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Cod: causes of collapse & failure to recover

where do we go from here

Dr. K.N.I. Bell (B.Sc., M.Sc.(Dalhousie), Ph.D. (Memorial))


Witness statement to House of Commons Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans

Sept. 29, 2005. Battery Hotel, St. John's, NL


"One of the most bizarre features of any advanced industrial society in our time is that the cardinal choices have to be made by a handful of men: in secret: and, at least in legal form, by men who cannot have a first-hand knowledge of what those choices depend upon or what their results may be."

(Opening paragraph in: Snow, C. P., 1962. SCIENCE AND GOVERNMENT: the Godkin lectures at Harvard University, 1960. New York: New American Library / Mentor by arrangement with Harvard University Press).

1               Collapse: caused by overfishing, facilitated by mismanagement

Figure 1. Catches, TAC, milestones, and warnings for 2J3KL cod.

Overfishing was the main direct cause of the collapse.

Mismanagement was the underlying cause (Steele et al 1992; Corbin 2002). For instance: inattention to available cautionary signals (Figure 1), and extensive disregard for the F0.1 benchmark (Table I, Table II).

The F0.1. target was consistently exceed by TACs: in the last 3 years leading up to the collapse, for 2J3KL alone from 1989 to 91, bureaucratic and Ministerial levels added 278,000 tonnes above F0.1. That was no straw, it was a boulder broke that camel's back.

Table I. 2J3KL 1989-1991: additions to TAC, over and beyond the target F0.1, by DFO bureaucratic/Ministerial levels. Source: DFO (DFO 1994).

Div.2J3KL ‘000 tonnes



Advised TAC



Reported CATCH


CAFSAC adv reduce







Harris Rep. Feb 90














1989-1991 totals







TAC added:







Catch - F0.1







Taking all areas for 1987-1991, the TAC added at bureaucratic/political levels is closer to 600,000 tonnes.

Table II. All areas south of 2GH, 1987-1991: additions to TAC, over and beyond the target F0.1, by DFO bureaucratic/Ministerial levels. Source: DFO (DFO 1994).


Excl 2GH



bureaucratic, Ministerial, industrial


'000 t


TAC adv'd


reptd. catch

Discards est













over F0.1:






Other information indicates that high-grading was rife, and under-reporting was extensive; for example, "it is suspected that many landings were not reported... and that many small fish were discarded..." (DFO 1994) (page 72 for cod in 3Pn4Rs).

And here is how DFO responded to the observation that the F0.1 target, decided 1977, was not met (and with catastrophic consequences):

"We do not contest the F0.1 target was not attained. However, this was a rebuilding target, not a status quo target. Missing a rebuilding target does NOT necessarily have "disastrous consequences". A conservation target was not consistently exceeded. The author should differentiate a management target from a conservation limit." (emphasis added) (DFO/Doubleday 1996 letter)

(Maybe you could put that to music.)

But, sung in any key, that is still mismanagement. Somebody made those decisions, those decisions are traceable. Worse, there was a system in place that allowed it to happen and that system and the same attitude of unaccountability is still in place. As a nation we have not yet learned.

2               Non-recovery: parametric or fundamental causes?

It is possible that any population may fail to recover due to demographic parameters, e.g. if it suffers too much mortality, has insufficient food or damaged habitat, etc. These possibilities motivate, as they should, for care to ensure that nothing prevents a population from growing. Some are especially interesting.

But what if --- as now increasingly seems to be the case --- cod were not one single population but a complex of many independent populations, and the ones that are gone are, simply, gone?

Let's define a population operationally as that grouping which, when removed, will not spontaneously regenerate from other individuals. I.e., if you fish it out and it doesn't come back, it was a population. There doesn't have to be a genetic difference.

Ted Ames showed that the decline in the Gulf of Maine cod fishery was not a gradual fishing-down of one population, but a fishing-out of populations, one bank at a time (Ames 1997). With as much as 40 years recorded checking on fished-out banks, nothing came back to spawn even though nearby banks were well frequented.

