The Collapse of the Resource Base

Groundfish, especially cod, is the foundation of the Atlantic fishery. Europeans settled in what is now Atlantic Canada because of the abundant cod and other groundfish, which afforded them simultaneously an assured food supply and a profitable export. Other species came to be significant, but groundfish, until very recently, still accounted for two-thirds of the tonnage of the total Atlantic catch, nearly half the landed value, and almost two-thirds of the jobs.

In the early 1980's, Canadian catches of Atlantic groundfish peaked at 775,000 tonnes, gradually declining to 688,000 tonnes by 1988. This decline then continued rapidly, dropping to 418,000 tonnes in 1992, and to what likely will be about 250,000 tonnes in 1993. The 10 principal cod and flatfish stocks went from 500,000 tonnes in 1988 to what will probably be considerably less than 100,000 tonnes in 1993 and a potential catch - at best - of 50,000 tonnes in 1994. This means a decline in catch of 90 percent in five years.

What does this mean for people? On average, 1,000 tonnes of groundfish generate 30 full-time jobs in a year. However, given seasonality and other factors such as the number of plants, those thousand tonnes in fact provide employment for about 75 people in any given year. In communities that are highly dependent on groundfish - and there are communities where the fishery supplies directly more than 90 percent of jobs - collapse of the resource means ruin.

However, it is important to note that groundfish as a proportion of the total catch varies greatly from region to region. In Nova Scotia, which has the most diversified fishery, groundfish represents about 50 to 60 percent of the catch in a normal year. In Newfoundland, under normal conditions, it would be about 80 percent for the province, although in some parts, it is effectively 100 percent. In the other Atlantic provinces, where the fishery is more diverse and relies more on shellfish and aquaculture, groundfish makes up about 30 percent of the catch during an average year. Consequently, the impact of groundfish reductions in terms of fish production and employment loss varies greatly among provinces and regions.

Canada's Atlantic fishery is extensive and diverse, from the Gulf of St. Lawrence out to the 200-mile economic limit and from Davis Strait to the Bay of Fundy. Within this vast area are many species yielding, in average years, an annual harvest of about 1.2 million tonnes, with a landed value of about $1 billion and a production value of about $2 billion. Within these fisheries, groundfish traditionally have accounted for about two-thirds of the landed volume and about 40 percent of the landed value.

Given the greatly reduced groundfish quotas, fisheries closures and poor catch performance to date, the projected 1993 groundfish catch will be no more than 250,000 tonnes. Compared with 1982, this means that the groundfish base of the Atlantic Canada fishery will have shrunk by more than 500,000 tonnes. This is equivalent to some 15,000 full-time, year round jobs in harvesting and processing, which normally would mean employment for some 35,000 people. While the impact of this massive collapse affects almost all of the Atlantic fishery, it falls heavily on Nova Scotia, and more particularly, on Newfoundland.

In 1993, the groundfish resource collapse is spreading. In the Maritime provinces, there are closures or quota cuts in many fisheries. Most of the Atlantic industry is made up of people working in small boats and small plants, and living in small and often very isolated communities. About a thousand such communities depend in whole or in large part upon the fishery for jobs in plants, boat building, equipment supplying, transport provisioning, and general support services. The groundfish resource failure means a total or at least major economic collapse for hundreds of communities in Atlantic Canada.

The resource base of the Newfoundland fishery - namely, cod stocks adjacent to Newfoundland, and cod and flatfish stocks on the southern Grand Banks - has virtually collapsed. In four years, the catches of these stocks went from close to 400,000 tonnes in 1988 down to less than some 75 percent. The projected total 1993 catch from these stocks is about 50,000 tonnes or one-eighth of what is was only five years prior. Other areas also have experienced substantial declines in groundfish catches on which fishermen and processors rely. Catches of cod stocks in the Gulf of St. Lawrence have dropped significantly, as have catches of cod and haddock on the Scotian Shelf.

The outlook for the Atlantic fishery is bleak. Current scientific projections for cod and flatfish stocks are extremely negative. The prospect for northern cod actually has worsened since the moratorium on commercial fishing was established in July 1992, suggesting that a closure will have to be maintained for years to come. The other prime groundfish stocks - cod stocks adjacent to the rest of Newfoundland, and cod and flatfish on the southern Grand Banks, in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence and on the Scotian Shelf - are also deteriorating rapidly. Total allowable catches in fisheries that remain open in 1994 will likely be considerably lower than in 1993. The spawning biomass of most of these stocks is at a historically low level. In the case of northern cod, there are no indications of any recovery before the end of the 1990's.

What has caused or contributed to this unprecedented and widespread resource collapse? There is no definitive evidence, but there are a number of factors which, in varying degrees and combinations, have had a role in this decline. Among the more important are:

The overall effect of these factors is that 90 percent of the Newfoundland groundfish base has been wiped out and will not recover for years. The impact on the people, communities and economy of that province will be staggering. The northeast coast of Newfoundland was devastated by the 1992 northern cod moratorium which meant the loss of employment and income for some 12,000 fishermen and 15,000 plant workers. With the resource supplies almost non-existent, many groundfish plants have closed. For many, the prospects for reopening in the foreseeable future are very bleak. Among these plants are many small fish plants. However, there are also some very major inshore operations that are affected and that have had a long history in the cod fishery, including St. Anthony, La Scie, Twillingate, Valleyfield, Carbonear, Old Perlican and Fogo Island.

