Protecting Ocean Ecosystems

Closed Areas Cautionary Tales Pt. 1: Canada’s Cod Catastrophe

A plot of cod landings in Atlantic Canada showing the dramatic decline in stocks in the early 1990s. (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

New England’s fishery managers are poised to allow large scale commercial fishing in thousands of square miles of New England waters, which have long been set aside to protect cod and other struggling fish populations. These groundfish closed areas were put in place following widespread crashes of fish populations in the early 1990’s and were intended to protect juvenile fish, spawning areas and seafloor habitat.  Biological productivity has begun to start showing improvements only recently.

As fishery managers consider re-introducing damaging forms of fishing like bottom trawling into these protected areas, they should also consider the experiences of other fisheries that exploited protected areas. This post, the first in a series of three, will focus on the dramatic collapse of Canadian cod stocks, brought about in part by poor habitat protection.

In 1992, the Canadian government took dramatic action to manage its declining groundfish stocks—it declared a moratorium on all commercial cod fishing in the Canadian waters of the North Atlantic. Tens of thousands of people were almost immediately put out of work. A coastal culture and economy that had successfully co-existed with Atlantic cod for hundreds of years spun into rapid decline.

The moratorium was prompted by a precipitous decline in cod landings in the late 1980s and the early 1990s, resulting from a sharp drop in cod biomass. Researchers now point to a combination of overfishing and environmental factors as the root of the decline; stock assessments were uncertain and later proved to be too optimistic. Despite pressure from scientists to reduce catch quotas, regulators pushed the limits until the fish were gone. A moratorium became a necessity.

Although intended to be a temporary measure that would be reversed once stocks had rebounded, the moratorium remains in place two decades later, and the cod still have not returned. A 2011 study reported that since 2005, cod habitat has been slowly returning to a healthier state, but numerous factors still stand in the way of a full recovery of cod stocks. Due to nonexistent competition from cod, small forage fish like capelin and herring have overtaken cod habitat, eating and outcompeting cod larvae and preventing their growth to maturity. The burgeoning gray seal population devours young cod. And despite the moratorium, cod continue to be caught as bycatch from other fisheries. Bycatch in 2008 amounted to an astonishing 720 metric tons of fish.

In March, The Boston Globe pointed out the striking similarities between the years preceding the Canadian cod collapse and the current state of New England fisheries. Like in Canada, environmental shifts like climate change are placing unpredictable stresses on fish stocks and changing the distribution of key species. Current New England cod stocks are far below healthy levels and previous assessments showing stock recovery have been revised downward. Regulators continue to push the limits of what scientists consider safe catch levels.

Canadian regulators quoted in the Globe article have a clear message for the New England community: proceed with caution. Dr. “JJ” Maguire, a Quebec fisheries biologist who was directly experienced with the Canadian collapse, had this to say:

With the northern cod, everything seemed OK. But we found through later assessments that we were considerably off track. Things didn’t turn out the way we projected. My concern is that New England doesn’t repeat the same mistakes.

Eric Dunne, who served as regional director of the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans in the early 1990s, promoted a cautious approach to setting catch limits:

In retrospect, and what I would tell those in New England, is that the best approach is to err on keeping the catch down. It’s easy to say and hard to do, but if you push the limit of what’s being advised, you’ll be in trouble.

But overly optimistic stock assessments and catch limits weren’t the only problem for northern cod. A recovery plan for the cod stocks, released by the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans in 2005, points to destruction of habitat as a major factor in the slow rebound of cod, noting that it is likely that “a reduction in suitable benthic habitat has reduced survival of juvenile cod.” The plan recommends protecting habitat rich in vertical structure—prime spawning ground for young cod—as a crucial aspect of recovery. It also notes that “bottom trawling for groundfish [is] destructive of this bottom structure.” Bottom trawling doesn’t just catch fish—it destroys environments like corals and kelp that harbor young cod and can even dramatically alter the bathymetry of the seafloor.

Again, these scenarios ring true for New England as the New England Fishery Management Council prepares to open large swaths of closed areas to bottom trawling. Fishery managers have argued that annual catch limits eliminate the need for “input controls” like closed areas.

Canada’s experience suggests that this is a very bad idea. Simply stopping overfishing by ending the directed fishery didn’t turn things around in Canada, and it won’t in New England, either. With environmental changes like warming temperatures placing new stresses on groundfish populations and making stock assessments that are based on the past much more unreliable, it is irresponsible not to act conservatively, regardless of the short term economic impacts.

At some point, while taking more and more goods and services from the oceans, we lose control of those systems and they change in unpredictable and not always profitable ways. These closed areas may be the only insurance policy tomorrow’s fishermen have left against that fate.


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