That is like harvesting apples by cutting a tree or two each year. CPUE stays the same until you run out of trees. Then no more apples.

Ames' analysis shows that cod can be different populations, one for each spawning bank, just as trout or salmon spawn in a particular gravel bed in a particular tributary.

So it is possible that non-recovery here is a result of a diminished number of populations.

If so, we need to establish as far as we can how many populations there were, develop some ideas of how they got established in the first place, what cues bring adults back, and at what ages those cues are taken up (for later reference) by cod larvae. We don't yet know how to re-plant cod. We'll have to find out. It will be expensive, and it will probably take 5 years from any introduction to see if it worked.

(The fact that we don't know how to re-plant a cod population is one good reason why COSEWIC/DFO should not have lumped all together into one area from northern Labrador to the southern Grand Banks; unlike salmonids, which we do know how to re-plant at least from nearby sources. Application of ESUs was inappropriate because of that, and probably also premature given the state of knowledge; it was not a precautionary basis for designation.)

3               The Future

3.1              Research and conservation initiatives needed include, for example (not an exhaustive list):

– reinstate or increase egg-larval surveys (and related work that goes along with it) to help identify where recruitment failure is occurring and get an earlier picture of possible recruitment;

– populations: history and present state --- repeat Ames' work and other work, using data sources including the very informal (memory) to find out what was there, where spawning grounds were, and interpret it for the benefit of assisted-recovery programs;

– habitat: effects of fishing, correlate habitat change with changes in habitat use, survival, growth.

– potential of marine protected areas, co-management options, etc.;

– critical review of any proposal to shift traditional fisheries management roles to the private sector. Like ITQs, such shifts promise profit for some, and some argue that there is little prospect for success in the terms declared;

– hold an inquiry into how TACs were consistently over the declared management target.

– eliminate discards (by law or regulation: require a permit to discard anything and correct the TAC for discards); ensure that discards are not also "data black holes";

– improve surveillance (perhaps by "wiring" fishing vessels with remote monitoring gear).

3.2              Frameworks & Organisations in the future

If recovery is to be a serious effort, what role can there be for agencies that are negligently responsible for the problem in the first place?

Newfoundland was promised good fisheries management in 1949. We were promised action during the last election. As time passes, we lose yet more options to effect recovery.

We need to replace the organisational structures that had a role in the mismanagement of these fisheries.

"Law of the Sea" should not mean "no law at all". Unrestrained fishing is incompatible with sustainability.

3.2.1            EEZ Framework must enable conservation

We need to take Iceland's initiative to the next step, take NL/Canada's authority to the edge of the continental slope, or take it to equidistance or some measure like it. UNCLOS has evolved according to the need, not vice versa. Iceland used only 6 Coast Guard ships and 2 converted trawlers to enforce its extension of authority. Iceland had paid its dues – as we have – by trying all the negotiated/diplomatic avenues that failed. The world saw Iceland's case as reasonable, and UNCLOS evolved in response.

Listing is a tool that can help: it underscores the urgency that demands and justifies action, especially to protect the offshore stocks that are endangered (and some perhaps gone). We need the Listing but must revise it ASAP to reflect the major population groups (inshore, offshore, major banks), then continue revision to address populations at finer scales.

3.2.2            NAFO? --- replace.

Even despite the moratorium, NAFO continues to retard the pace of progress. That is not the action of any party that sincerely believes it has an enduring stake in a resource. That is the behaviour of a looter. Looters have no place in a fishery.

The "right" of foreign fleets to ruin the resources of others is an anachronism. The looting mentality underscores their own belief that the resource belongs to someone else. The looting mentality is underscored by the fact hat NAFO spurned our generous offer of custodial management to preserve the stocks (that offer should be considered off the table).

