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Cod fisheries

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Cod fisheries

Atlantic cod
Pacific cod

Cod fisheries are fisheries for cod. Cod is the common name for fish of the genus Gadus, belonging to the family Gadidae, and this article is confined to the three species that belong to this genus: the Atlantic cod, the Pacific cod and the Greenland cod.

Cod are demersal fish found in huge schools confined to temperate waters in the northern hemisphere. Atlantic cod are found in the colder waters and deeper sea regions throughout the Northern Atlantic. The Pacific cod is found in both eastern and western regions of the Pacific.[1] Atlantic cod can grow to 2 metres (6.6 ft) in length. Its average weight is 5 to 12 kilograms (11 to 26 lb), but specimens weighing up to 100 kilograms (220 lb) have been recorded. Pacific cod are smaller, and may grow up to 48 to 49 centimetres (19 to 19 in) and weigh up to 15 kilograms (33 lb). Cod feed on mollusks, crabs, starfish, worms, squid, and small fish. Some migrate south in winter to spawn. A large female lays up to five million eggs in mid-ocean, a very small number of which survive.

Cod has been an important economic commodity in international markets since the Viking period (around A.D. 800). Cod are popular as a food fish with a mild flavour, low fat content and a dense white flesh. When cooked, cod is moist and flaky. Cod livers are processed to make cod liver oil. Cod are currently at risk from overfishing.[2][3]


  • Species 1
    • Atlantic cod 1.1
    • Pacific cod 1.2
    • Greenland cod 1.3
  • Distribution 2
    • Northeast Atlantic cod 2.1
      • Spawning 2.1.1
    • Northwest Atlantic cod 2.2
    • Population tracking 2.3
  • Endangered status 3
  • History 4
    • Fleets 4.1
  • Newfoundland 5
    • Native Canadian fishing 5.1
    • 15th and 16th century 5.2
    • Modern fishing methods and the fishery collapse 5.3
  • Collapse of the northern cod fishery 6
    • Technological 6.1
    • Ecological uncertainty 6.2
    • Socioeconomic 6.3
    • Impact on Newfoundland 6.4
    • Recovery 6.5
  • Timeline 7
  • Communities 8
  • Personalities 9
  • See also 10
  • References 11
    • Bibliography 11.1
  • Further reading 12


In the United Kingdom, Atlantic cod is one of the most common kinds of fish to be found in fish and chips, along with haddock and plaice. It is also well known for being widely consumed in Portugal and the Basque Country, where it is considered a treasure of the nation's cuisine.

Cod are highly prolific, producing several million eggs at each spawning. This contributes to their high population numbers, which, in turn, makes commercial fishing relatively easy.[4]

Adult cod are active hunters, feeding on sand eels, whiting, haddock, small cod, squid, crabs, lobsters, mussels, worms, mackerel, and molluscs, supplementing their diets. Young cod eat the same but avoid larger prey.

Atlantic cod

Northwest Atlantic cod stocks were severely overfished in the 1970s and 1980s, leading to their abrupt collapse in 1992

Atlantic cod is a well-known demersal food fish belonging to the family Gadidae. In the western Atlantic Ocean, cod has a distribution north of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, and round both coasts of Greenland; in the eastern Atlantic it is found from the Bay of Biscay north to the Arctic Ocean, including the North Sea and Norwegian Sea, areas around Iceland and the Barents Sea.

It can grow to 2 metres (6 ft 7 in) in length. Its average weight is 5 to 12 kilograms (11 to 26 lb), but specimens weighing up to 100 kilograms (220 lb) have been recorded. Sexual maturity is generally attained between 2 and 4 years,[5] but can be as late as 8 years in the northeast Arctic.[6] The Atlantic cod can change colour at certain water depths, and has two distinct colour phases: grey-green and reddish brown. Colouring is brown to green with spots on the dorsal side, shading to silver ventrally. A lateral line is clearly visible. Its habitat ranges from the shoreline down to the continental shelf.

Several cod stocks collapsed in the 1990s (declined by >95% of maximum historical biomass) and have failed to recover even with the cessation of fishing.[7] This absence of the apex predator has led to a trophic cascade in many areas.[7] While the north west Atlantic cod stocks have not yet recovered fully from overfishing in the past, most stocks in the East Atlantic are currently in good condition and well managed.

Pacific cod

The Pacific cod is an important commercial food species. It has three separate dorsal fins, and the catfish-like whiskers on its lower jaw. In appearance, it is similar to the Atlantic Cod. A bottom dweller, it is found mainly along the continental shelf and upper slopes with a range around the rim of the North Pacific Ocean, from the Yellow Sea to the Bering Strait, along the Aleutian Islands, and south to about Los Angeles, down to the depths of 900 metres (3,000 ft). They may grow up to 78–79 cm and weigh up to 15 kilograms (33 lb). It is found in huge schools. In Northwest Pacific catches of Pacific cod by the USA trawl fishery and joint-venture fisheries increased from less than 1,000 tonnes (1,100 short tons) in 1979 to nearly 91,000 tonnes (100,000 short tons) in 1984 and reached 430,196 tonnes (474,210 short tons) in 1995. Today, catches are tightly regulated, and the Pacific cod quota is split among fisheries that use hook and line gear, pots, and bottom trawls.

