I recently listened to Fred Woodman, Jr., owner of an inshore fish plant in New Harbour, being interviewed on The Fisheries Broadcast, talking about cod before the moratorium and cod now and what to do with it.
While I didn’t know Fred Woodman, Jr., I certainly knew his father, Fred Woodman, Sr., who was owner of an inshore fish plant and was a member of the Newfoundland Inshore Fisheries Association, a group of concerned citizens who were trying to wake up the politicians as to what was happening to the inshore cod fishery. That organization believed we were heading for a collapse because we saw the cod getting scarcer and smaller.
After the collapse of the cod, Fred Woodman, Sr. became Chairman of the (FRCC) Fisheries Resource Conservation Council. This organization was put in place by the federal government to get input from the people as to what was happening in the fishery and what could be done to bring it back. He was the best of chairmen and gave everyone a chance to have their say — as I knew first-hand having appeared before him many times.
Fred Woodman, Jr. talked about a rush of cod just before the moratorium. My answer to that is that as fish got smaller, fisherman adapted to smaller mesh gear to catch more fish — the Japanese cod trap was introduced to Newfoundland and Labrador. This trap had small mesh and a cover on top so no fish could escape.
The last year before the moratorium, I fished out of St. John’s, in the Virgin Rocks area and very few fish were caught in that region that year. After one of my trips ashore, I visited Petty Harbour and went down to the plant. It was blocked with cod and fishermen were tied up to the wharf with loads of cod they couldn’t sell because all the plants on the Southern Shore were blocked, more fish than they could process.
Of the fish at the plant, there wasn’t one cod that I could catch, all too small to catch in a gill net, all the cod coming ashore was an average of 12 to 20 inches in length.
That year there was a huge market for cod in The United Kingdom for the fish and chips industry. The gillnetters caught no fish because there were no large fish left, all the small fish were going through the mesh of the gear. The dragger fleet and the inshore fishermen with the small mesh gear were catching the small fish.
I am not blaming the inshore fishermen for the collapse of the cod, as they adapted the same as the dragger fleet had done for years to catch small cod — but what they were doing was destroying the last of the stock.
When all you are catching is baby fish you are scraping the bottom of the barrel and that’s exactly what we did.
As to the future of the cod fishery, if it returns to a sensible harvest there are a lot of things we have to change — land a better quality product in order to get good returns to the industry and make sure that we never scrape the bottom of the barrel again.
We have a vast ocean off our shores that can sustain us forever, but only if we manage it properly. We didn’t do it in the 80s and 90s and I’m not sure we will do it in the future because I haven’t seen a willingness to do so.
We have a dragger fleet that catches everything in its path, both big and small. We are still catching capelin which is the food for all species in the ocean, including the sea bird population.
We need to stop managing the oceans for how much money we can make. If we want a healthy ocean we need to manage it for how much food it can produce.
(Ret) Capt. Wilfred Bartlett,
Green Bay South, N.L.