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More Fish In The Sea?
by Farley Mowat

'Take a good look about ye now, for 'tis all going out afore long. This old island fed we people so long as we took no more'n we had to have . . . now 'tis all changed and gone abroad' EARLY VOYAGERS to the northeastern approaches of America discovered two kinds of land. One was high and dry, and they called it the Main. The other lay submerged beneath 30 to 150 fathoms of green waters, and they called it the Banks. The waters of the several banks off Newfoundland form an aqueous pasture of unparalleled size and fecundity ??r a three?dimensional one with a volume sufficient to inundate much of North America to a depth of a yard or more. In 1500 the life forms inhabiting these waters had a sheer mass unmatched anywhere in the world. This was the realm where cod was king.

The name that John Cabot used for Newfoundland in 1497 was Baccalaos, that being the one bestowed on it by Portuguese who had led the way. The word means, simply, land of cod. And Peter Martyr (circa 1516) tells us that "in the sea adjacent [to Newfoundland, Cabot] found so great a quantity . . . of great fish . . . called baccalaos . . . that at times they even stayed the passage of his ships."

The Grand Banks lying to the eastward of Newfoundland were a cod fisher's version of the Promised Land. By 1575, more than 300 French, Portuguese and English fishing vessels were annually reaping a rich harvest there. Members of Sir Humphrey Gilbert's colonizing venture fairly babbled at the abundance of baccalaos. Cod, wrote one of the visitors, were present "in incredible abundance, whereby great gains grow to them that travel to these parts: the hook is no sooner thrown out but it is eftsoons drawn up with some goodly fish." To which one of his companions added: "We were becalmed a small time during which we laid out hook and lines to take Cod, and drew in, in less than two hours, fish so large and in such abundance that for many days after we fed on no other provision." A third summed it up: "Incredible quantity and no less variety of fishes in the seas [especially] Cod, which alone draweth many nations thither and is become the most famous fishing of the world."

Each new arrival on these fabulous fishing grounds found the same thing and had much the same reaction. When the Grace of Bristol sheltered at the island of St. Pierre in 1594, her people "laid the ship upon the lee, and in 2 houres space we tooke with our hooks 3 or 4 hundred great Cod for the provision of our?ship." Charles Leigh in, 1597 noted: "About this Island there is as great an abundance of cods as is any place to be found. In a little more than an houre we caught with hookes 250 of them."

At the turn of the sixteenth century as many as 650 vessels were catching thousands of tons of cod in New World waters, using only baited hooks and handlines. As John Mason, an English fishing skipper working out of a Newfoundland shore station, noted: "Cods are so thick by the shore that we hardly have been able to row a boat through them. I have killed [many] of them with a Pike ... Three men going to Sea in a boat, with some on shore to dress and dry them, in 30 days will commonly kill between 25 and thirty thousand, worth with the oyle arising from [their livers], 100 or 200 Pounds."

The slaughter was equally enormous elsewhere in the region. In Cape Breton and the Gulf, according to Nicolas Denys: "Scarcely an harbour [exists] where there are not several fishing vessels . . . taking every day 15,000 [to] 30,000 fish . . . this fish constitutes a kind of inexhaustible manna."

Near the end of the sixteenth century Richard Whitbourne, another fishing skipper, wrote that the average lading for any ship fishing Newfoundland waters tallied 125,000 cod. These were from virgin cod population's ?producing fish up to six or seven feet in length and weighing as much as 200 pounds, in sharp contrast with today's average weight of about six pounds. In Whitbourne's time the annual cod fishery in the northeastern approaches yielded about 368,000 quintals of "made" (dried or salted) cod, representing well over one hundred thousand tons "live weight."

By 1620 the cod fleet exceeded 1,000 vessels, many making two voyages annually: a summer one for dry cod and a winter trip from which the cod were carried back to Europe in pickle as "green fish." Yet, despite the enormous destruction, there was no indication that cod stocks were diminishing. As the seventeenth century neared its end, travellers such as Baron Lahontan were still writing about the cod as if its population had no bounds.

"You can scarce imagine what quantities of Cod fish were catched by our Seamen in the space of a quarter of an hour . . . the Hook was no sooner at the bottom than a Fish was catched . . . [the men] had nothing to do but to throw in, and take up without interruption . . . However, as we were so plentifully entertained at the cost of these Fishes, so such of them as continued in the Sea made sufficient reprisals upon the Corps of a Captain and several Soldiers, who dy'd of the Scurvy, and were thrown overboard."

The first hint that the destruction might be excessive (and it is a veiled hint) comes from Charlevoix in the 1720s. After first telling us that "the number of the cod seems to equal that of the grains of sand," he adds: "For more than two centuries there have been loaded with them [at the Grand Banks] from two to three hundred [French] ships annually, notwithstanding [which] the diminution is not perceivable. It might not, however, be amiss to discontinue this fishery from time to time [on the Grand Bank], the more so as the gulph of St. Lawrence [together with] the River for more than sixty leagues, the coasts of Acadia, those of Cape Breton and of Newfoundland, are no less replenished with this fish than the great bank. These are true mines, which are more valuable, and require much less expense than those of Peru and Mexico."

That Charlevoix was not exaggerating the value of the cod fishery is confirmed by the fact that, in 1747, 564 French vessels manned by 27,500 fishermen brought home codfish worth a million pounds sterling ? a gigantic sum for those days.