The northern cod moratorium has been devastating for plant workers, fishermen and crew members. Government programs help address their short term problems. However, in the long term, the reality is that perhaps half of these individuals will never work in the fishery again. Fishermen who own vessels and gear, and processors who own plants and equipment are just as devastated. Many operations are family-owned businesses with long attachment in the fishery going back decades. They have come through previous industry crises, but now find themselves without the weaponry to withstand this latest, greatest onslaught. They prepared themselves for the 1992 fishing season, expended resources in good faith, were assured that it would proceed, and today find themselves with assets that are close to worthless, if they have any value at all.

The case of Fishery Products International (FPI), Canada's largest fishing company and the predominant operator in Newfoundland's offshore fishery also illustrates the devastating impact of the resource collapse. Its source of supply has been overwhelmingly reduced and, in the case of cod, has almost been wiped out. In four years, the company's total groundfish catch dropped from 139,000 tonnes in 1988 to 56,000 tonnes in 1992. The catch of cod alone has decreased from 85,000 tonnes in 1988 to 17,000 tonnes in 1992 - a drop of 80 percent in the catch of its most valuable species. For 1993, FPI's total groundfish catch is estimated at 37,000 tonnes. In 1994, its catch may reach no more than 25,000 tonnes - most of which will be groundfish of lesser value, such as redfish, rather than cod.

All of this has dramatic consequences for the people and communities in Atlantic Canada whose livelihood depends on FPI. In 1986 and 1987, FPI operated eight trawler-based offshore plants - seven of them on Newfoundland's south coast - as well as seven inshore plants, three secondary processing plants, a scallop operation and a fleet of nearly 70 trawlers. The company employed some 8,200 people - 7,200 plant workers and managers, and 1,000 trawlermen. FPI also bought fish for processing from about 2,500 inshore fishermen from across Newfoundland. In all, FPI provided income to some 12,000 people.

Similar is the situation of Atlantic Canada's other major fishery employer, National Sea Products (NSP). NSP has seen its groundfish catch go from nearly 122,000 tonnes in 1988 to just more than 51,000 tonnes in 1992 - a decline of 58 percent. Its cod catch since 1988 is down even further at 67 percent. Its total 1993 catch is projected at 24,000 tonnes - a drop of 53 percent in a single year. In 1988, NSP provided employment for nearly 6,000 people, almost all of them full time. In 1994, the company's payroll was down to about 3,500 workers, almost 40 percent of them part time. In 1988, it had 32 active trawlers and nine plants.

Bleakest is the outlook for Newfoundland's south coast, which has been the traditional base for offshore fishing for more than a century. It has the highest dependence on the fishery, and the highest reliance on groundfish - especially cod - in Atlantic Canada. In the mid-1980's, groundfish accounted for 94 percent of the value of fish production on the south coast - the highest dependence in Atlantic Canada.

Now, its people have nowhere else to turn. Farming does not exist. Mining has long since been played out, with only the most nominal activity still going, and forestry barely exists. Yet, Newfoundland's south coast has a proud tradition in the fishery. Since it is not ice-bound for part of the year, it suits offshore fishing, rising to prominence in the 1860's with the development of the famous Banker fleet of 100-foot vessels fishing for cod on the Grand Banks.

The fishing centres of Burgeo, Ramea, Gaultois, Harbour Breton, Grand Bank, Fortune, Burin, Marystown, Trepassey, including all the way around to Catalina on the northeast coast, are historic communities going back to the 18th Century and before. Their way of life is now under the most severe pressure. The list goes on. It includes Lockeport, Louisbourg, Petit de Grat, Lameque, Newport and La Tabatiere in other parts of Atlantic Canada.

These communities were created because of work in the fishery. Now, there is no fishery. Many are relatively isolated, especially those in Newfoundland, often with no more than 2,000 to 3,000 residents, many of them resettled there from even smaller outports a generation ago. Often, they are single industry communities. Where this is so, the fishery provides 70 percent or more of the direct employment, and almost all of the real employment, because the other sectors - educational, social services, retail and wholesale trade - would not be there without the fishing community.

In these areas, the fishing community exists very often chiefly because of groundfish. South coast Newfoundland communities get their fish from the offshore and process groundfish almost exclusively. Until the mid 1980's, these were year-round operations, providing 40 to 50 weeks of employment a year and the best wage rates in the industry. Now, these plants are mostly closed, and the boats tied up. Collapse of the groundfish stocks means that a whole society, a whole region, are at stake.

Looking beyond the impact in human terms and focusing on markets, Canada's resource crisis is going virtually unnoticed. In our traditional stronghold, the United States, Atlantic cod reigned supreme among groundfish and Canada supplied more than half of all cod. Yet demand and hence prices, have dropped notwithstanding the collapse of Canada's Atlantic groundfish fishery.

Several factors account for this:

Against this competitive backdrop, it is evident that Canada's groundfish sector will require a market recovery as well as a resource recovery.

In a few years, the stocks may regenerate and the fishery will be revived. Will the people be there to work it? How will they adjust in the meantime? How will they ensure that the special knowledge and skills of the fishery will be passed on? How will they survive in the interim?

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