It was 20 years ago the hammer came down on the Atlantic cod fishery. Many lives were changed, livelihoods threatened, and in some cases, taken away altogether.
When the moratorium was announced, no province was hit harder than Newfoundland and Labrador, and perhaps no areas were hit harder than the small coastal communities of the Northern Peninsula.
While still greatly affected by the moratorium, fisherman David Cassell of Roddickton was one of the lucky few who had already made the transition from cod to crab. He had already been in the crab business for 10 years when the moratorium announcement was made in July of 1992.
He said the switch was easy - fishing for cod was simply not worth it at the time.
“We saw the shellfish industry was coming on pretty strong and there was never any money made on the cod fishery, that’s the reason I went to crab,” said Mr. Cassell.
“There was never a dollar made on the cod. At most it was slavery. It was all about bare survival. Up until there was a shellfish industry, you couldn’t make money,” he added.
But, the life of a cod fisherman was one of deep rooted tradition and pride. It wasn’t always for the money that fishermen took to the seas, it was to preserve what they knew - their way of life.
“I knew fishermen who would land millions and millions of pounds of cod, and still couldn’t paint their boats in the spring of the year, yet alone buy something safer to go fishing in. They could barley paint their boats, that’s how low the cod industry was, and still is,” said Mr. Cassell.
At the time, the consequences of the moratorium were devastating to cod fishermen, but were minimal on those involved in the crab industry.
However, 20 years later, the effects of the cod moratorium are now being felt by other fishermen.
“In the last few years, crab numbers have been decreasing,” said Mr. Cassell. “There has been a decline in the shellfish in the last five or so years because ground fish (like cod) have overtaken the shellfish grounds.
“Every species of ground fish is in abundance on the Northeast coast.”
Mr. Cassell believes if the moratorium continues, other species may be put at risk.
“There is no doubt, if we had a cod fishery open now as part of our business, we would keep the cod in balance and it would be a help to the whole fishing industry,” he said. “If every fisherman out there had 200,000–300,000 pounds of cod to catch, it would help the entire ecosystem regain its balance.”
He said within the last four or five years, wherever he puts his crab pots, he’s hauling more and more cod up with them, and this is cause for concern.
“What we are recording on the depth sounders is unbelievable, there’s just so many,” said Mr. Cassell. “We’ve got a lot of cod. It’s common now to hear about herring fishermen pulling up thousands of pounds of cods in herring traps.”
He said he’s not sure if the scientists are ignoring the changes in cod stocks over the last decade or if they are simply blind to them.
“It’s not fair of scientists to say there have been some signs of cod stock recovery when we can tell you, there has been a major recovery. I wish scientists would come aboard with us. We’ve offered to take them out at no cost whatsoever just to see what we’re seeing.”
He’s concerned if things continue the way they have been, by the time the moratorium is lifted, either the Atlantic’s ground fish ecosystem may be damaged or there will simply be no one left to do the fishing.
“There definitely needs be a cod fishery here, and not next year or 10 years down the road when all our young fishermen are gone because they can’t find enough employment to stay in the industry. We need a cod fishery now,” said Cassell. “If there are no quotas put on cod, if they don’t let us fish them soon, we’ll never see any benefits from rebuilding the stocks.”
In 1992, the government asked fishermen to be a part of the rebuilding process, but Mr. Cassell wants to know, 20 years later, what was gained by it? Who will reap the benefits of a replenished cod stock?
“My question is, after these 20 years, who are we now rebuilding the cod stocks for? The seals? There is an abundance of cod out there for those few who are left to fish it.
“They’re not allowed to fish, but the fish are there to catch.”