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A Run on the Banks: How "Factory Fishing" Decimated Newfoundland Cod

From E-Magazine

A century after Cabot, English fishing skippers still reported cod shoals “so thick by the shore that we hardly have been able to row a boat through them.” There were six- and seven-foot-long codfish weighing as much as 200 pounds. There were great banks of oysters as large as shoes. At low tide, children were sent to the shore to collect 10-, 15-, even 20-pound lobsters with hand rakes for use as bait or pig feed. Eight- to 12-foot sturgeon choked New England rivers, and salmon packed streams from the Hudson River to Hudson’s Bay. Herring, squid and capelin (a small open-water fish seven inches long) spawning runs were so gigantic they astonished observers for more than four centuries. Today, Newfoundland’s fish are gone and the seas, streams and rivers lie quiet and empty.

It goes on to say this

In 1951, a strange ship flying the British flag arrived on the Grand Banks. It was enormous: 280 feet long and 2,600 gross tons, four times the size of a large side trawler. It’s superstructure, tall funnels and numerous portholes, suggested an ocean-going passenger liner, but its aft deck confirmed it to be a fishing vessel. Gantry masts supported cables, winches, and gear the scale of which nobody had seen before. Its stern was marred by a gigantic chute, a ramp from sea to deck such as whaling ships use to drag aboard the 190-ton carcasses of blue whales. But the ramp was meant not for whales but for equally large nets filled with cod and whatever else happened to be in the water.

The Fairtry’s arrival marked the beginning of the end for the Atlantic cod fishery, indeed for many of the world’s fisheries. She was the world’s first factory-freezer trawler, a multi-million-dollar vessel equipped with all the technological breakthroughs of the war. Below deck was an on-board processing plant with automated filleting machines, a fish meal rendering factory and an enormous bank of freezers. She could fish around the clock, seven days a week, for weeks on end, hauling up nets during fierce winter gales that could easily swallow the Statue of Liberty. With radar, sonar, fish-finders and echograms she could pinpoint and capture whole schools of fish with chilling effectiveness.

The ships grew bigger. They eventually reached 8,000 tons, towing nets with openings 3,500-feet in circumference. In an hour they can haul up as much as 200 tons of fish, twice as much as a typical 16th century ship would have caught in an entire season. Re-crewed and supplied by ocean-going tenders, the ships could pursue fish anywhere in the world for months on end without ever visiting a port or even sighting land. Plying international waters, they were outside the jurisdiction of the nations off which they fished. By the 1970s the Soviet Union had 400 factory trawlers on the high seas. Japan had 125, Spain, 75, West Germany, 50, France and Britain, 40, and dozens more were operated by East Bloc nations. They plied the Georges Banks of New England, the hake stocks of South Africa, Alaskan and Baring Sea Pollock, Antarctic krill and, most of all, the northern cod off Newfoundland and Labrador. They were strip-mining the sea.

The catch peaked in 1968 and has been dropping ever since.

In 1977 Canada followed Iceland in unilaterally extending its territorial waters from 12 to 200 miles offshore. Foreign factory trawlers were kicked off the Banks except for a small portion called “the Tail” that lies beyond 200 miles. But by this time the groundfish stocks were so depleted that many factory trawlers had already moved on to strip-mine elsewhere. Still, the decision was greeted with euphoria in Atlantic Canada. Finally the Banks would be used for the benefit of Canadians. But in a remarkable display of shortsightedness, Canada proceeded to build a deep-sea trawler fleet of its own. Foreign fishing had shattered the ecology of the Northwest Atlantic fisheries. The Canadian government proceeded to finish off the survivors.

The expansion of the domestic industry created an economic imperative that more fish be caught. “Under-utilized” fish stocks had to be captured to keep processing plants busy. So while the new fleet was under construction, joint ventures were set up with foreign factory trawlers to capture fish on the banks; the trawlers would land part of their catch at Newfoundland fish plants and keep the rest to land at home. The collapse of the Banks was right around the corner.

Then it hit

The shock came in 1988. New modeling techniques and the latest stock survey revealed that many groundfish stocks were on the edge of collapse. The northern cod stock–by far the largest and most important–was in the worst shape of all. Fisheries scientists concluded that quotas had to be more than halved in order to prevent this stock’s collapse. Politicians were appalled; the proposed quotas would have caused economic chaos throughout Eastern Canada. So the politicians compromised what could not be compromised. Quotas were cut by only 10 percent.

More frightening data poured in confirming the stock was in serious trouble, that fishermen had been capturing as much as 60 percent of the adult cod every year for several years running. Plants closed and 2,000 people were out of work. Canada released $584 million in emergency assistance. Fishermen tried as hard as they could, but could only catch 122,000 of the 190,000-ton cod quota for 1991. The stock was in free fall.

When the 1992 fish surveys were released, politicians finally realized that regardless of what quotas they set, nature had spoken: there would be no fish to feed the plants and working families of Atlantic Canada. The estimated combined weight of the adult cod population was a mere 1.1 percent of its historic levels of the early 1960s. In 1992 the government finally closed the Banks altogether to allow the stock to recover. But by then it was far too late.

Too Little, Too Late

Even if left alone, the northern cod may never recover. Industrial technology and human greed may have so decimated these hardy fish that they can no longer hold onto their ecological niche. The crash could be irreversible.

It appears the damage has been done…

There is growing evidence that the trawlers may not only have scooped up all the fish but also laid to waste the entire seafloor environment those fish required to survive. In the late 1990s marine scientists began assembling evidence that modern fishing gear causes massive physical and ecological disturbances. The continental shelf–where most ecological and, thus, fishing activity takes place–is not a featureless plain of mud. Rocky outcroppings, boulders, cobbles and pebbles provide “structure” on and around which living communities can thrive. Here, juvenile cod and other fish can hide from predators and find small crustaceans, crabs and other creatures to eat.

Modern bottom trawls destroy these structures like gigantic plows. Dragging the bottom for cod or flounder, nets are spread open by a pair of metal “doors” or “boards” weighing tens to thousands of pounds. The bottom of the trawl mouth is a thick cable bearing the weight of 50- to 700-pound steel weights that keep the trawl on the seabed. Many drag tickler chains to scare shrimp or fish off the bottom and into the net. Scallop, oyster and crab dredges consist of steel frames and chain-mesh bags that plow through the seabed to sift out target species. With each pass, trawls and dredges overturn, scrape or sweep away boulders and cobbles, crush or ensnare bottom plants and structure-building animals, and kill or disrupt worms and other animals in the sediment. Most species take months or years to reestablish themselves, some take decades or centuries. None are given that much time.

I posted this with Fusion Publisher and meant to post it back here before I quit blogging. Believe it or not, this article was a major reason why I am stopping posting here for a while. Thomas Homer-Dixon talks about this in the Ingenuity Gap but looks at it from far more angles than just fishing. It gets sadder and more scary.

One Comment

  1. klondyker says:

    The first factory trawler Fairtry was built in Aberdeen in 1954 and launched in April of that year.

    How can the writer say it appeared on the fishing grounds in 1951 ?