HAVE so effectively threatened rural Newfoundland’s fishing communities: UI created a dependence that it could not sustain, leaving tens of thousands of fishermen, processors, and their families wondering how they will survive in the coming years. It encouraged people to remain in communities lacking any promise of a viable future. More insidiously, the program prompted young people to quit school. In Newfoundland, 83 per cent of fishermen have not graduated from secondary school, and more than a third have not attended any secondary school. Since youths could earn more in the UI-supplemented fishery than in many year-round jobs requiring formal education, forgoing education seemed like a rational occupational choice — until the fishery collapsed, leaving them adrift.

Worst of all, UI accelerated the groundfish stock collapse. The inflated workforce put increasing — and unsustainable — pressure on fish stocks. In Newfoundland, the number of inshore fishermen increased 33 per cent in the seven years following UI’s introduction, even as the average fisherman’s catch fell by 50 per cent. And again, the 15 years following the 1972 changes to the UI system saw the number of fishermen double and fish processors almost triple.

The goal of qualifying workers for UI drove much of the fishery expansion in the 1970s and 1980s. Shortly before his retirement, Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells explained: UI recipients “were shown methods by governments as to how to do it! In some cases, fish plants and make-work projects would hire workers for a certain number of weeks and then lay off those workers and hire others, so that they’d all have qualifications for unemployment insurance. This was done with the approbation and knowledge of both the federal and provincial governments.” According to Wells, putting people on UI “was the easier way to cope with the political problem of unemployment.” For cash-strapped provinces, the federally funded UI program beat provincial aid.

The overcapacity that eventually killed the Atlantic groundfishing industry was hardly an unrecognized problem. As early as 1970, a federal cabinet memorandum estimated that Canada’s commercial catch could be harvested by 60 per cent fewer boats, half as much gear, and half the number of fishermen.

The Department of the Environment’s 1976 Policy for Canada’s Commercial Fisheries acknowledged overcapacity in both catching and processing. But no sooner had it warned that the industry’s survival required paring down than it started backpedalling: “Where damage to the community would outweigh advantages in the short run, the changes must be postponed.”

A comparison of the Icelandic and Canadian fisheries in the 1970s confirmed that something was terribly amiss. Although Atlantic Canadians landed and processed only 82 per cent as many fish and produced a lower quality product, there were 10 times as many Canadian fishermen, 17 times more boats, and twice the plant workers. But despite repeated warnings of the dangers of overcapacity, the industry, assisted by the government, grew apace.

In 1981, yet another federal department — this time Fisheries and Oceans — warned of overcapacity and promised a major policy shift. The government would no longer base fisheries management on the “expansionist development philosophy” of the previous decade. It would harmonize assistance programs “to provide a better match between available resources and harvesting and processing capacity.” Despite the promising words, nothing changed. Nor did change follow the warning that the Task Force on Atlantic Fisheries issued the following year: If the government does not decrease incentives to expand, “overcapacity will forever plague the fishery and rob it of vitality.” And still no change followed the 1989 Scotia-Fundy Groundfish Task Force’s conclusion that “excessive harvesting capacity was a major obstacle to a turnaround in the fishery, and that overcapacity and overinvestment had to be reduced as quickly as possible.”

By the time the 1993 Task Force on Incomes and Adjustment in the Atlantic Fishery issued its predictable warnings about overcapacity, it was too late: The groundfish stocks had collapsed. Decades of subsidies — amounting to billions of dollars — had created a false economy based on a resource that no longer existed. Governments had paid people to destroy the fishery.

The fruits of Canadian citizenship

IRONICALLY, THE ATLANTIC GROUNDFISHERY COLLAPSE HASN’T LED the federal government to stop spending money. On the contrary, it has already spent over $4 billion on Atlantic groundfish programs for the 1990s and shows no signs of slowing down. Upon closing the northern cod fishery in July 1992, John Crosbie announced an interim assistance program that would give fishermen and plant workers $225 a week for 10 weeks. Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells immediately wrote to the prime minister, protesting a level of compensation “that for many is less than welfare. That, Prime Minister, cannot be the fruits of Canadian citizenship in this province or any other.” Within two weeks, the Canadian government announced a new deal, the Northern Cod Adjustment and Recovery Program, which would dole out up to $406 a week.

