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The Canadian Atlantic Cod Fishery - the loss of a fishing industry...

In 1992 the cod stocks of the Grand Banks fishery around Newfoundland collapsed. The Canadian Government had to close the fishery, and over 40,000 people lost their jobs. So how did the cod stocks of one of the largest and most valuable fisheries in the world almost completely disappear?

The history of fishing on the Grand Banks goes back over 500 years. In 1497 the explorer John Cabot marvelled at the number of cod in Newfoundland waters. Over the centuries that followed, an extensive fishing industry developed in the area. Prior to the 1950s this cod fishery had an annual yield of around 250,000 tons.

However, during the second half of the 20th century rapid developments in fishing technology occurred. A new breed of ship appeared - the 'factory trawler'. These ships came from countries many thousands of miles away and could quickly catch, process and freeze hundreds of tons of fish.

The late 1960s saw the Grand Banks cod fishery peak, with catches of over 800,000 tons. This was unsustainable. By the mid-1970s the annual catch had dropped to 300,000 tons with serious declines in other associated fish species.

With the cod fishery in decline, the Canadian government had to act. Territorial fishing rights were extended to 200 nautical miles. This banished foreign fishing fleets from the cod grounds. However, the Canadian government failed to establish good fishery management controls. Instead they invested heavily in their own fishing industry.

New trawling methods were developed which involved dragging nets the size of football fields along the seabed. Such methods catch huge quantities of fish, but are highly destructive, destroying crucial seafloor habitat. Also, fish were targeted as they gathered to spawn, severely effecting recruitment of the fish stock.

Despite warnings that the cod stocks were in trouble, the cod fishery continued to be heavily over-fished. Fishing quotas remained too high in an effort to protect jobs. In 1992 the cod stock collapsed. It was estimated that the entire Grand Banks cod population had declined to just 1,700 tons - from a fishery that had once yielded over 250,000 tons a year for over a 100 years.

Over ten years on and the Grand Banks cod fishery is yet to show significant signs of recovery. The impact on both the environment and people has been enormous. It is hard to believe that a fish as common as the cod can be exploited to the verge of extinction. Yet, it is possible to sustainably manage cod fisheries.

The Icelandic experience: good fishery management.

  • First allow your cod to reach spawning size before catching. Minimum landing sizes: Iceland 55cm, EU 35cm.
  • Reduce the number of cod caught below minimum size by controlling mesh size on nets: Iceland 135mm, EU 110mm.
  • Close the nursery and spawning areas to fishing. This allows population recruitment and protects the seafloor environment from trawling damage.
  • Carefully monitor fish stocks and implement changes quickly.

The images used on this page were obtained from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration photographic library website at

Article Date: 24 October 2007


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