Greenland cod

Greenland cod, in colour, is generally sombre, ranging from tan to brown to silvery. Its appearance is similar to that of other cod species; generally heavy-bodied, elongate, usually with a stout caudal peduncle. They can grow to a length of 80 centimetres (31 in).

They are bottom fishes inhabiting inshore waters and continental shelves, up to depths of 200 metres (660 ft). Their range covers the Arctic Ocean and Northwest Atlantic Ocean from Alaska to West Greenland, then south along the Canadian coast to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Cape Breton Island generally from 45 to 75 degrees north.

Their wholesome flesh is whitish and flaky but firmer and tougher and less desirable than that of the Atlantic cod. The stock of Greenland cod has been strongly reduced in recent years.


Northeast Atlantic cod

Estimated biomasses of North-East Arctic Cod 1959-2006 in million tonnes. The estimates are performed by the Arctic Fisheries Working Group of ICES, published in the ICES Report AFWG 2007, ACFM:16. Estimation method: Standard VPA.
Gadus morhua (Atlantic cod)

The Northeast Atlantic is the world's largest population of cod. By far the largest part of this population is the North-East Arctic Cod, as it is labelled by the ICES, or the Arcto-Norwegian cod stock, also referred to as skrei, a Norwegian name meaning something like "the wanderer", distinguishing it from coastal cod. The North-East Arctic Cod is found in the Barents Sea area. This stock spawns in March and April along the Norwegian coast, about 40% around the Lofoten archipelago. Newly hatched larvae drift northwards with the coastal current while feeding on larval copepods. By summer the young cod reach the Barents Sea where they stay for the rest of their life, until their spawning migration. As the cod grow, they feed on krill and other small crustaceans and fish. Adult cod primarily feed on fish such as capelin and herring. The northeast Arctic cod also shows cannibalistic behaviour. In 2012 the biomass of the Northeast Atlantic cod stock was estimated to be at an all-time high since scientists started observing stock status some 100 years ago.

The North Sea cod stock is primarily fished by European Union member states and Norway. In 1999 the catch was divided among Denmark (31%), Scotland (25%), the rest of the United Kingdom (12%), the Netherlands (10%), Belgium, Germany and Norway (17%). In the 1970s, the annual catch rose to between 200,000 - 300,000 tons. Due to concerns about overfishing, catch quotas were repeatedly reduced in the 1980s and 1990s. In 2003, ICES stated that there is a high risk of stock collapse if current exploitation levels continue, and recommended a moratorium on catching Atlantic cod in the North Sea during 2004. However, agriculture and fisheries ministers from the Council of the European Union endorsed the EU/Norway Agreement and set the total allowable catch (TAC) 27,300 tons.


The spawning stock of North-East Arctic cod was more than a million tons following World War II, but declined to a historic minimum of 118,000 tons in 1987. The North-East Arctic cod catch reached a historic maximum of 1,343,000 tons in 1956, and bottomed out at 212,000 tons in 1990. Since 2000, the spawning stock has increased quite quickly, helped by low fishing pressure. However, there are worries about a decreased age at first spawning (often an early sign of stock collapse), combined with the level of discards and unreported catches. The total catch in 2003 was 521,949 tons, the major fishers being Norway (191,976 tons) and Russia (182,160 tons).

Northwest Atlantic cod

Capture of Atlantic Cod 1950-2005. (FAO)

The northwest Atlantic cod has been regarded as heavily overfished throughout its range, resulting in a crash in the fishery in the United States and Canada during the early 1990s.

Newfoundland's northern cod fishery can be traced back to the 16th century. "On average, about 300,000 tonnes (330,000 short tons) of cod was landed annually until the 1960s, when advances in technology enabled factory trawlers, many of them foreign, to take larger catches. By 1968, landings for the fish peaked at 800,000 tonnes (880,000 short tons) before a gradual decline set in. With the reopening of the limited cod fisheries last year, nearly 2,700 tonnes (3,000 short tons) of cod were hauled in. Today, it's estimated that offshore cod stocks are at one per cent of what they were in 1977" [1].

Technologies that contributed to the collapse of Atlantic Cod include engine power vessels and frozen food compartments aboard ships. Engine power vessels had larger nets, larger engines, and better navigation. The capacity to catch fish became limitless. In addition, sonar technology gave an edge to catching and detecting fish. Sonar was originally developed during World War II to locate enemy submarines, but was later applied to locating schools of fish. These new technologies, as well as bottom-trawlers that destroyed entire ecosystems, contributed to the collapse of Atlantic Cod. They were vastly different from old techniques used, such as hand lines and long lines.[8]

The fishery has yet to recover, and may not recover at all because of a possibly stable change in the food chain. Atlantic cod was a top-tier predator, along with haddock, flounder and hake, feeding upon smaller prey such as herring, capelin, shrimp and snow crab.[7] With the large predatory fish removed, their prey has had a population explosion and have become the top predators.