The bulk of federal spending in the 1990s has gone to the Atlantic Groundfish Strategy (TAGS). That $1.9-billion program initially included retraining, licence buy-backs, and early retirement incentives, with the goal of reducing capacity by 50 per cent. But with a budget unable to accommodate over 40,000 eligible people, the government soon reallocated TAGS funds from capacity reduction to income support. Not surprisingly, given its revised mandate, TAGS failed miserably to wean people from the industry. Even leaving the program did not signify independence: The government decided in 1997 that TAGS benefits should enable recipients to qualify for UI. As the program neared its close, almost 25,000 fishers and processors continued to draw benefits; the great majority expected to seek follow-up assistance when TAGS expired. The government didn’t disappoint them: In June 1998, it announced a new $550-million assistance package. Within days, amid howls of protest over its stinginess, it upped the promised assistance to $730 million.

TAGS made continued attachment to the fishery profitable, even in the absence of fish. Six years after the northern cod fishery closure, overcapacity remains a serious problem. Virtually everyone agrees that the fishery needs to shrink. The Fisheries Resource Conservation Council believes that the fishery can support one-half to one-quarter as many fishermen and plant workers as it has in the past.

Messy information

CAN WE FORGIVE GOVERNMENTS FOR CREATING OVERCAPACITY and allowing overfishing? Would all fisheries managers have made such mistakes? Unquestionably not. Scientists and fishermen alike warned the politicians and bureaucrats that the fishery could not expand willy-nilly and that increased fishing was depleting stocks. Governments simply ignored and suppressed these warnings.

In his book Fishing for Truth, Alan Finlayson explains that the first augury came from Newfoundland’s inshore fishermen — the traditional small-boat fishermen who catch cod that migrate inshore to feast on capelin. When, in 1982, the size of both the inshore catch and the individual fish began to decline, fishermen accused the offshore fleet of fishing too heavily. Although inshore catches continued to fall — from 113,000 tonnes in 1982 to 72,000 tonnes in 1986 — and inshore fishermen became increasingly vocal about the perils of overfishing, the government dismissed their concerns. Federal fisheries information officer Bernard Brown described the government’s attitude: “Essentially they were telling the inshore fishermen who were creating all the uproar about the destruction of the stocks, that you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

The government’s reluctance to listen to the inshore fishermen reflected a centralized bureaucracy’s difficulty in dealing with decentralized information. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans found it far easier to get systematic, uniform, and quantifiable information from 50 offshore trawlers owned by a few companies than from tens of thousands of widely dispersed small-boat fishermen using different gear in different ways. Explained Brown, “you just don’t want to deal with that kind of messy information.”

In 1986, the Newfoundland Inshore Fisheries Association became more scientific: It commissioned three biologists to review the government’s stock assessments. Their report criticized the government’s data sources, statistical procedures, and conclusions. It charged that the government, systematically interpreting uncertain information in the most optimistic light, had overestimated the fish stock by as much as 55 per cent each year and that, as a result, the government’s catch levels prevented fish stocks from recovering. DFO, true to its habit of rebutting rather than communicating, dismissed the review as superficial.

Paper fish

DESPITE DFO’S BEST EFFORTS, OMINOUS NEWS ABOUT THE HEALTH OF COD STOCKS did emerge. In 1986, two DFO scientists estimated the size of 1984’s northern cod spawning stock at less than half the official prediction, meaning that fishermen could have been catching between 40 and 60 per cent of the available stock, rather than a sustainable 20 per cent. Also in 1986, George Winters, head of the Pelagic Fish, Shellfish, and Marine Mammals division of DFO’s Newfoundland Region, presented a paper to the Canadian Atlantic Fisheries Scientific Advisory Committee (CAFSAC), dismissing his department’s northern cod stock assessment as “non gratum anus rodentum”: It wasn’t worth a rat’s rear end. DFO had consistently overestimated stock sizes and permissible catches. “The decline in the inshore catches since 1982 has been due to the increase in the offshore exploitation rate,” he concluded. CAFSAC agreed with at least some of Winters’s findings: Catch levels between 1977 and 1985 had been twice as high as they should have been.

