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Monday, 16 December, 2002, 22:45 GMT
Cod's warning from Newfoundland
Newfoundland, Hirsch
Bonavista: It has seen good times and bad

Hanging over this week's highly charged talks in Brussels over the future of the North Sea fishing industry is the experience of the Canadian island of Newfoundland 10 years ago.

One of the world's most abundant populations of cod suddenly collapsed, leading to a total fishing moratorium and throwing about 40,000 people out of work.

As far as Newfoundland is concerned now, our fishery has gone - wiped out, and all because of greed and stupidity

Larry Tremblett
On the rocky outcrop of Cape Bonavista, a statue of the Venetian explorer John Cabot overlooks the rugged and icy coastline of this Atlantic island, marking the spot where he is thought to have made his first landfall in 1497 after leaving the port of Bristol.

Cabot was supposed to be looking for a new trade route to the Orient, but what he found proved to be of equal economic importance: his crew reported that all they had to do was lower a basket into the sea and it would come up full of cod.

That marked the start of a 500-year fishing industry that dominated the economy of Newfoundland, making the events of 1992 a traumatic moment in its history.

Early euphoria

Inshore fishermen like 76-year-old Wilson Hayward believe the seeds of disaster were sown after the Second World War, when hundreds of factory trawlers, mainly from Eastern Europe, arrived on the Grand Banks, which stretch out more than 320 kilometres (200 miles) off the island's coast.

"I remember going out on to the cape in the night, and all you could see were dragger (trawler) lights as far as the eye could see, just like a city in the sea. We all knew it was wrong.

Newfoundland, Hirsch
John Cabot: What would he have made of it all?
"They were taking the mother fish which had been out there spawning over the years.

"They cleaned it all up; they dragged the ocean floor like the paved road," he told BBC News Online.

The Canadian Government was also concerned about the invasion of foreign fishing fleets and in 1977 imposed an exclusive 200-mile zone around its coast. But as Professor George Rose, of Newfoundland's Memorial University explains, the attitude then was that if other countries could make so much money out of these fishing grounds, then Canadians could do the same.

"There was a euphoria - the provincial government thought we'd hit the jackpot. So things just took off - boats were built, plants were commissioned. Before the biological reality of what we were doing to our fish stocks hit home, it was just too late," said Professor Rose.

Social cost

That reality arrived like a bombshell in 1992. It emerged that cod stocks were in free fall, estimated to be at less than 1% of the levels of the 1960s. And it spelled disaster for towns like Bonavista and its population of just over 4,000.

The mayor, Betty Fitzgerald, is a tireless 58-year-old grandmother who has spent the last decade fighting to attract alternative employment - the connection with John Cabot at least means that there is a focus for tourism, but it is still an uphill struggle.

Newfoundland, Hirsch
The processing unit has shed more than half its workforce
"We've lost between 700 and 900 people, and a lot of those are young people coming straight out of schools and universities and leaving the island to find employment.

"Many fishermen with young families found they could not earn enough on the mainland to feed their families back home, and that often leads to the break-up of marriages, leaving the women on their own back here with several children to bring up."

The alarming thing about the experience of Newfoundland is that despite 10 years of the moratorium, the cod still has not returned in significant numbers.

Lessons for Europe

You hear lots of different theories about why this is: some fishermen blame a boom in the seal population, others the failure of the government to extend the fishing ban to the edges of the Grand Banks; to go beyond Canada's territorial waters.

But what is clear is that the ecosystem of these chilly waters has changed dramatically. Dominated since the Ice Age by cod and capelin, a small fish on which the cod feeds, the waters are now ruled by crab and shrimp.

Newfoundland, Hirsch
Wilson Hayward: The warning signs were there
What no one knows is when or whether the old way of things will return.

So what are the lessons for the North Sea?

Marine scientist George Rose is concerned to hear European fishermen challenging the warnings of scientists because they can still find plenty of cod.

This echoes the claims of trawlermen on the Grand Banks in the late 1980s, but it turned out that they were observing a phenomenon he calls "hyper-aggregation", in which fish cluster in ever-greater densities when their environment is under pressure.

'Bite the bullet'

"If you look at the data on the catches-per-unit of the trawler fleet, the highest ever recorded in this fishery were in 1992, when the stocks were on the verge of collapse," said Professor Rose.

"So if fishermen are still saying they can find concentrations, that's good news for now, but it should give no reassurance that you couldn't take those last bits of fish down and push the whole thing right over the edge."

And from another Bonavista fisherman Larry Tremblett, a sober piece of advice for his European colleagues:

"It would be better for them to take drastic measures now, bite the bullet for a little while and then hopefully their stock will rebuild.

"Not like what happened to us, just letting it go until there was nothing left.

"As far as Newfoundland is concerned now, our fishery has gone - wiped out, and all because of greed and stupidity."

Map, BBC

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