The mismanaged Northern cod

09 Sep 2012

Menakhem Ben-Yami takes a look at fishery mismanagement.

The infamous and dramatic demise of the once lucrative fishery of Newfoundland and Labrador cod stocks in the early 1990s, considered as one of the best managed worldwide, was particularly alarming.

This could be now regarded as a historical episode, had there been a recovery. Unfortunately, this is not the case, and hence it has attracted the attention of many researchers and writers on fisheries, who produced numerous articles, study-reports and books. The infamous 2 July 1992 cod moratorium imposed by the Canadian government resulted in putting an end to a 500-year-old cod fishery that was the heart of Newfoundland's economic activity, culture and society.

In the single largest layoff off of workers in Canadian history, an estimated 30,000 people were put out of work, which amplified exodus of people from rural Newfoundland. Some social scientists say more than 70,000 people have left the bays, coves and outports of the province since.

Don Power, the department's head of groundfish research in St. John's, said recently that although there are some encouraging signs for the cod, with some improvement recorded between 2005 and 2009, "Things seem to be turning to more favourable conditions for building to occur, (but) the ability for a stock to reproduce itself when it's at such a low level is going to take some time to get back to where it was before the moratorium." In the meantime, the northern cod stock remains 90% below its 1980s levels.

In 2010, Dean Bavington, who's an associate Professor in environmental history at the Canadian Nipissing University and Canada Research Chair in Environmental History, published a book entitled: Managed Annihilation: An Unnatural History of the Newfoundland Cod Collapse (UBC Press) for which ​he won the 2011 Clio Prize Atlantic awarded by the Canadian Historical Association. The book discusses the once extremely successful commercial cod fishery in Newfoundland and Labrador. After the cod industry collapsed in 1992 - causing the largest single-day lay-off in Canadian history and detrimental ecological damage - many pointed to errors in fish stock management and (how not?) to careless harvesting by fishermen as the culprits.

Not quite, according to Bavington; the collapse of the cod fishery only occurred after it had been entirely state managed with no recovery even after 20 years of this management. This collapse has demonstrated to scientists and policy makers that their abilities to predict and control nature are very limited. Nevertheless – wrote Bavington – they kept attempting to control stocks while doing more of the same. The only changes that have been made are some of the methods used in their attempt to control nature.

Here’s the entry from the Clio Prize website: “With lucid and highly accessible prose, Dean Bavington offers an insightful, and often disturbing, explanation of how ‘the northern cod was scientifically managed out of existence’. Bavington traces the history of managerial ecology and its hegemony in environmental discourse and practices and calls for a shift from managerial to moral ecology. Bavington’s heterodoxy will have its critics, but his challenge to reconsider our conviction that we can control nature reminds us that we have seen this type of hubristic and flawed certainty in the past. His intervention is both timely and important”.

Fishing for Truth
Bavington was not the first to blame official science and the government's approach and practice for the mismanagement of the cod fishery. In his 1994 book Fishing for Truth, published by Institute of Social and Economic Research, Memorial University of Newfoundland, sociologist Chris Finlayson related the story of the role of science in the decline of the Northern cod stocks off the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador over the period 1977-1990. Finlayson discussed the conflicting and contradictory interpretations of the pertinent events, institutional and scientific texts and data, claiming that all related scientific and other knowledge had been influenced by personal interests and by political, scientific and sociological processes. Finlayson compared government's scientists' awards for academic publications with the little encouragement to mix with and draw knowledge from experienced fishing people.

Finlayson, after interviewing scientists and bureaucrats in the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), concluded that failures to assess trends in fish stocks condition were closely related to the extent to which scientists' interpretations of reality were based on their social background, environment (such as serving the government) and attitude. Accordingly, notwithstanding a series of commissions and external reviews, DFO had ignored signs from the inshore sector that stocks were in trouble, because of its institutional commitment to hard methodology and to the data coming in from the offshore sector, while its scientists neglected inshore fishermen's information as not a ‘source of valid knowledge’. This was an important element in the array of social forces driving Canada’s management (or mismanagement) of northern cod stocks from 1977 until 1990.

In spite of its rare approach, the 18-year-old Fishing for Truth remains a refreshing, scholarly study and I'd strongly recommend it to anyone involved in the management of natural, particularly marine, resources.

The Faroese defiance
There's also the other side of the mismanagement coin. The European management almost succeeded to manage the fisheries in Faroese waters out of business, when in 1994 in result of Denmark’s pressure the TAC-quota system, based on shaky science was introduced.

The Faroese people and government soon perceived the unwarranted reduction of the allowed yield, which was leading towards economic, social and - with fish forming over 90% of the country’s export - a national debacle, and decided to abandon the quota system. The price to pay was leaving the EU system.

Thus, in 1996, the current effort management by DAS was implemented throughout the Faroese demersal fisheries, with most cod spawning areas closed during spawning season, for most gear types. Only within groups of vessels licensed for the same fishing method DAS are tradeable and exchangeable. Since then, the fishery keeps producing yields much higher than those that have been recommended by Euro-science.

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