Requiem for the Grand Banks - The Last Hunters - Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World - Mark Kurlansky

Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World - Mark Kurlansky (1999)

Part III. The Last Hunters


—Sir Walter Scott, The Antiquary, 1816

Chapter 11. Requiem for the Grand Banks



—William Carlos Williams, “The Cod Head,” 1932

Inevitably, Iceland and Newfoundland are compared. They are both North Atlantic islands and roughly the same size, though Newfoundland’s half million inhabitants are twice as many as Iceland’s. The poor quality of the land and shortness of the growing season make agriculture unprofitable on both islands. Historically, both economies have been entirely based on fishing, mostly cod. On both islands, the local fishermen operated small boats inshore while foreigners fished the rich offshore grounds. Both remained underdeveloped colonies until after World War II.

But that is when everything becomes different. While Iceland was severing its ties with Denmark to become an independent republic, Newfoundland was severing its ties to Britain and becoming a province of Canada. Once it became a province of a large wealthy nation, Newfoundlanders no longer needed to depend on their fishery for survival. Canada would make up the shortfalls. By the 1990s, the Canadian government was spending three dollars on fisheries for every one dollar those fisheries earned.

Newfoundland, Britain’s oldest colony, had been a self-governing colony until the Great Depression. At that time, saltfish was failing to support fishermen, and a British-appointed commission took over. But under the Commission of Government, an unemployed fisherman received an allowance of only six cents a day. Though Newfoundlanders had always resisted the idea of being swallowed up by Canada, this appeared to be the only option left. In 1948, the British supervised a referendum in which Newfoundlanders voted by a narrow margin to become the tenth province of Canada. But once part of Canada, Newfoundland had a large and distant government that was not accustomed to thinking of fishing as a top priority. The Canadian foreign trade bureaucracy was far more interested in wheat and industrial products. It viewed the local salt cod fishery as an economic failure and tried to develop the Newfoundland economy with light industry, most of which also failed, because it could not compete with mainland industry.


Breton fishing fleet leaving for the Banks, The Graphic, October 17, 1891.

But once the 200-mile limit was established in 1977, the Canadian government saw a chance to make fishing a viable economic base for Newfoundland. First, though, it needed to settle its border with the United States and drive off the Europeans. Then it would have a truly exclusive zone.

The Spanish and the Portuguese, who regarded it as their right to fish these grounds because they had been doing so for 500 years, were shocked. The 200-mile limit had been a particular blow to Spain because, though its people had the highest per capita fish consumption of any Western country, almost no good fishing grounds could be found within 200 miles of the Spanish coastline. After Franco’s death in 1975, every sector of the Spanish economy attracted investments and was being modernized. But there were few prospects for a modern Spanish fishing fleet. The Canadians and the Americans were throwing Spanish ships off of their banks, and the French and the British were pressuring the European Community bureaucracy to exclude them from European waters. While fishing was one of the principal objections of the French and British to letting Spain into their community, it was also one of the incentives Spain had for joining. With a larger fleet than any European Community country, Spain saw its quota reduced by the EC every year. By 1983, 1,000 Spanish vessels shared 234 licenses in European waters. Below the hilltop town of Vigo, in Spain’s northwestern region of Galicia, was a fleet of modern trawlers that increasingly had nowhere to go.

The Portuguese fleet, called the White Fleet because during World War II it had painted its ships white to remind German submarines of Portuguese neutrality, had few places to fish either. The one place left to the Iberians was a corner of Grand Bank and all of the Flemish Cap, a historic cod bank, both of which were beyond 200 miles and therefore in international water. Both the Spanish and Portuguese were taking significant quantities of cod from this area until 1986, when the Canadians decided to deny foreign vessels fishing the outer Banks use of St. John’s for supplies and repairs. The French still had St. Pierre and Miquelon, but the Iberians would have been stranded far from home with no port.