Catch limits for 1987 reflected none of these warnings. Nor did the following year bring more restraint. Although the Task Group on Newfoundland Inshore Fisheries, commissioned to investigate the drop in inshore catches, recommended holding the 1988 total allowable catch for northern cod at the previous year’s level, the government insisted on raising it by 10,000 tonnes, to 266,000 tonnes.

By the end of 1988, biological reality made a mockery of DFO’s optimism. CAFSAC advised the government to reduce the 1989 allowable catch of northern cod from 266,000 tonnes to 125,000 tonnes. Instead, those in charge set it at 235,000 tonnes — almost twice that recommended.

In fact, setting unsustainable catches had already become departmental policy. Earlier that year, DFO had introduced “the 50 per cent rule”: If stock estimates declined and the environmentally sound 20 per cent target discomforted the industry, managers could recommend a catch halfway between the current catch and the target. As John Crosbie said, after Fisheries Minister Tom Siddon announced the 1989 allowable catch: “We are dealing with thousands of human beings, who live and breathe and eat and need jobs . . . so we are not going to, because of the formula . . . immediately go to a quota of 125,000 tonnes.”

Historian Leslie Harris, who in 1989 chaired the Northern Cod Review Panel — a review that savaged DFO’s data and methodologies — believes that a more responsive government could have averted the cod catastrophe: “Even in 1988-89, if we had strictly followed the rules then and said, ‘Okay, we’re going to chop the fishing season from 260,000 tonnes down to 120,000,’ then that might have saved the day — probably would have saved the day.”

That didn’t happen: Although warned by scientists that stock levels threatened the very survival of the northern cod fishery, it set the 1990 catch at 197,000 tonnes. John Crosbie recalled, “We were trying to keep the [catch] high enough to . . . save jobs of people employed by at least one of the three threatened plants owned by Fishery Products International (FPI). . . . I believed, if the quota was a bit larger, FPI might be able to keep its fish plant open at Trepassey in my constituency.” With his eye on votes rather than on the fish, Crosbie illustrated what he would later describe as “an understandable, if misguided, tendency among politicians of all stripes to put the interests of fishermen — who were voters — ahead of the cod, who weren’t.”

Meanwhile, the government was also ignoring scientific evidence in allocating other cod stock catches. In March 1991, 100 fishermen vandalized a DFO office to protest the early closure of the cod fishery off southwestern Newfoundland, which had caught too many redfish along with the cod. After the protest, it took only two days for the government to find an additional redfish quota and to reopen the cod fishery.

Commercial fisherman Stuart Beaton explained, “Time and again in the past 20 years, fishermen, plant workers, and companies have hit the streets in often violent protest because the quota for a given year or region was exhausted and there were boats to pay for, mouths to feed, UI to qualify for, or elections in the near future. Most of the time more fish was found. ‘Paper fish’ as it is known.”

The government brought the allowable catch for northern cod down by another 7,000 tonnes to 190,000 tonnes in 1991, but try as they might, fishermen could not catch more than 127,000 tonnes. Yet DFO continued to insist that the cod stock was growing. In the words of Michael Harris, author of the most damning book yet about the cod collapse, “Ottawa’s whistling past the graveyard was getting loud enough to wake the dead.” Ottawa whistled its way into 1992, reducing the northern cod catch by just 5,000 tonnes.

Ottawa’s bravado made even the big offshore trawling companies nervous. Fisheries Products International President Vic Young admitted, “I can’t say if they’re right or wrong. I can say I’m very uncomfortable with it. Why? Because I now see that there’s no fish in 2J [the fishing zone off the southern half of Labrador]. That makes everyone very, very uncomfortable.”

