Shooting the Messenger

Till Death Do Us Part

Where Have All the Fish Gone?

To Russia, Japan, France and Norway, everyone

"You can all always tell a Canadian Foreign Service Officer; you just can't tell him much," someone once said. And there's the rub. Arrogance can blind you to what you don't know, into thinking you know more than experts in the field. This conceited attitude can have serious repercussions even here at home.

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 called 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 tons of offshore spawning capelin. That was the year that the crucial capelin was fished out; that was the year that Canada's cod population started starving to death.

Those who depended on Newfoundland’s inshore fisheries for a living had for some time been trying to get the government’s attention as to as what was happening to the cod, but to no avail. They saw their opportunity when Parliament decided to hold hearings into the state of the Atlantic Fisheries with the cod in mind.

With the cooperation of their Member of Parliament, a group of inshore fishermen stormed a committee hearing carrying sacks of frozen cods which they emptied on the evidence table in front of the Committee. All the cods on display had big heads and slender, arrow-like bodies. This, they explained to the Committee, was not what healthy cods looked like; these cods were evidence that the Grand Banks’ Northern Cod was starving to death.

Still, as my wife, who was one of the interpreters that day explained (this was not an in camera hearing therefore she was not betraying any confidence), all some could do was complain about the smell.

It was not the first time that Foreign Affairs interfered 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) by Michael Harris. In 1987, Harris wrote, “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."

The lack of experts in the field may still be a concern. In 2005, Peter Harder, then Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, tried to do something about his department's dangerous personnel shortcomings but was thwarted in his efforts by the union that represents Canadian Foreign Service Officers, the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers (PAFSO). PAFSO successfully argued, in Federal Court, that it had the final say as to who could join their exclusive fraternity.

The Canadian Foreign Service dances to its own tune, and there is nothing much that anyone can do, or is willing to do about it, as I discovered to my everlasting chagrin.


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.

Unfortunately, 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.