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The Collapse of the Atlantic Cod Fishery: A True Crime Story

Michael Harris
McClelland & Stewart Inc., 481 University Avenue, Suite 900, Toronto, Ontario, M5G 2E9, Canada, 1998, hard cover, 352 pages, CAD$29.99, ISBN 0 85238243. Available from

Reviewed for naturalSCIENCE by

Lawrence Hamilton
Dept. of Sociology, University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH 03824, USA

Journalist Michael Harris has written the definitive whodunit about the "True Crime Story" of Newfoundland's codfish collapse. His reporting encompasses all of the usual suspects--political leaders, Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), foreign trawler fleets, and the people of Newfoundland's own inshore and offshore fisheries. Harris finds plenty of blame to share among these participants in a great ecological and human disaster.

    "The destruction of the northern cod was not a one-act play, but a pageant of greed that went on for decades before the curtain finally came down. At every step of the way, Cassandra wailed, but no one listened." (p.65)

The book starts out with a blow-by-blow account of the Canada-Spain "turbot war" in 1995. In this crisis Canada, citing acute conservation concerns, asserted its right to regulate continental-shelf fishing beyond the 200-mile limit off Newfoundland. Spanish trawlers were caught red-handed catching the juvenile remnants of collapsed fish stocks. Canada's condemnation of this ecological crime was undermined somewhat, in international eyes, by the role Canada had played in allowing stocks to collapse in the first place.

The remainder of the book explores the long and multi-strand story leading up to the Canada-Spain crisis, and what now lies ahead for Newfoundland. Chapter 2 reviews the history of Newfoundland's fisheries, which is in large part the history of Newfoundland itself. Chapter 3 describes the postwar boom years (1950s and 1960s), during which foreign trawler fleets severely overfished the Grand Banks. After a 200-mile economic exclusion zone (EEZ) was declared in 1977, Canada took control of these waters. The Canadian fisheries policies, discussed in Chapter 4, concentrated on building up local catching and processing capacity, instead of protecting the badly depleted fish stocks. Such policies proved disastrously wrong-headed. Inshore fishermen complained of falling catches in the 1980s, and blamed offshore (by now, largely Canadian) trawlers. Several independent scientific reviews also questioned the apparent optimism of DFO stock estimates, but that optimism continued to guide policy in the form of high allowable catches (Chapter 5). Warnings became more strident in the early 1990s, but the DFO and political leaders still declined to take drastic steps--costly and unpopular--to save a cod fishery heading into a storm (Chapter 6). Consequently, the storm became a disaster, as recognized officially by the codfish moratorium in 1992 (Chapter 7).

In Chapter 8, Harris looks at how Norway survived its own cod crisis at around the same time. The key to Norwegian success, and an element sadly missing in Newfoundland, was the government's willingness to impose stiff quota restrictions for the long-term benefit of the stock. Norway diverted some North Sea oil revenues to help support its fishing sectors during hard times. Newfoundland's relief package, ambitiously termed The Atlantic Groundfish Strategy (TAGS), was initially intended to provide interim support for fisher folk while restructuring the industry into a leaner, more sustainable form. As Harris notes, it failed to accomplish any of its major goals except income support, and to some extent that created a perverse incentive for people not to seek jobs outside the fishery.

Have lessons been learned? Harris provides some dismal evidence to the contrary, as fishing pressure shifts from the vanished cod to whatever else can be found. Valuable crab and other "alternative" fisheries now appear rolling towards their own slopes of collapse. (To his list we could add even newer developments, since the book's publication, such as the recent announcement that cod are disappearing from the Bay of Fundy.) Noting these trends in Chapter 10, Harris also shines light on the political forces that are driving the train--including protests and noncompliance by fishermen themselves angry over lower conservation-based quotas. Interestingly, it is the large seafood companies, more than the small-scale fishermen, who emerge most favorably in his interviews. Chapter 11 continues the political theme, discussing the costs, shortcomings and motivations of the government's bail-out efforts. Chapter 12, on the U.S.-Canada controversy over Pacific salmon, shows the complexity of international fisheries management. It also serves to remind U.S. readers that their own government's policies have been no more enlightened.

At the center of controversy over the groundfish collapse, the DFO appears surprisingly unchanged. Chapter 13 covers recent scientific criticism of the DFO. The most fundamental of these criticisms is that fisheries science and politics should be separated, rather than housed within one agency (like the DFO) where political pressures can selectively mute scientific controversies and data. The book concludes with a final look at TAGS, and the debates over its consequences and future.

Lament for an Ocean is outspoken in exposing the mistakes and later rationalizations of the guilty, but it does this without seeming unduly polemic. Although its event-oriented, journalistic approach will give some readers more details than they can digest, this also makes the book more valuable as a reference. It provides the most complete source to date concerning the political history of the groundfish collapse. The long-term biological and social consequences, and the imminence of similar crises around the world, give that history much wider importance.

Copyright © 1998, naturalSCIENCE Journals

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