Population tracking

Gadus morhua (Atlantic cod) range map

Cod populations or stocks can differ significantly both in appearance and biology. For instance, the cod stocks of the Gulf of Maine stocks in United States waters. In the European Atlantic, there are numerous separate stocks: on the shelves of Iceland, the coast of Norway, the Barents Sea, the Faroe Islands, off western Scotland, the North Sea, the Irish Sea, the Celtic Sea and in the Baltic Sea.

Endangered status

Following collapse of the Canadian cod stock in the early 1990s, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) issued a ban on Northern cod fishing in 1992, which caused great economic hardship in the eastern coastal Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador. In 1995, in a controversial move, Brian Tobin, the Canadian Federal Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, reopened the hunt on the harp seal, which prey on cod, stating: "There is only one major player still fishing the cod. His name is harp and his second name is seal."[9]

In 1998, the [10] and COSEWIC had already attempted to unilaterally alter[16] the 1998 report. The report remains one of an undeclared number that are illegally suppressed (COSEWIC refuses to officially release it unless it can change it "so that it ... reflects COSEWIC's designation"),[15] in this case despite kudos from eminent reviewers of COSEWIC's own choice.[17] COSEWIC in defense asserted a right to alter the report or that Bell had been asked to provide a report that supported COSEWIC's designation;[15] either defense would involve clear violations of ethics, of COSEWIC's procedures at the time, and of the norms of science. The key tactics used to avert any at-risk listing centered on the issue of stock discreteness, and DFO's single-stock stance within COSEWIC contradicted the multiple-stock hypothesis supported by the most recent science (including DFO's, hence DFO's earlier and proper demand that the report address these). Bell has argued that this contradiction between fact and tactic effectively painted management into a corner from which it could not acknowledge or explain the contrast between areas where conservation measures were clearly needed and areas where opposite observations were gaining press attention.[18] In effect, DFO's opposition to a listing compromised its ability to carry out its conservation mandate.

The ban on Canadian cod fishing was partly lifted in 1997 by the Minister for DFO just ten days prior to a federal election, despite that independent Canadian scientists and the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea doubted there had been sufficient recovery.[19] In general, depleted populations of cod and other gadids do not appear to recover easily when fishing pressure is reduced or stopped.[20]

In 2003, COSEWIC in an update designated the Atlantic Ocean.

In 2000, cod was placed on the list of

  • Ainsworth, C. H., T. J. Pitcher, J. J. Heymans & M. Vasconcellos (2008). "Reconstructing historical marine ecosystems using food web models: Northern British Columbia from Pre-European contact to present".  
  • Bavington, Dean L. Y. (2010). Managed Annihilation: An Unnatural History of the Newfoundland Cod Collapse.   Links the collapse of Newfoundland and Labrador cod fishing to state management of the resource.
  • Cobb, John N. (1916). Pacific Cod Fisheries. Bureau of Fisheries Document 830. Washington, DC:  
  • Dayton, Paul K., Simon F. Thrush, M. Tundi Agardy & Robert J. Hofman (1995). "Environmental effects of marine fishing".  
  • Kunzig, R. (April 1995). "Twilight of the Cod".  
  • Shields, Edward (2001). Salt of the sea: the Pacific Coast cod fishery and the last days of sail. Lopez Island, WA: Heritage House.  
  • David J. Starkey, Jon T. Thor & Ingo Heidbrink: A History of the North Atlantic Fisheries: Vol. 1, From Early Times to the mid-Nineteenth Century. Bremen (Hauschild Vlg. & Deutsches Schiffahrtsmuseum) 2009.

Further reading

  • Cochrane, Kevern L. (2000). "Reconciling sustainability, economic efficiency and equity in fisheries: the one that got away".  
  • Dolan, A. Holly; Martin Taylor, Barbara Neis, Rosemary Ommer, John Eyles, David Schneider & Bill Montevecchi (2005). "Restructuring and health in Canadian coastal communities".  
  • Gien, Lan T. (2000). "Land and sea connection: the East coast fishery closure, unemployment and health" ( 
  • Hamilton, Melissa J.; Butler (2001). "Outport adaptations: social indicators through Newfoundland's cod crisis" ( 
  • Hamilton, Lawrence; Richard L. Haedrich & Cynthia M. Duncan (2004). "Above and below the water: social/ecological transformation in Northwest Newfoundland".  
  • Harris, Michael (1998). Lament for an Ocean: The Collapse of the Atlantic Cod Fishery.  
  • Hutchings, Jeffrey. "Spatial and temporal variation in the density of northern cod: a review of hypotheses for the stock's collapse" ( 
  • Keating, Michael (1994). Media, Fish and Sustainability. National Round Table on Environment and Economy. 
  • Kennedy, John (1997). "At the crossroads: Newfoundland and Labrador communities in a changing international context".  