NAFO has to go. It will go when all the fish are gone, but we shouldn't wait til then.

I've heard bureaucrats wail "you can't be unilateral!!" but NAFO itself is unilateral. Objection Procedure and Unilateral Quotas. Unilateral double log books. Unilateral hidden compartments. Unilateral cut-the-net-and-run. Unilateral failure to enforce agreed conservation measures. Unilateral fine-mesh codend liners. Those unilateralisms have brought fish stocks to collapse and put species at risk. That kind of consequence demands some action.

Replace NAFO with what? Guest Fishing needs to be brought under full NL/Canadian authority. Guest fishing should only be permitted at NL/C discretion; and only if guests (applicants) post bonds against stiff penalties for non-compliance, and perhaps pay fees that go to research and restoration.

3.2.3            DFO? --- replace.

They say ‘hindsight is 20/20", but not for DFO's bureaucracy. There are many good scientists in DFO, but the bureaucracy has yet to show where and how the wrong decisions were made and has yet to discipline or dismiss the parties responsible. Excuses followed the collapse but were debunked. Bureaucrats let blame fall on science, but scientists were constrained by the Official Spokesperson Policy, a.k.a. gag orders (e.g. Hutchings et al 1997; Corbin 2002), (but they should have spoken up just the same).

The existence of populations can explain why fishermen in some places along the coast see healthier aggregations of cod -- those may reflect populations that came through the collapse reasonably well, whereas those in other areas evidently did not. But with regard to populations, DFO's tactical shenanigans within the Listing process may have painted itself into a corner preventing it from now productively dealing with those questions. DFO demanded that COSEWIC must designate by populations, then it changed its mind; that was purely tactical, to combat a Listing, and COSEWIC played along.

DFO's recent "SARA consultations" were likewise tactical; they were not mandated by SARA, they were wastefully redundant because better consultations are provided for by SARA (s39, s48, s66). The summaries still have not been released. The evident aim was to harvest a list of objections to bolster the hoped-for Ministerial decision (under SARA) to deny Listing.

The Minister of Environment seems to be trampling the timelines in his own legislation, apparently at the behest of DFO (and with advice from Justice, some of which I believe has not been followed).

These were, in a word, shenanigans. Expensive, antidemocratic; tail wagging the dog. Ministers and Cabinet have been made aware, but have not answered except for a DFO response that dodged the issues.

Replace DFO with what? To learn from the mistakes of the past, the new system should reflect several principles. [a] Sustainability requires keeping harvest below certain limits scientifically identified. [b] Science behind closed doors is not science; it has to be independent and open so the public can keep an eye on what's going on. [c] Catches (or TACs or any other conservation measure) must not violate those limits. [d] Those (a,b,c,) have to be set out in law. [e] Ministers and bureaucrats and any other person who over-rides or circumvents or falsifies advice must be subject to statutory penalties.

4               Literature cited

Ames, E. P. 1997. Cod and haddock spawning grounds in the Gulf of Maine. Rockland, ME, USA: Island Institute. 33 pp.

Corbin, C. 2002. Silences and Lies: How the Industrial Fishery Constrained Voices of Ecological Conservation. Can. J. Communic. 27:

DFO 1994. Report on the status of ground fish stocks in the Canadian northwest Atlantic. Atlantic Fisheries Stocks Status Report No. 94/4. Department of Fisheries and Oceans. 177 pp.

DFO/Doubleday, W. G. 1996 letter. (comments on mid-1996 draft of the Cod Status Report for COSEWIC, in letter to Bob Campbell date-stamped Dec. 23 1996).

Hutchings, J. A., Walters, C. and Haedrich, R. L. 1997. Is scientific inquiry incompatible with government information control? Can. J. Fish. Aquat. Sci. 54: 1198-1210.

Steele, D. H., Andersen, R. and Green, J. M. 1992. The managed commercial annihilation of Northern Cod. Newfoundland Studies 8: 34-68.