The other issue for Canada was the U.S. border. While Georges Bank, the richest prize on the shelf, is off the coast of New England, much of it is also within the 200-mile range of Nova Scotia. The fight over Georges Bank may not have become a true cod war in the European tradition, but a few gunshots were exchanged between New England and Canadian fishermen—probably the only shooting between Canadians and Americans since the French and Indian War. Under international arbitration, Canada was granted the northeast corner of the Bank, and the rest became U.S. territorial water. For the first time in history, Canada and the United States now exclusively owned the cod banks off their coasts.

The 200-mile limit was not seen in Canada, the United States, or anywhere else as a conservation measure, but rather as a protectionist measure for the national fisheries. While the U.S. government was providing low-interest loans and other incentives to modernize a New England fleet on Georges Bank, Canada was investing in a Grand Banks fleet. To build up this modern industry, the seafood companies, near bankruptcy from mismanagement, an overvalued Canadian dollar, and competition from Iceland, had to be rescued. Under a government bailout plan, the Newfoundland seafood companies were merged into a conglomerate called Fishery Products International, and government funds were used to resuscitate the Nova Scotian company called National Sea Products. By the late 1980s, both companies were huge and prospering. FPI had even managed to buy back the government shares. By then, the Canadian dollar was weak against the U.S. dollar, and Newfoundland and Nova Scotia cod were commanding excellent prices in the Boston market.

Ten years after the 200-mile limit had been declared, the year after the ports were dosed to foreign vessels, the Canadian government could, and did, claim that it had taken possession of its banks and turned the Atlantic fishery around into a profitable sector of the economy. There was a significant increase in the number of fishermen and the number of fish-processing-plant workers. The seafood companies crewed huge trawlers with new fishermen, many of whom were fish-plant workers, since much of the work on board a modern trawler is fish processing. Sam Lee of Petty Harbour recalled with a slight sneer, “One fellow I grew up with—his father had a store. He worked in plants. Before long he was an experienced deep-sea fisherman.”

But while the new, offshore all-Canadian fishery was prospering, the inshore fishermen found their catches dropping off. They suspected the reason was that the offshore draggers were taking so many cod that the fish did not have a chance to migrate inshore to spawn. The inshore fishermen complained to the regulatory agency, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, but the government had invested in offshore fishing, not inshore, and its political priority was to make its investment a success story. As the inshore stocks dwindled, the debate became increasingly acrimonious. On the one side were the inshore fishermen; on the other side were the fishermen’s union, the trawler workers, the seafood companies, and the government. Cabot Martin, a Newfoundland lawyer who took up pro bono the cause of the inshore fishermen, said, “The whole unfair thing about Sam Lee fighting National Sea is that Sam didn’t have any money.”

“We founded the Newfoundland Inshore Fisheries Association because nobody was listening to the fishermen. We were complaining to the wind,” said Sam Lee. “It was not just for inshore fishermen. Anyone who cared about what was happening could join.”

The small local fish plant had chronic bankruptcies, and catch would spoil before the Petty Harbour fishermen could find another way to get it to Boston. Finally, the fishermen took over the plant as a cooperative, and since the government was interested in seafood companies, they were able to borrow money for improvements. By keeping the fish in pens, they could keep the cod alive until they had arranged the market. Cabot Martin, whose original interest was fish farming, showed them that by feeding the cod capelin, herring, and mackerel, they would double the weight of the catch, and much of the added weight was not in length but in thickness, increasing the fish’s per-pound value. The cod started to resemble the thicker stock of Georges Bank. But as time went on, it was getting harder to get cod of any size to put in the pen. Even bait fish for feed were becoming scarce.

In 1989, faced with government indifference, Martin and the Inshore Fisheries Association decided to sue the government in the hope of getting an injunction against bottom dragging. They charged that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans was not following environmental assessments. The court ruled against an injunction, saying it would have a negative impact on the economy and force National Sea’s plant in St. John’s to close down for several months a year.

Martin has since observed environmental campaigns against whale and seal hunting, such as those by Greenpeace, and he regrets having gone to court at all. “Mc-Donald’s was the biggest buyer [of the draggers’ catch]. We should have had a campaign against McDonald’s. We weren’t very sophisticated,” he said.

