A Glimmer Of Hope For Atlantic Cod?

By Jeb Sharp

PhD student Craig Knickle accompanies researcher George Rose, who has been studying North Atlantic fisheries.

For centuries the waters off Newfoundland and Labrador provided some of the most prolific fishing in the world. But in the second half of the 20th century, better technology and a huge influx of ships virtually wiped out the stocks.

In 1992, Canada closed the fishery.

Tens of thousands of people were suddenly out of work. Many of them left the province for jobs outside. You can see the changes in the landscape. In the village of Petley the wharf is crumbling, the boathouses are dilapidated and the ballfield where kids used to play is completely overgrown. 45-year old Thomas Clenche has witnessed the changes.

“Young people are wiped out, Clenche said. “I have a two and a half year old at home and he has no playmates. Children are almost a thing of the past here.”

As Newfoundland’s demographics have changed, fisheries scientists have watched anxiously for some return of the stocks. For years there was no good news. But recently researchers have been seeing signs of a turnaround.

“I think we're at a major turning point right now in the potential rebuilding of the northern cod stock,” said George Rose, director of the Center for Fisheries Ecosytem Research at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s.

“During the last few years we’ve seen some major, major changes.”

Rose, who is the author of the book “Cod: An Ecological History of the North Atlantic Fisheries” said in one area he has been studying, the numbers have jumped from about 10,000 tons to 100,000 tons in the recent years. Despite the increase, he acknowledges the number is still low.

“There could be a million tons there,” Rose said. “But the rapid rate of increase signals a turnaround and that’s got a lot of people’s hopes up.

No one's celebrating yet though. The cod stocks off Newfoundland are just a fraction of what they were 50 years ago. Even in the spots where the fish are coming back, scientists don't have a good handle on why. More research is needed on all the variables, including changing ocean conditions due to climate change.

Back in 1992 the thinking varied on whether and when the cod might come back. Politicians hoped the stocks would bounce back quickly but many scientists feared they wouldn’t.

“We knew this was going to be a long haul,” said Rose.

Even so, there's almost constant pressure to reopen the fishery. There's been a bit of local cod fishing allowed in recent years but in general the moratorium still holds.

Fisheries journalist Jim Wellman has been tracking the news about cod numbers. He agreed there's been some good news lately. But he points out that ironically good news can actually be problematic in the Newfoundland context. He says when fishermen see healthy fish, even just small bands of them, they get the impression the ocean is full.

“Then they want to have at it real fast,” Wellman said. “They’re just trying to make a living. I don’t blame them but we can’t let them. We just can’t. It’s too fragile.”

In the once-bustling fishing village of Champney’s West, retired fisherman Clayton Moody misses the good old days. He and his father fished from a 28-foot boat using cod traps and trawls.

“That way of life is gone out,” Moody said. “I don’t see it coming back. There might be a bit of fish come back but the way of life, that’s gone.”

That seems to be consensus up here, even if no one else puts it quite the way Clayton Moody does.

This story was produced in collaboration with the public radio programs The World and Encounters.

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