CANADA

An island tragedy

Newfoundlanders decry a ban on cod fishing

JOHN DeMONT July 13 1992
CANADA

An island tragedy

Newfoundlanders decry a ban on cod fishing

JOHN DeMONT July 13 1992

An island tragedy

Newfoundlanders decry a ban on cod fishing

They came to St. John’s to hear the grim announcement firsthand. Instead, the 400 Newfoundland fishermen found themselves shunted off to a hotel ballroom staring at a prerecorded video presentation by federal Fisheries Minister John Crosbie—who at that very moment was in a nearby room explaining to reporters why he had shut down the province’s main fishery for at least two years. Boiling with frustration, the fishermen burst out of the ballroom and headed towards the news conference. As they wrestled with Crosbie’s aides and began ramming and kicking the doors to the conference room, security guards inside jammed the doors with chairs and called frantically on walkie-talkies for police assistance. “I don’t frighten and I’m not going to be bulked,” a calm-looking Crosbie declared over the din. Stik, when it came time to leave, the husky white-haired Newfoundlander was escorted to his car by a phalanx of pokce officers. As he left, a woman in the crowd summed up the sentiments of the angry fishermen by shouting, “There’s no home for you in Newfoundland.”

Ah the same, Crosbie’s bleak message wih kkely never be forgotten in his home province. By slapping a moratorium on the northern cod fishery untk 1994, when the situation wih be reviewed, the minister single-handedly shut down Newfoundland’s main fishery—and al-

most certainly altered the course of the province’s economic history.

As a result, an estimated 19,000 fishermen and fish plant employees wih be thrown out of work and left to depend on government handouts of as kttle as $225 a week—if they fak to qualify for unemployment insurance payments—which the federal government pledged under a 10-week rekef plan. Then, a more comprehensive aid package wih take effect. Ultimately, the fishing ban is designed to help replenish the cod stocks—but by then, entire fishing communities could be dead. Declared Fred Morley, an economist with the Atlantic Provinces Economic Counck in Hakfax: “The only thing you can compare this to is the dust bowls of the Prairies in the 1930s.”

But unlike the droughts that devastated western farmers during the Depression, almost everyone connected with the fishery knew that the disaster was looming. For years, marine biologists have warned that the oncebountiful cod stocks off Newfoundland’s east coast were a diminishing resource. And since 1988, they have urged Ottawa to slash the akowable catch quotas to give the cod stocks time to rebukd.

However, the scientists faced formidable opponents. Newfoundland pohticians—including Crosbie—the big fishing and processing companies, and the staunchly independent in-

shore fishermen ak lobbied hard to temper the cuts in an effort to minimize the dislocation within the fishing industry. Their fondest hope: that the cod would come back on their own. Instead, the reverse happened. By 1991, Canadian fishermen caught just 70 per cent of their quota of 185,000 tons of cod. Six months ago, after more ominous scientific reports, Crosbie slashed the total akowable catch to just 120,000 tons.

Even that was not enough. Earker this year, the Canadian Atlantic Fisheries Scientific Advisory Committee reported that northern cod numbers had faken by 50 per cent since 1990. Particularly alarming was the composition of the cod stock: the number of fish that are mature enough to spawn had faken by 75 per cent, to the lowest level ever recorded.

No one is quite sure what has nearly ruined one of the world’s most plenties ful fishing areas. Scientists and fisberta men have offered a wide range of ¡rj possible explanations, from advance° ments in fish-finding technology to physical phenomena, such as recent cold water temperatures that may have caused the fish to migrate beyond Canada’s 200-mke limit. Much of the evidence, however, points to overfishing—both by trawlers from Spain and Portugal outside the 200-mke limit and by Canada’s own huge offshore trawlers.

Now, the feeding frenzy is over. Last month, the European Community agreed to a temporary suspension of EC fishing in the area. Federal officials say that Canada’s own two-year ban should akow cod that are now five or six years old, which account for the majority of the remaining cod stock, to reach the age of seven, at which time they wih be mature enough to spawn and help replenish the stock. Said Crosbie: “However difficult, these decisions had to be made. I am confident they are the right ones.”

The fishermen, however, made it clear last week that they felt Ottawa simply was not doing enough. “Hitler wouldn’t do this,” one man screamed during the news conference scuffle. Many vowed to ignore the ban. But others said that they could not afford to wait for the ban to end—or to see if, in fact, the cod stock replenishes itself. As they leave in search of work and a new way of life elsewhere, whole fishing communities along the eastern coast of Newfoundland wih certainly die (page 15).

For Crosbie, who is widely bekeved to be contemplating retirement from poktics, that would be a bitter legacy to leave behind. “In poktics, one never knows what to expect,” he declared before being escorted through the angry crowd of fishermen. Even so, he can be sure of one thing—Newfoundlanders are unlikely to soon forget that it was one of their own who ordered them to haul their nets from the waters, changing their fives forever.

JOHN DeMONT