  1. ^ "Cod", Encyclopædia Britannica online 2008
  2. ^ Hickman, Martin; Consumer Affairs (2007-11-16). "Pollack sales rise, as public gets message on cod". The Independent (London). Retrieved 2010-04-30. 
  3. ^
  4. ^ Cohen, Daniel M. (1998). Paxton, J. R. & Eschmeyer, W. N., ed. Encyclopedia of Fishes. San Diego: Academic Press. pp. 130–131.  
  5. ^ O'Brien, L., J. Burnett, and R. K. Mayo. (1993) Maturation of Nineteen Species of Finfish off the Northeast Coast of the United States, 1985-1990. NOAA Tech. Report. NMFS 113, 66 p.
  6. ^ ICES (2007), Arctic Fisheries Working Group Report, Section 03, Table 3.5, [2] (accessed 2008/12/11)
  7. ^ a b c Kenneth T. Frank, Brian Petrie, Jae S. Choi, William C. Leggett (2005). "Trophic cascades in a formerly cod-dominated ecosystem".  
  8. ^ Freedman, Bill. "Atlantic Cod and its fishery". Codfishes: Atlantic Cod and its fishery, 2008. 3 Nov, 2008
  9. ^ Sea Shepherd - Ocean Realm Autumn 1999
  10. ^ a b c Pauline Comeau (July–August 1997). "Confidential report calls Atlantic cod endangered".  
  11. ^ In 1998 COSEWIC generated the list of endangered species, but the list had limited legal effect; in 2002, legislation, the Species At Risk Act (SARA) The Species at Risk Act (Canada), was passed that put COSEWIC and the ultimate listing decision under close control of Cabinet, so that henceforth COSEWIC would designate and Cabinet would list. Such political control was widely seen as antithetical to a fact-based scientific process, although it could be argued that the Act merely legalized control that had already existed informally.
  12. ^ Atlantic Cod Endangered : Canadian Geographic Magazine
  13. ^ a b Ottawa Citizen April 18, 1998, p. 1
  14. ^ Status of Atlantic Cod, Gadus morhua, in Canada
  15. ^ a b c COSEWIC: armpit-length committee
  16. ^ Letter to Cosewic members April 10, 1998
  17. ^ [3] Official COSEWIC scientific reviews of Cod Status Report 1997 & 1998
  18. ^ a b Endangered Cod, Red Herrings, Harps, and Hamster Wheels
  19. ^ Marine World - Will Atlantic cod ever recover
  20. ^ Jeffrey A. Hutchings (2000). "Collapse and recovery of marine fishes" ( 
  21. ^ The Species at Risk Act
  22. ^ The Species at Risk Act
  23. ^ WWF Canada - News - Fisheries laying waste to endangered fish stocks: WWF-Canada Report
  24. ^ WWF - Cod overfished in the North-West Atlantic despite ban
  25. ^ WWF - No more cod in 15 years, WWF report warns
  26. ^ Cod not endangered species -
  27. ^ WWF - The Barents Sea Cod - the last of the large cod stocks
  28. ^ Clover, Charles (2004). The End of the Line: How Overfishing Is Changing the World and What We Eat. London: Ebury Press.  
  29. ^ Kurlansky (1999), ch. 11: "Requiem for the Grand Banks, pp. 177–190.
  30. ^ Kurlansky (1999), ch. 12: "The Dangerous Waters of Nature's Resilience, pp. 191–206.
  31. ^ [4]
  32. ^ Snow, C. P. 1962. Science and government (from the Godkin Lectures at Harvard University, 1960). New York: New American Library / Mentor (by arrangement with Harvard University Press). vii+128 pp.
  33. ^ Jeffrey A. Hutchings, Carl Walters & Richard L. Haedrich (1997). "Is scientific inquiry incompatible with government information control?" ( 
  34. ^ See also Harris (1998)
  35. ^ James Barrett, Roelf Beukens, Ian Simpson, Patrick Ashmore, Sandra Poaps & Jacqui Huntley (2000). "What was the Viking Age and when did it happen? A view from Orkney".  
  36. ^ Kurlansky (1999)
  37. ^ G. Rollefsen (1966). "Norwegian fisheries research". Fiskeridirektoratets Skrifter, Serie Havundersøkelser 14 (1): 1–36. 
  38. ^ A. Holt-Jensen (1985). "Norway and sea the shifting importance of marine resources through Norwegian history".  
  39. ^ Kurlansky (1999), ch. 6: "A Cod War Heard 'Round the World, pp. 92–107.
  40. ^ "Facts for kids:Beothuk Indians". Native Languages of the Americas. Retrieved 2009-01-13. 
  41. ^ a b c Pringler, Heather. "Cabot, cod and the colonists". Canadian Geographic. Retrieved 2008-10-06. 
  42. ^ a b "A Run on the Banks How "Factory Fishing" Decimated Newfoundland Cod". E/The Environmental Magazine!. March 2001. Retrieved 2009-01-13. 
  43. ^ a b c Ryan, Shannon. "History of Newfoundland Cod Fishery". Retrieved 2008-06-20. 
  44. ^ a b c Ransom A. Myers, Jeffrey A. Hutchings & Nicholas J. Barrowman (1997). "Why do fish stocks collapse? The example of cod in Atlantic Canada" ( 
  45. ^ "CANADIAN ATLANTIC FISHERIES COLLAPSE". Greenpeace. Retrieved 2009-01-13. 
  46. ^ a b Hirsch, Tim (December 16, 2002). "Cod's warning from Newfoundland".  
  47. ^ (2004)et al.Hamilton , p. 195.
  48. ^ Hamilton & Butler (2001), p. 1.
  49. ^ a b c d Gien (2000), p. 121.
  50. ^ Keating (1994), p. 1.
  51. ^ (2004)et al.Hamilton , p. 200.
  52. ^ (2004)et al.Hamilton , p. 199.
  53. ^ Cochrane (2000), p. 6.
  54. ^ (2004)et al.Hamilton , p. 196.
  55. ^ (2005)et al.Dolan , p. 202.
  56. ^ a b Hamilton & Butler (2001), p. 2.
  57. ^ Kennedy (1997), p. 315.
  58. ^ Frank KT, Petrie B, Fisher JA and Leggett WC (2011) "Transient dynamics of an altered large marine ecosystem" Nature, 477 (7362): 86–89. doi:10.1038/nature10285
  59. ^ Coghlan, Andy (2011-07-28). "Cod make a comeback". New Scientist. Retrieved 2011-07-28. 


