Something Fishy on Parliament Hill

(Formerly: They Did Not Know Fish)

The seminal event that made the collapse of the cod fisheries all but inevitable was the giving away — by people who obviously knew next to nothing about fish — of the cod’s basic food source, the small silvery fish, the capelin, to the then U.S.S.R., Japan and Norway for diplomatic considerations.

In 1978, the U.S.S.R. quota alone was 266,320 ton of offshore spawning capelin. That was the year that the crucial capelin was fished out, that was the year that Canada's cod started starving to death.

It was not the first time that Foreign Affairs would interfere with fish management, according to the author of Lament for an Ocean - The Collapse of the Atlantic Cod Fishery: A True Crime Story (McClelland & Stewart, 1998) Michael Harris.

In 1987, Harris writes, Foreign Affairs signed a secret agreement with France, delivering to France "10,000 tons of northern cod that had been cut from Canada’s own offshore fleet."

As the cod began starving to death largely as a result of the diplomats’ actions, Alexandre Cyr, the Member of Parliament for Gaspé tried to get to the bottom of the mystery. He arranged for fishermen from his riding to appear before the Fisheries Committee of Parliament to explain what was happening to their livelihood.

To get their message across they brought visuals, whole salted cod which they placed on a long table for everyone to see (and smell). All the fish had big heads and slim, bony, arrow-like bodies. This was not what a healthy cod looked like they explained, it was a sign the fish was starving to death.

None had any clue as to what was the cause of what the fishermen claimed was fish starvation on a massive scale.

The fishermen were in the wrong building; the answer they sought was in a place the people who had the temerity to disrupt the cod's food supply called home, 125 Sussex Drive, less than a mile down the road from Parliament Hill.

The diplomats were not entirely to blame for being ill-informed about the cod’s food source.

It was only after the near extinction of the cod fishery that the Canadian government, as it tends to do, e.g. the impact of mining oil from tar sands on global warming will not be extensively studied by Canada until it is too late, decided to spend money to learn more about the lifecycle of the cod.

One thing government scientist discovered was that young cod find their way to the spawning ground by following older cods, it is learnt behavior.

Even if the government had known this beforehand and regulated the taking of older fish it would have made little difference, for it also allowed the spawning grounds to be completely gauged by deep-sea trawlers making it unrecognizable to the cod or unsuitable for spawning.

Bernard Payeur, September 7, 2009