US & Canada

New hope for Canada's depleted Atlantic fisheries

George Rose
Image caption Researcher George Rose says the fishery has not recovered yet, despite recent gains

The waters off Newfoundland and Labrador were long some of the richest cod grounds in the world, but by 1992 the stocks were so depleted Canada closed the fishery. In Newfoundland, Jeb Sharp reports on hope of a revival.

In the village of Petley, the wharf is crumbling, the boathouses are dilapidated and the ball field where children used to play is completely overgrown.

Thomas Clenche, 45, witnessed the change wrought when tens of thousands of people were thrown out of work when fishing ended here and many left the province for jobs elsewhere.

"Young people are wiped out," Mr Clenche said. "I have a two-and-a-half year old at home and he has no playmates. Children are almost a thing of the past here."

'Turning point'

But recently, scientists anxiously watching the fish stocks have seen signs of a revival.

"We're at a major turning point right now in the potential rebuilding of the northern cod stock," said George Rose, director of the Center for Fisheries Ecosystem Research at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St John's. "During the last few years we've seen some major, major changes."

Mr Rose, author of Cod: The Ecological History of the North Atlantic Fisheries, said in one area he has been studying, the numbers have jumped from about 10,000 tons of fish to 100,000 tons in recent years.

"The rapid rate of increase signals a turnaround and that's got a lot of people's hopes up," Mr Rose said.

No one is celebrating yet though. The cod stocks off Newfoundland are just a fraction of what they were 50 years ago, and even in the spots where the fish are returning, scientists do not have a good handle on why. More research is needed on all the possibilities, including changing ocean conditions due to climate change, researchers say.

'Long haul'

Back in 1992 the thinking varied on whether the cod might come back, and if so, when. Politicians hoped the stocks would bounce back quickly but many scientists feared they wouldn't.

"We knew this was going to be a long haul," Mr Rose said.

Image caption Fewer than 100 people now live in Petley, according to the Canadian census

Even so, authorities have come under constant pressure to reopen the fishery. A bit of local cod fishing has been allowed in recent years but in general the moratorium holds.

Fisheries journalist Jim Wellman has been tracking the news about cod numbers. He says out that ironically, good news can prove problematic in Newfoundland, because when fishermen see healthy stocks of fish, even just small bands of them, they get the impression the ocean is full.

"Then they want to have at it real fast," Mr Wellman said. "They're just trying to make a living. I don't blame them but we can't let them. We just can't. It's too fragile."

In the once-bustling fishing village of Champney's West, retired fisherman Clayton Moody misses the good old days. He and his father fished from a 28-foot boat using cod traps and trawls.

"That way of life is gone out," Mr Moody said. "I don't see it coming back. There might be a bit of fish come back but the way of life, that's gone."

This story was produced for PRI's The World in collaboration with the public radio programme Encounters.

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