See also



  • U.S. Bering Sea Pacific cod fishery
  • Bering Sea cod fishery profiles Summary of fishery status on FisheriesWiki
  • Canadian northern atlantic cod fishery
  • 1790?: Collapse of the old migratory cod fishery after 1790
  • 1992: Canadian federal government declares a moratorium on the Atlantic cod fishery due to declining catches.
  • 2003: The Canadian federal government declared a moratorium on the last remaining cod fishery in Atlantic Canada in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
  • 2011: A team of Canadian scientists reported that cod in the Scotian Shelf ecosystem are showing signs of recovery.


In a letter to Nature in 2011, a team of Canadian scientists reported that cod in the Scotian Shelf ecosystem off Canada are showing signs of recovery.[58] Brian Petrie, a member of the team, said "Cod is about a third of the way to full recovery, and haddock is already back to historical biomass levels".[59]


The moratorium in 1992 marked the largest industrial closure in Canadian history.[55] In Newfoundland alone, over 22,000 fishers and plant workers from over 400 coastal communities became unemployed.[49] In response to dire warnings of social and economic consequences, the federal government intervened, initially providing income assistance through the Northern Cod Adjustment and Recovery Program, and later through the Atlantic Groundfish Strategy, which included money specifically for the retraining of those workers displaced by the closing of the fishery.[56] Newfoundland has since experienced a dramatic environmental, industrial, economic, and social restructuring, including considerable outmigration,[57] but also increased economic diversification, an increased emphasis on education, and the emergence of a thriving invertebrates fishing industry (as the predatory groundfish population declined, snow crab and northern shrimp proliferated, providing the basis for a new industry that is roughly equivalent in economic value as the cod fishery it replaced).[56] Newfoundland's experience with the cod fishery is certainly an interesting one: the dramatic collapse of a natural resource that sustained and defined a people for over 500 years offers lessons to communities everywhere that have within their jurisdiction the maintenance of an ecosystem and its resources and illustrates clearly the importance of taking seriously the health and vitality of the Earth's natural systems.

Impact on Newfoundland

When the government was finally galvanized to action, it was too late. The 1992 moratorium was initially meant to last two years, with the hopes that the Northern Cod population would recover, and along with it, the fishery. Unfortunately, the damage done to Newfoundland's coastal ecosystem was indelible, and even after sixteen years, the Northern Cod population has failed to rebound[54] and the cod fishery remains closed.

In addition to ecological considerations, decisions regarding the future of the fisheries were also influenced by social and economic factors. Throughout Atlantic Canada, however most pronounced in Newfoundland, the cod fishery was a source of social and cultural identity.[49] For many families, it also represented their livelihood: most families were connected either directly or indirectly with the fishery as fishers, fish plant workers, fish sellers, fish transporters, or as employees in related businesses.[49] Additionally, many companies, both foreign and domestic, as well as individuals, had invested heavily in the boats, equipment and the infrastructure of the fishery, and therefore felt it was in their best interest to maintain an open-access policy to the ocean and its resources. What this alludes to is the unfortunate paradox that often accompanies open-access resources and is known by most as the Tragedy of the Commons: what is in the individual's best interest is not always in the best interest of a society at whole. In the case of Newfoundland and the Northern Cod fishery this meant that from the perspective of the individual participating in the fishing industry, maximizing their catch was in their best interest; however when the government failed to intervene – due largely to the highly sensitive nature of the political discourse created by the expansive group of stakeholders – the ecosystem was brought past its threshold and collapsed, leaving everyone worse-off.