It soon became apparent that even the 125,000-tonne catch that Crosbie had sneered at just months earlier would be hopelessly high. In February 1992, CAFSAC estimated that the northern cod’s spawning biomass — the total weight of fish mature enough to spawn — had decreased to 130,000 tonnes and recommended that the catch for the first half of 1992 be cut to 25,000 tonnes. Crosbie later explained that he was under tremendous pressure: “the political pressures on me . . . to do something — anything — about the fishery made the job almost unbearable.” Perhaps for this reason, while he followed CAFSAC’s advice, announcing a six-month catch of 25,000 tonnes, he maintained the catch for the year at 120,000 tonnes. But the fish could not support such plans. By July, CAFSAC estimated that the northern cod stock had fallen to between 48,000 and 108,000 tonnes. Only then did Crosbie ban fishing for northern cod.

Was he too late? Crosbie has considered that question: “I wish I could say that we weren’t too late in closing the fishery. I wish I could say the northern cod and other species are recovering and that the seas off Newfoundland will once again teem with fish as they did for the first five hundred years of our history. I wish I could say it, but I can’t. Not yet. Probably never.”

Plus ça change . . .

I WISH I COULD SAY THAT POLITICIANS HAD LEARNED THEIR LESSONS. I WISH I could say that after the collapse of the cod, they managed the Atlantic fisheries with care and caution. I wish I could say it, but I can’t. Not yet. Probably never.

Upon taking over the fisheries portfolio in 1996, Fred Mifflin made promising noises about rearranging the government’s priorities. “Unless science comes before political, economic, business, social, or other considerations,” he admitted, “fisheries are going to be in trouble.” Nonetheless, in September, Mifflin claimed that “the recovery so far has been absolutely phenomenal” and announced a weekend-long “food fishery” for cod — for three days, fishermen would be allowed to catch up to 10 cod per day for personal use. Fishermen went wild. Over the course of that and a second weekend, they took 21,944 boats onto the water and caught 1,230 tonnes of cod. The fishing alarmed scientists, who knew that the stocks remained extremely low and that any healthy schools should be preserved to permit stock recovery. A memo from one DFO cod expert sounded a distressingly familiar note: “I am disappointed and disheartened that important decisions are being made that disregard the scientific advice from this region.”

Politics won again in April 1997 — shortly before the June federal election was called — when Mifflin reopened the cod fishery off Newfoundland’s southern coast and in the northern Gulf of St. Lawrence. He said “it felt like Christmas” on announcing the reopening. As irresistible as it must have been to play Santa Claus and to distribute goodies to the electorate, the government was in no position to give away the cod.

To be sure, Mifflin had followed the Fisheries Resource Conservation Council’s advice. That the council might have told him what he wished to hear would come as no surprise since it consisted of members appointed by the minister, senior DFO bureaucrats, and delegates from provincial governments with a mission to help the government achieve not only its conservation objectives but also its social objectives. As the council noted in the introduction to its report recommending the reopening of the fisheries: “Minister, we are your conservation council.”

Even so, the council’s recommendation came with caveats: “The Council is concerned that the abundance of [groundfish] stocks remains low, much below historical levels. Recruitment, while improving, remains poor. Growth, despite definite improvements in the condition of individual fish, remains poor. Environmental conditions, while somewhat improved, remain rather cold, particularly in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.”

Independent scientists also warned that stocks were still dangerously low — perhaps as low as one or two per cent of their former levels — and some were still declining. Reopening the fishery, they said, was a “risky and irresponsible” “pre-election ploy.” Fish ecologist Kim Bell, who had just spent three years studying cod for the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada and had concluded that the government should add cod to the endangered species list, was appalled. “I can only hope that they know something I don’t know,” he said of the reopening of the fishery. “If they don’t, it is a big mistake.”

Mifflin also used other groundfish stocks as political pawns. Shortly before the federal election call, he unilaterally increased by 1,100 tonnes Canada’s share of the turbot quota in Davis Strait, between Baffin Island and Greenland, without consulting Denmark, which shared the quota. His action contravened the advice of the nearby Inuit, the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization, and his own Fisheries Resource Conservation Council, all of whom were concerned about the dangers of depleting the turbot stock. A federal court later overturned the minister’s decision, restored the original quota, and criticized Mifflin for ignoring his assistant deputy minister, who had warned that raising the quota “would be completely irresponsible.”