That the government was not listening to the inshore fishermen is an understatement. The government was euphoric about Atlantic cod stocks and the future of the fisheries. Catches were rising, and fishermen who could not meet their quotas of redfish were given supplemental quotas of cod to make up the difference. A government task force under Senator Michael Kirby was charged with assessing the future of Atlantic fisheries. Much of its report was devoted to finding new markets for all the fish that was going to be caught by the new Canadian groundfishing fleet.

Canadians have never been fish eaters. Even Newfoundlanders and Nova Scotians do not eat large quantities of fish. This is also true of Americans, including New Englanders. But the U.S. population is so large that there is always a potential for expansion. According to the Kirby report, Americans consume 233 pounds (105.8 kilos) per person of red meat in a year and only 4 pounds (1.8 kilos) of groundfish. The report estimated that over the next five years, Canadian groundfish catches would increase by 50 percent, and if somehow American per capita groundfish consumption could be increased by a mere .1 percent, the U.S. market could absorb all of the Canadian surplus.

In reality, catches were increasing not from an abundance of fish but because the efficiency of a modern trawler fleet made it possible to locate the sectors with remaining cod populations and systematically clean them out. In retrospect, this seems obvious, but it must be remembered that during Newfoundland’s long history of fishing, the migratory cod periodically disappeared from certain sectors only to reappear in others. Almost every year that records were kept, there were some areas of Newfoundland or Labrador where the cod stocks had nearly vanished. In some years, only one area failed. The years 1857 and 1874 were notable because there were no failing grounds. In 1868, almost all sectors experienced a failure in the stocks. But they would always show up somewhere the following year. Despite cries of alarm, these failures had never resulted in the disappearance of cod but had only been caused by temporary shifts in migratory patterns, perhaps in response to temperature changes. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the Canadian government assumed that Newfoundland waters were again experiencing this well-known phenomenon. Ralph Mayo, a marine biologist for the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service who studies Georges Bank from the Woods Hole, Massachusetts, laboratory, calls this “the perception problem.” He said, “You see some cod and assume this is the tip of the iceberg. But it could be the whole iceberg.”

Furthermore, the Kirby report was still being influenced by Huxley’s teaching about the resilience of indestructible nature. The idea itself seems to have more resilience than nature, and every year one or two books are still published on this idea. As with the sixteenth-century belief in a westward passage to Asia, the theory cannot be killed by mere experience.

In 1989, Fisheries minister John Crosbie, son and grandson of influential St. John’s fishing merchants, stood in St. John’s Radisson Hotel and tried to put to rest suspicions that the fisheries would soon have to be closed. In July 1992, he returned to the same hotel to announce just that—a moratorium on fishing the northern cod stock, putting 30,000 fishermen out of work. Sam Lee and other inshore fishermen, who had been calling for the moratorium on trawling for years, waited outside. When Crosbie refused to see them, Lee, normally a pleasant, good-humored man, began angrily pounding on the door.

In January 1994, a new minister, Brian Tobin, announced an extension of the moratorium. All the Atlantic cod fisheries in Canada were to be closed except for one in southwestern Nova Scotia, and strict quotas were placed on other ground species. Canadian cod was not yet biologically extinct, but it was commercially extinct—so rare that it could no longer be considered commercially viable. Just three years short of the 500-year anniversary of the reports of Cabot’s men scooping up cod in baskets, it was over. Fishermen had caught them all.

The fish-processing plants, which had been used to justify the court’s rejection of the inshore fishermen’s case, were closed down anyway. The two giant companies, FPI and National Sea Products, scaled down their operations and began processing cod from Iceland and Norway. National Sea Products used a 250-employee plant in Arnold’s Cove, a typical Newfoundland fishing town like Petty Harbour, built in the crevice of a bay, out on the water on top of stilts. The Newfoundland government, trying to resettle the inhabitants of the small islands off of Newfoundland in less remote places, had moved villagers to Arnold’s Cove, where there were jobs at the National Sea Products plant. The plant bought Russian cod, beheaded and frozen, from the Norwegians. In Arnold’s Cove it was partially thawed, filleted, and refrozen.