Another factor important to consider in the understanding of the fishery's collapse is the uncertainty inherent in the assessment of the cod as a resource. Management of a resource is an extremely complex task, with a multitude of interests, perspectives, and sources of information to take into account; when knowledge regarding the resource is limited, or clouded by imprecision, the task of managing it becomes even more difficult. The management of fisheries are associated with an especially high degree of uncertainty due to problems inherent in the nature of the resource. Newfoundland's cod fisheries were no exception: an imperfect understanding of the ocean ecosystem; technical and environmental challenges associated with observation techniques, which led to incomplete data on the resource (the cod); and the naturally high levels of variability in the population due to dynamic environmental factors (such as ocean temperature) combined to make the discernment of the effects of exploitation an arduous task.[53] Unfortunately, this led to predictions about the condition and future of the cod stock that were mired in uncertainty, making it more difficult for the government to choose the appropriate course of action.

Ecological uncertainty

A major factor that contributed to the depletion of the cod stocks off the shores of Newfoundland was the introduction and proliferation of equipment and technology that increased the volume of landed fish. For centuries local fishermen used technology that limited the volume of their catch, the area they fished, and allowed them to target specific species and ages of fish.[50] From the 1950s onwards, as was common in all industries at the time, new technology was introduced that allowed fishermen to trawl a larger area, fish to a deeper depth and for a longer time. By the 1960s, powerful trawlers from the Soviet Union and its satellite countries, Great Britain, Spain, Portugal, Japan, and Canada, equipped with radar, electronic navigation systems and sonar allowed crews to pursue fish with unparalleled success, and Canadian catches peaked in the late 1960s and early 1970s.[51] These new technologies adversely affected the Northern Cod population in two important ways: by increasing the area and depth that was fished, the cod were being depleted to the point that the surviving fish were incapable of replenishing the stock lost each year;[52] and secondly, the trawlers caught enormous amounts of non-commercial fish, which although economically unimportant, held huge ecological significance: incidental catch undermines the functioning of the ecosystem as a whole, depleting stocks of important predator and prey species. In the case of the Northern Cod, significant amounts of capelin – an important prey species for the cod – were caught as bycatch, further undermining the survival of the remaining cod stock.


Academics have highlighted the following three contributing factors in the eventual collapse of the cod fishery:

The collapse of the Northern Cod fishery marked a profound change in the ecological, economic and socio-cultural structure of Atlantic Canada. The change was expressed most acutely in Newfoundland, whose continental shelf lay under the region most heavily fished, and whose communities represented the vast majority of those who lost employment as a result of the moratorium.[49]

In 1992 the Canadian government declared a moratorium on the Northern Cod fishery that, for the past 500 years, had largely shaped the lives and communities of Canada's eastern coast. The interplay between fishing societies and the resources on which they depend is palpable to even the most unacquainted observer: fisheries transform the ecosystem, which in turn pushes the fishery and society to adapt.[47] In the summer of 1992, when the Northern Cod biomass fell to one percent of its earlier level,[48] it became apparent to Canada's federal government that this relationship had been pushed to the breaking point and a moratorium was declared, ending the region's half-millennium run with the Northern Cod.

Reproduction of a traditional salt cod fishery installation created for the 1998 TV series, "L'ombre de l'épervier"

Collapse of the northern cod fishery

By 2002, after a 10 year moratorium on fishing, the cod had still not returned.[46] The local ecosystem seemed to have changed, with forage fish, such as capelin, which used to provide food for the cod, increasing in numbers and now eating the juvenile cod. The waters appeared to be dominated by crab and shrimp rather than fish.[46]

The industry collapsed entirely in the early 1990s owing to overfishing and debatably, greed, lack of foresight and poor local administration.[45] By 1993 six cod populations had collapsed, forcing a belated moratorium on fishing.[44] Spawning biomass had decreased by at least 75% in all stocks, by 90% in three of the six stocks, and by 99% in the case of 'northern' cod, previously the largest cod fishery in the world.[44]

The cod catch peaked in 1968 at 810,000 tons, approximately three times more than the maximum yearly catch achieved before the super-trawlers. Approximately 8 million tons of cod were caught between 1647 and 1750, a period encompassing 25 to 40 cod generations. The factory trawlers took the same amount in 15 years.[44]

In 1951 factory fishing began with new super-trawlers such as the 'Fairtry'; 280 feet (85 m) long and 2,600 gross tons.[42]

Modern fishing methods and the fishery collapse

In the late sixteenth century the Spanish and Portuguese fisheries were terminated, mainly as a result of the failure of the Spanish Armada,[41] and thereafter the English and French shared the fishery every summer until 1904 when the French agreed to relinquish it to the Newfoundland residents.[43]

The French, Spanish and Portuguese fishermen tended to fish on the Grand Banks and other banks out to sea, where fish were always available. They salted their fish on board ship and it was not dried until brought to Europe. The English fishermen, however, concentrated on fishing inshore where the fish were only to be found at certain times of the year, during their migrations. These fishermen used small boats and returned to shore every day. They developed a system of light salting, washing and drying onshore which became very popular because the fish could remain edible for years.[41] Many of their coastal sites gradually developed into settlements, notably St. John's,[43] now the provincial capital.