Even the northern cod stock didn’t escape the fisheries minister’s pre-election politicking. Three days before the election, Mifflin told the St. John’s Evening Telegram that the northern cod stock was showing encouraging signs, that he would ask DFO to take a “special look” at it, and that he might be able to open a restricted fishery within a couple of years. His optimism was baseless. Less than a year later, the Fisheries Resource Conservation Council reported that the stock had been declining since the early 1990s, that the offshore portion of the stock was especially sparse, that few young fish had grown large enough to be considered “recruited” into the spawning biomass, and that natural mortality had increased. The council warned that unless the latter problem was addressed, “the chances for recovery for this stock are limited (at best).” Edward Sandeman, former director of science for DFO in the Newfoundland region, sounded a less technical warning: “The last thing we should do is polish off the last bit of our remaining spawning stock. If we do, there will be nothing.”

Surrendering control

FACED WITH SUCCESSIVE CRISES, POLITICIANS AND BUREAUCRATS have proven to be adept at buying time by studying Canada’s troubled fishing industry. As fisheries biologist Carl Walters noted, bureaucrats “are rewarded not for effective action, but for making every problem disappear into an endless tangle of task force meetings and reviews.” In the last century, well over 100 official commissions have reviewed the numbers, consulted with stakeholders, and penned volumes of recommendations, resulting in what one of those countless commissions described as a “traditional cycle of a crisis, followed by a study and perhaps a subsidy, then partial recovery, then back to a crisis again.”

While governments have succeeded in putting off some fishery problems, they haven’t succeeded in solving them. And how could they? Too often, they themselves have created the problems. As MP and then chair of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans George Baker said of the groundfish collapse: “This is not a natural disaster that’s happened. This is a catastrophe made by man. We believe this collapse to a very large degree was caused by the government of Canada.” Baker has since left the committee. Speculation abounds that he was fired for his sharp criticism of the government.

Baker’s recognition aside, no politicians or bureaucrats have been fired, or demoted, or even — unlike the scientist who dared tell the truth about the collapse — reprimanded for making decisions that destroyed the groundfish stocks. In its 1998 report on the East Coast fisheries, the standing committee did recommend — fruitlessly, it turned out — “that senior DFO personnel who are viewed by the fishing community as being responsible for the crisis in the fishery be removed from the Department.” The committee chose its words carefully, intentionally avoiding any suggestion of firing. Regardless, four committee members couldn’t stomach even the mild recommendation; in a “supplementary opinion” they wrote that “‘Witch hunt’ justice is no justice at all” and insisted that removing bureaucrats “would certainly do nothing to restore trust between the fishing community and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.” MP Wayne Easter, the parliamentary secretary for Fisheries Minister David Anderson, agreed: “How could you fire somebody? It’s pretty hard to pinpoint one individual, or one department or one government as being responsible for the crisis in the fishery.”

As outrageous as such a remark would sound in the private sector, it holds some truth. Fault lies not only with a handful of bureaucrats and ministers but also in the very nature of Canada’s fisheries management system. The solution is not just to punish those responsible but to depoliticize the fishery. In the words of fisherman Stuart Beaton, “If fisheries are to survive, governments will have to surrender control over them.”

Given political pressures and bureaucratic structures, government managers have neither the incentives nor the tools to make good long-term decisions. Worsening matters, when governments control fisheries, fishermen, too, follow a short-term agenda. If a fisherman who has no control over fish stocks leaves a fish uncaught to promote conservation, he has no guarantee that it will survive to spawn or to be caught the following year. More likely, it will end up in his competitors’ nets. That threat leads even the most honorable fisherman to catch as much as he can, while he can.