The community-owned processing plant in Petty Harbour wanted to do the same thing but did not have the capital. “We looked into Russian cod to keep our plant going. But it was way out of our league,” said Sam Lee. Instead, they kept the plant open as a school. But they owe the government more than one million Canadian dollars in interest on money borrowed to buy freezing equipment. “We were paying it back until the moratorium. The government doesn’t want the plant, so we will be able to keep it. No one wants it. Fish will come back and it will be back in operation, but by then with interest, it will be a two-million-dollar debt.”

The government also had to ban the blackback fishery, because fishermen going after this bottom-feeding flat fish seemed to get suspiciously large quantities of cod in their nets. It was legal to take these cod as a by-catch, but it began to look as though fishermen were targeting the by-catch. Some fished for lumpfish, which Lee completely objected to as wasteful since the roe is taken and the rest of the fish is discarded. Some of the inshore fishermen have turned to crabbing, which has been very profitable, and others to lobstering. There have been experiments with fishing whelks for export. But to groundfishermen, these were lesser forms of fishing. Most fishermen just collected the package and waited.

St. John’s, the oldest city in North America, was built on a deepwater harbor sheltered by high majestic cliffs. The town, with its brightly painted late-nineteenth-century wooden houses, overlooks the harbor from a steep hill. Despite the ornateness of the Victorian architecture, there is a frontierlike rough-hewn charm to the town. The waterfront used to be crowded with stores selling supplies to the European fleets, whose ships would line the piers at the bottom of town. Portuguese and Spaniards would play soccer in town and drink wine with crusty bread. They were all gone now. The waterfront was filled with bars, restaurants, and shops for tourists.

The constant theme of tourism was cod. White strips of peanut butter-filled hard candy were called codfish bones. Little wooden models of trawlers were sold. Bars offered an initiation to foreigners called “being screeched in.” This was a holdover from the cod and molasses trade, its meaning now lost. The tourist would down a shot of Screech, a Jamaican rum bottled in Newfoundland, and then would have to kiss a codfish—usually a stuffed one. There were no other codfish except frozen Russian fillets or the occasional catch from the Sentinel Fishery.

Meanwhile, oil has been found on the Grand Banks. A decade earlier, when oil was found on Georges Bank, fishermen had played an important role in blocking the oil companies. In Newfoundland, fishermen have already expressed concern about the effect on fish of the oil companies’ seismic soundings, but without an income, they do not represent a very strong lobby. “They say it [sounding] doesn’t affect fish, but theyCre lying,” said Lee.

Everyone talks of “when the cod comes back.” Lee said the fish plant would reopen when the cod came back. Tom Osbourne, procurement manager for National Sea Products in Arnold’s Cove, said, “Local fish will come back before too much longer, and we will go back to processing local fish. It will be king again someday. It will regain the U.S. market.”

Cabot Martin believes the cod will be back. “I’d rather there were fish to fight about. It’s all coming back. They will try. They will want to start dragging again. We will have to fight them again.”

But nature may have different plans.



2 lbs cod sounds
4 strips salt pork
shelots or onions

Put about 2 lb. of salt cod sounds in water & let stand overnight, then drain off water. Put in a saucepan and cook for about 10 minutes. Drain. Fry pork, cut up shelots or onions, then cut sounds in small pieces and fry altogether. Add a little water if necessary.

This recipe was used some 80 years ago, and often, for Sunday evening meal with home made bread and butter. It was enough for the family and very tasty and delicious. Today, mashed potatoes, french frys, whole potatoes with green peas could be served with this dish.

—Winnifred Green, Hants Harbor, Newfoundland,
from Fat-back & Molasses: A Collection of Favourite
Old Recipes from Newfoundland & Labrador,
edited by Ivan F. Jesperson, St. John’s, 1974

Also see page 249.