In the early sixteenth century, fishermen from England, France, Spain and Portugal discovered the best places to fish for cod in the waters off Newfoundland, and how best to preserve the fish for the journey home.[43]

"so thick by the shore that we hardly have been able to row a boat through them."[42]
and around 1600 English fishing captains still reported cod shoals
"the sea there is full of fish that can be taken not only with nets but with fishing-baskets,"[41]
's crew reported that John CabotAfter his voyage in 1497,

15th and 16th century

The Beothuk (called Skraelings by the Vikings) were the native people of Newfoundland, and survived on a diet of fish. With British and French coastal settlements, the Beothuk were forced inland, and coupled with the European propensity of murdering them on sight, the lack of their normal food source gradually decreased the Beothuk. By the 19th century, the tribe no longer existed.[40]

Native Canadian fishing

Cod fishing in Newfoundland was carried out at a subsistence level for centuries, but large-scale fishing began shortly after the European discovery of the North American continent in 1492, with the waters being found to be preternaturally plentiful, and ended after intense overfishing with the collapse of the fisheries in the 1990s.

In the 19th century, banks dories were carried aboard larger fishing schooners, and used for handlining cod on the Grand Banks


The historical record, however, does reveal a competition between Basque, English, and other fishermen and pirates for the North Atlantic fisheries. Foreigners moved beyond peaceful trade with Iceland, and pirates plundered the utterly defenseless Scandinavian community severely and repeatedly during the late 15th century. Some English fleets began to reach the western North Atlantic Ocean by 1480 and found fish so plentiful that the British port of Bristol prospered immensely from the trade.

The settlement probably disappeared during the 15th century.

Declining fishing stocks and frequent tax evasion led the Hansa cabal to close the fisheries near Bergen off the Norwegian coast in 1410. English fishermen responded by taking their craft to the closed Icelandic colony and trading and fishing there in 1412. Besides several local fishing boats, very few if any ships had visited Iceland in several decades. English ships, however, began to set sail for Iceland early each spring through the frigid gales and freezing spray to trade and fish just as their Danish predecessors did centuries earlier. Each dogger that successfully returned to Britain in the autumn carried roughly 30 tons of fish. Although the Danish masters of Iceland convinced King Henry V of England to forbid the Icelandic cod trade, English fleets continued to visit the otherwise isolated island. The Hanseatic League copied the shipbuilding technologies of their English rivals and began to reassert Scandinavian sovereignty over Iceland. This struggle led to piracy and pillaging on the high seas and ultimately to the development of modern naval warfare.

The cooling climate and increasing storminess, however, led to a sharp increase in the proportion of traditional Norse-style boats that left port never to return. These casualties at sea led shipbuilders to develop a stronger boat that could ply the Dogger Bank and return full of fish with some reliability. Boat builders, especially prominent in Dutch ports and Basque seaside towns, however, prospered as they provided new vessels to budding mariners or to replace those wrecked or lost at sea. These new ships proved adequately seaworthy for the expectations of the era.

In an era of very brief life expectancies and an imploding medieval demography, the clearly risky maritime culture provided an attractive means of subsistence. Death constantly haunted medieval Europeans, who took risks unconscionable to the modern mind; the overwhelming majority of the population lived in a state of desperate poverty comparable or perhaps even worse than most Third World countries today. Most medieval Europeans toiled long hours to produce or earn much less than the equivalent of $2 per person per day, from which they paid tithes, taxes, and rents. To make fishing a viable economic alternative to other means of subsistence, a significant majority of fleets leaving port had to reach the fisheries and return alive and intact.

The Hanseatic League promoted trade throughout the Baltic Sea aboard cogs and hulks that mariners propelled with square sails and oars. The pious European population – especially the monasteries, convents, and bishops – demanded enormous quantities of fish, and Dutch, English, other British, Breton and Basque mariners sought suitable fishing grounds. Earlier generations of Europeans frequently fished in Norwegian waters and in the North Sea; however, the cooling climate led to the decline of the former fisheries, and the reduced supply in the latter could not satiate the increasing demand for salted cod, herring, and other fish.

Scandinavian shipbuilding technology failed to advance beyond that of the Viking days. The traditional Viking ships performed quite well in the relatively tranquil summer seas of the medieval warm period, but the stormier climates rendered these vessels particularly dangerous to the point of obsolescence. Viking technology spread earlier throughout Europe, and craftsmen along the Atlantic seaboard of western Europe began to develop ships capable of withstanding heavy seas and the gales that struck commonly even during mid-summer. Rarely did a medieval mariner without a death wish dare to venture beyond easy sight of port during the long winter season.


The Pacific Cod is currently suffering due to a strong global demand. The 2006 TAC for the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea Aleutian Islands was set at 260,000,000 kg (574 million pounds).

