Ghost Towns, Above and Below Water
After more than 400 years as the foundation of one of Earth’s great fisheries, cod are not coming back to Canada. The costs are more than environmental.
In the mid-20th century, cod supported more than 40,000 eastern Canadian fishermen. That’s when industrial catch techniques nearly tripled annual harvests. By the early 1970s, cod numbers plummeted.
Fishing stopped for a while. Cod came back. Fishing started again. Cod disappeared. In the early 1990s, the government halted fishing again, expecting the fish to return, just like before — but this time, they didn’t. They’ll likely vanish before mid-century.
Scientists can’t say for sure what’s going on under those cold gray waters, but they can speculate. There were likely too few cod to revive a population: individuals simply couldn’t find each other to reproduce. Some other species might have taken their spot in the web of life. The web itself has changed shape, and may no longer have room for them.
“You see this very rapid, drastic collapse of large predatory fishes that used to dominate, particularly cod,” said Boris Worm, a marine biologist at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. “You see a rapid collapse of those, and a shift of the ecosystem towards invertebrates and small pelagic fishes.”
Worm is a lead author on a massive global fisheries review published this week in Science. It describes how the race to ocean oblivion has been slowed, even halted in some places; it also describes how two-thirds of the world’s commercial fish populations are threatened, and one-third fished at rates that will exhaust them.
The longer we wait to change this — with, according to Worm and his co-authors, management tools that are relatively simple and effective, and with enough will can be enforced now — the greater the chance that fish won’t recover, no matter what we do.
In the case of cod, their loss been both cause and effect — feedback is a circular thing — of a profound shift in northwest Atlantic, the aquatic analogue of a pine forest giving way to shrubs.
“You see wide fluctuations and instability and reorganization of the ecosystem. At the end of the day, about two-thirds of traditional stocks collapsed. Average size has gone down by more than fifty percent. The composition of the catch is not what it was ten or twenty years ago,” said Worm.
The composition of human life in the northwest Atlantic has also changed. Were New York City to experience a comparable economic catastrophe, its residents would lose about half a million of its best jobs.
In Newfoundland, where three-quarters of the cod fishermen lived, some towns converted to tourism. They live off cultural stores accumulated during 500 years of civilizing a barren slab of the planetary mantle, pulling a livelihood from the sea.
Others communities are dying slowly, their end days reduced to journalistic epitaphs:
Nobody’s keeping a strict count anymore, but best estimates are 70 or 80 of the village’s 200 remaining residents will be gone by the end of June, to look for work once the last of the lobster pots are pulled from the water. Some will come back in late fall, but each year more and more families decide they can’t abide the months of separation. There’s no one to buy your house, so you just lock it up, maybe put some boards on the windows as extra protection against the storms that whip across the Strait of Belle Isle. And join the thousands of other Newfoundland expats scattered across the country, with keys and memories stashed away in safe places.
Eventually these towns, like dozens of others, will be abandoned. They’ll be popular destinations for tourists, though nobody will be left to greet them.