The transfer of ownership and control of fisheries from central governments to fishermen, fishing companies, or fishing communities changes these incentives. Exclusive, permanent property rights let fishery owners benefit from conservation, giving them incentives to monitor and conserve their stocks and invest in their habitats. As one economist said: “you don’t have to be an economist to know that it doesn’t pay to kill the goose that lays the golden egg.” As the stocks grow and catches become easier and larger, the value of the fishing rights increases. Private fisheries around the world — salmon fisheries in Iceland’s rivers, commercial netting operations off the Scottish coast, inland fisheries in England, oyster beds in the United States, artificial reefs and inshore fisheries in Japan, quota-based fisheries in Iceland, New Zealand, and a growing number of other countries, and traditional community fisheries around the world — confirm that property rights promote sustainable fishing behavior.

Putting those who fish in charge of fisheries enables them to use their detailed knowledge of local stocks, fish behaviors, habitats, and environmental conditions to make their operations sustainable. Fishermen’s information — that “messy information” so distasteful to DFO’s central planners — is specific to their time and place, allowing them to choose appropriate actions and implement them quickly, unlike most government managers, who operate under painfully long approval processes.

Property rights ensure healthy fisheries only to the extent that they fully internalize the costs and benefits of management decisions. Fishery owners must understand that if they set unsustainable catch limits and destroy their resource, they — rather than taxpayers — will bear the full consequences of their actions. Knowing that they cannot look to the government to bail them out — knowing, in short, that they depend on their fisheries for their very survival, fishery owners make wise decisions indeed.

In January 1998, Ransom Myers commented on the collapse of the cod: “The disaster in the cod fishery is now worse than anyone expected. . . . It may be a generation before we see a recovery of the cod. That a five-hundred-year-old industry could be destroyed in 15 years by a bureaucracy is a tragedy of epic proportions.” Freeing the fisheries from the political arena and entrusting those who have a long-term interest in their success will prevent future groundfish tragedies.



  1. Don Cayo, President, Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, Halifax, N.S., replies: February 3, 1999

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Don Cayo, President, Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, Halifax, N.S., replies: February 3, 1999

Kudos to Elizabeth Brubaker. “Cod don’t vote” is a masterly analysis of Canada’s shameful failure to manage and protect its East Coast groundfish stocks.

But just because our tradition has collapsed doesn’t mean that all the boats — or even many of the boats — are beached. The number of fishermen in Atlantic Canada has dipped only 2,000 since the cod moratorium was imposed in 1991, and those still fishing go after new species, especially crab and shrimp, with vigor. The value of fish shipments from Atlantic Canada — bolstered by about $500-million worth of fish caught off other countries and processed here — reached an all-time high of $1.8-billion last year.

In this renaissance is a hint that we’ve learned something. Hundreds of plants have closed — reducing though not eliminating, the industry’s over-capitalization. Those that remain, operate more efficiently than in the past and they process catches to a higher value. In other words, instead of exporting fish as Atlantic Canada has always done, we’re beginning to export fish dinners. Efficient plants employ fewer people, of course — a fact that would be unfortunate had not the previous employment levels been absurdly and unsustainably high, as Ms. Brubaker points out.

Learning something, however, doesn’t mean we’ve learned enough. I still worry about the mad race, especially in Newfoundland, to get more and more boats geared up to catch more and more shrimp and crab. These stocks have burgeoned since masses of cod stopped eating them, but our experience with cod shows just how quickly over-fishing can decimate a species.

I don’t know who to believe, the worrywarts who think we’re expanding catching capacity too fast or the fishermen, processors, and bureaucrats who assert there’s no problem. I do know, however, about the urgent need to get the incentives right. I note that on shore, where we see a more rational number of more efficient plants, the incentives are more nearly right than before — namely no more subsidies to build one in every coastal community. But on the water, Canada still won’t commit to the kind of incentives — long-term, transferable property rights that guarantee each player a specific share of the catch now and into the future — that would foster a real conservation ethic. Property rights encourage every player to moderate today’s catch in order to enhance tomorrow’s. Without them, we’re left with the same old system where politics can always trump good sense. And, like the cod, shrimp and crab don’t vote.

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