In the 17th and 18th centuries in the New World, especially in John Hancock and John Rowe, in which the scions of the codfish aristocracy" disguised themselves, boarded their own ships, and disposed of their own goods into the harbor in protest to the tariff, more commonly known as the Boston Tea Party (p. 96).[39] In the 20th century, Iceland re-emerged as a fishing power and entered the Cod Wars to gain control over the north Atlantic seas. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, cod fishing off the coasts of Europe and America severely depleted cod stocks there, which has since become a major political issue, as the necessity of restricting catches to allow fish populations to recover has run up against opposition from the fishing industry and politicians reluctant to approve any measures that will result in job losses. The 2006 Northwest Atlantic cod quota is set at 23,000 tons, representing half the available stocks, while it is set to 473,000 tons for the Northeast Atlantic cod.

William Pitt the Elder, criticizing the Treaty of Paris in Parliament, claimed that cod was "British gold"; and that it was folly to restore Newfoundland fishing rights to the French.

Apart from its long history, this particular trade also differs from most other fishing trades by the location of the fishing grounds, far from large populations and without any domestic market. The large cod fisheries along the coast of North Norway (and in particular close to the Lofoten islands) have been developed almost uniquely for export, depending on sea transport of stockfish over large distances.[37] Since the introduction of salt, dried salt cod ('klippfisk' in Norwegian) has also been exported. The trade operations and the sea transport were by the end of the 14th century taken over by the Hanseatic League, Bergen being the most important port of trade.[38]

Between the 1530s and 1626 Basque whalers frequented the waters of Newfoundland and the north shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence from the Strait of Belle Isle to the mouth of the Saguenay River. They constructed stone ovens ashore for fires to melt whale fat. However, as whales became scarce, the cod fishery off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland became hotly contested by the British and French, in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. The British used small boats close to shore, from which they caught the cod with hook and line. They practiced the "dry fishery" technique, which involved shore-based settlements for the drying of cod on flakes or racks placed in the open air for their subsequent transport back to Europe. The French on the other hand practiced the "green fishery", which involved processing the catch with salt aboard ship. At the same time a fleet of schooners fishing for cod, halibut, haddock, and mackerel became prominent off the Atlantic coast. The use of the long line and purse seine net increased the size of the catch.

Cod has been an important economic commodity in an international market since the Viking period (around AD 800). Norwegians used dried cod during their travels, and soon a dried cod market developed in southern Europe. This market has lasted for more than 1,000 years, passing through periods of Black Death, wars and other crises and still is an important Norwegian fish trade.[35] The Portuguese since the 15th century have been fishing cod in the North Atlantic, and clipfish is widely eaten and appreciated in Portugal. The Basques also played an important role in the cod trade and are claimed to have found the Canadian fishing banks before Columbus' discovery of America.[36] The North American east coast developed in part due to the vast amount of cod, and many cities in the New England area spawned near cod fishing grounds. New England profited greatly from the golden trade route between England, Africa, the West Indies, and New England in the 17th and 18th centuries. New England cod went to England and then to the West Indies to feed slaves working in the sugar cane fields producing molasses for rum manufacture in Massachusetts and England to be used as payment for more slaves from West African slave traders to be used in the ever expanding sugar cane fields in the West Indies. Boston Brahmins' secured their wealth on the backs of the slave trade.

For over 1,000 years, Reine was involved in the great cod fisheries as the centre of a community of traditional fishing villages in Lofoten, Norway


Bell has argued[31] that the collapse of the fishery and the failure of the Listing process were ultimately facilitated by secrecy (as long ago in the defence science context observed by the venerable C. P. Snow[32] and recently cast as "government information control" in the fishery context[33]) and the lack of a code of ethics appropriate to (at least) scientists whose findings are relevant to conservation and public resource management. A proper code of ethics would acknowledge the obligations of all to conservation, the right of the public to know and understand scientific findings, the obligation of scientists to communicate vital issues with the public, and would not acknowledge the right of bureaucrats to impede[34] that dialogue. To be effective, such ethical issues need to be included in science curricula.

The collapse of the cod fishery off Newfoundland, and the 1992 decision by Canada to impose an indefinite moratorium on the Grand Banks, is a dramatic example of the consequences of overfishing.[29][30]

According to Seafood Watch, cod is currently on the list of fish that sustainability-minded American consumers should avoid. In a book on the subject, Charles Clover claims that cod is only an example of how modern unsustainable fishing industry is destroying ocean ecosystems.[28]

the WWF agreed that the Barents Sea cod fishery appeared to be healthy but that that may not last due to illegal fishing, industrial development, and high fishing quota. [27] cod population, cod should not be placed on an endangered species list. Cod is among Norway's most important fishery export items, and the Barents Sea is the most important cod fishery of Norway. In a 2004 report,Barents Sea who stated that in view of the health of the [26],Norwegian Institute of Marine Research stating that global cod catch had suffered a 70 per cent drop over the last 30 years, and that if this trend continued, the world's cod stocks would disappear in 15 years. The endangered species claim by the WWF was disputed by Åsmund Bjordal, director of the [25]

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