At about this same time New Englanders, who had by now depleted the lesser stocks of cod available on the southern banks, began moving into the northern fishery. They did so with such energy that, by 1783, over 600 American vessels were fishing the Gulf of St. Lawrence, mostly for cod, although they also caught immense quantities of herring. In that year, at least 1,500 ships of all nations were working the North American "cod mines" for all they were worth.

By 1800 English? and French?based vessels had become notably fewer, but Newfoundlanders, Canadians and Americans more than made up the loss. In 1812, 1,600 fishing vessels, largely American, were in the gulf, with as many more Newfoundland and Nova Scotia ships fishing the outer banks and the Atlantic coast of Labrador.

Those were the days of the great fleets of "white wings," when the sails of fishing schooners seemed to stretch from horizon to horizon. In addition to this vessel fishery, thou?sands of in shore men. fished cod in small boats from every little cove and harbour. Vesselmen and shoremen alike still mostly fished in the old way with hooks and lines because "the glut of cod" was still so great that nothing more sophisticated was needed.

In 1876 John Rowan went aboard "a schooner cod?fishing close to shore . . . They were fishing in about three fathoms of water and we could see the ?bottom actually paved with codfish. I caught a dozen in about fifteen minutes; my next neighbour [a crewman] on the deck of the schooner caught three times as many, grumbling all the time that it was the worst fishing season he had ever known."

Between 1899 and 1904 Newfoundland alone annually exported about 1,200,000 quintals of dry fish, representing about 400,000 tons of cod, live weight. By 1907 the Newfoundland catch had risen to nearly 430,000 tons; and there were then some 1,600 vessels of other nationalities, fishing the Grand Banks.

But then a chill began spreading over the Banks ? one that did not come from the almost perpetual fog. Cod started to become harder to catch, and every year it seemed to take a little longer to fill a ship. At this juncture, nobody so much as breathed the possibility that the Banks were being over?fished. Instead, one of the age?old fisherman's explanations for a shortage was invoked: the cod had changed their ways and, temporarily, bad gone somewhere else.

The history of nineteenth?century discovery of immense schools of cod along the Labrador coast, even as far north as Cape Chidley, was quoted as confirmation that cod change their grounds. In actual fact the Labrador cod had comprised a distinct and virgin population. They had not stayed that way for long. By 1845, 200 Newfoundland vessels were fishing "down north," and by 1880, up to 1,200. In 1880 as many as 30,000 Newfoundlanders ("floaters" if they fished from anchored vessels, and "stationers" if they fished from shore bases) were making almost 400,000 quintals of salt cod on the Labrador coast alone.

The Labrador cod soon went the way of all flesh. The catch steadily declined thereafter until, by mid?twentieth century, the once far?famed Labrador fishery collapsed. Attempts. were again made to ascribe the disappearance of the Labrador fish to one of those mythical migrations. This time it did not wash. The fact was that King Cod was becoming scarce throughout the whole of his wide North Atlantic realm. In 1956 cod landings for Grand Banks, Newfoundland waters were down to 80,000 metric tonnes live weight, about a fifth of what they had been only half a century earlier.

',When a prey animal becomes scarce in nature, its predators normally decline in numbers too, thereby giving the prey an opportunity to recover. Industrial man works in the opposite way. As cod became scarcer, pressure on the remaining stocks mounted. Scarcity brought ever?rising prices, which in turn attracted more and more' fishermen, willing to spend more and more money on gear. New, bigger, more destructive ships came into service and the bottom trawl, which scours the bed of the ocean like a gigantic harrow, destroying spawn and other life, almost totally replaced older fishing methods. During the 1960s fleets of big draggers and factory ships were coming to the Banks from a dozen European and Asian countries to engage in an uncontrolled killing frenzy over what remained of the cod populations. As a result, between 1962 and 1967, cod landings increased until, in 1968, the catch topped two million tons. Soon thereafter, the whole northwest Atlantic cod fishery began to collapse for want of fish to catch.

The Canadian government has made some bumbling and half?hearted attempts, to conserve what remains of the cod stocks, but other nations such as France ? fishing the banks off Newfoundland have proved uncooperative ? as indeed have the larger Canadian fishing companies, which were unhappy with the catch quotas allotted to them.

In truth they were being treated very generously. In the spring of 1989 federal fisheries experts allowed that they had somehow been overestimating the size of the remaining cod stocks ? by as much as 50 per cent! They now proposed that unless quotas were cut by at least that much, the remaining stocks (a mere 2 per cent of the aboriginal population) would be "at risk." However, such a draconian measure was not to be considered by. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's government ? which reluctantly reduced the Canadian cod catch quotas by about 20 per cent but allowed the French an increased quota.

Politicians are mostly purblind, but the people they represent are not always so. Skipper Arthur Jackman summed up things in Newfoundland in these prophetic words:

"Take a good look about ye now, for 'tis all going out afore long. This old island fed we people so long as we took no more'n we had to have. That's how it was when I was a youngster. Now 'tis all changed and gone abroad. The seals has gone under, and the whales, and the codfish'Il not be long behind. 'Tis only, the gold they be after, these times, and I don't say they'll give up on it until there's nothing more to take. 'Men the people will have to get out of our old Rock. The way she's pointing, they'll have to haul their boats, bar up their houses, and take to their heels. I believes 'twill be a bad lookout, me son."


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