Bell, K. N. I. 1998. An object lesson for demersal African fisheries from the collapse of Canadian Atlantic Cod (Gadus morhua).In L. Coetzee, J. Gon, & C. Kulongowski (Eds), African Fishes and Fisheries - diversity and utilisation. Vol. I (Book of Abstracts) (pp. 91). Grahamstown, South Africa, Sept. 13-18 1998. JLB Smith Inst. of Ichthyology, for The Paradi Association and The Fisheries Society of Africa.

Presenter’s Name: K.N.I. Bell
Institution: JLB Smith Inst & DIFS, RHODES
Sub-theme: Management - Marine and Lacustrine
Type of presentation: ORAL
Language: ENGLISH

An object lesson for demersal African fisheries from the collapse of Canadian Atlantic Cod (Gadus morhua)
K.N.I. Bell
JLB Smith Inst of Ichthyology, Pvt. Bag 1015, Grahamstown, 6140, South Africa and the Department of Ichthyology and Fisheries Science, Rhodes University, Grahamstown, 6140, South Africa

ABSTRACT: After 500+-years of continuous fishery for Atlantic cod north and east of Newfoundland (NAFO divisions 2J3KL), its collapse in the 1990s is an object lesson in mismanagement. The scale of this calamity is huge: compared to South Africa’s 1995 total demersal fishery of 177,000 t, the long-term (therefore evidently sustainable) Cod catch from the 1850s to the 1950s was approximately 200,000 t in this area. After the collapse, the compensation program cost Cdn$1.9 billion. Forty-thousand people were thrown out of work and a way of life eliminated. While scapegoats (climate, seals, etc.) have been eagerly fingered by Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) bureaucrats, the fertile soil in which the problem grew was a climate of information control and isolation from dissenting scientific opinion. As observed by the late Grant Notley, "When everybody thinks alike, nobody thinks very much". Ministerial authority was not constrained by scientific advice. Politics supplanted DFO's science, much of which was excellent, in setting TACs. The DFO failed to respond to warnings. Crucial errors were identified by several scientists; their alerts were rebuffed or ignored. The collapse has been called ‘a true crime story’. The cod fishery did not collapse simply because of one or two errors; but because the DFO bureaucracy cultivated, virtually, a tradition of errors, of dangerous optimism. An arrogant insecurity isolated the decision process, discouraged scrutiny, and suppressed free debate. Had the process been sufficiently open, had it been clear that TACs as set often exceeded DFO’s scientific recommendations, errors could less easily have continued. There is a need for appropriate ethical constraints that entitle scientists to protect their findings against misuse, and that compel the process to disclose sufficient information, including the basis of ministerial decisions, for public scrutiny.

This page is based on the talk given under the title and abstract above.

SEQUENCE for PRESENTATION: 15 mins + 5 for questions.
Grey letters A... approximately correspond to original sequence of overheads.

A. TITLE overhead

How, indeed. 40,000 people put out of work. Compensation costs on the order of $2Billion. 2J3KL biomass reduced to 1% or less of 1980s levels. Probable loss of local populations.
How? Because it seems at first simple enough:

Yes, everybody knows about overfishing, and still we did it.


B (Steele et al graph, inshore). •Inshore fishery stable 1 century or more at ~200,000t. We can accept this as indication of a sustainable exploitation overall (although there are indications that some local stocks may have been lost in the inshore)
C(and E). •Let’s look at the later part of this data.

•INDUSTRIAL FISHERY clearly unsustainable at the 1960s levels. •200 mile EEZ in 1977 raised hopes for expanded domestic fishery.

D. Nordco (a government-linked think-tank/consulting group):

•Optimism (origin shaky) that TACS could be sustainable at 400,000t.
•Government funds used to increase fleet capitalisation.
•But the dream of 400,00t catches didn’t materialise -- even at levels below 300,000t, the fishery was unsustainable.

•Mid 1980s: There were warnings and complaints: inshore sector pointed out reduced landings and reduced fish size. ...

•...DFO invoked environmental conditions (as though cod didn’t really live in this environment) to explain the complaints, and no real problem was acknowledged.
•Warnings from outside scientists (Keats et al) that its assessments were optimistic or flawed were ignored. and...
• ...Warnings from within the system (Winters, & CAFSAC 86) were also ignored.
•During the late 1980s, critical data about cod was not made openly available for critical analysis -- even by in-house specialists eager to analyse it -- though it was later shown to contain evidence of overfishing and population decline.
•Thus, management proceeded without permitting scrutiny and without attending to problems.

Why were the warnings ignored for so long? Obviously, they proved correct. Equally obviously, something besides science was going on.
A complicating factor was that much of the decisionmaking was based on numbers that have in many cases been acknowledged after the fact to have been inaccurate: principally, landings were under-reported, catch locations sometimes misreported, high-grading and consequent dumping was tolerated yet not documented. This led to a suite of estimates, and that gave room to argue for TACs based on the higher estimates.
  High-grading example: one senior manager in a fisheries company -- greatly regretting the state of things --commented to me that the old days were gone, the days when a trawler would be sent "with orders for 5,000 tons of a certain grade [=size], and you'd have to catch 10, 15, 20, even 25,000 to get that". A mid-level manager in DFO tried to explain (KNIB pers. comm.) why they assumed a value of zero for dumping etc.: "if nobody tells us, how can we know".     But, if you are dealing with a fishery, you are dealing with not only fish, not only numbers; you are dealing with fishermen and how you structure your rules and your relationships with them will determine what the waste levels are and what the reporting quality is. There are no panaceas, ITQs are not a magic solution -- and certainly do nothing for under-reporting because that incentive is there even more strongly. Fishermen are no less capable than anybody else and if you want a certain behaviour you can assume rationality and you must link the rewards for fishing with the way fishing is to be done. DFO field personnel cannot have been unaware of these issues.  The truth implied by the manager's excuse is "we don't know because we didn't ask, and we didn't ask because we didn't want to know".


• In 1989 DFO science and CAFSAC finally admitted that F had been twice the target and that TAC needed to be HALVED in order to fish at the target F0.1.

• The Harris Panel was commissioned in 1989 to report on this. One could cynically say that it was envisioned as a delaying tactic, but if so the Panel didn't see it that way. The Harris Panel supported the scientific findings and argued for very serious reductions in TAC, saying that failure to do this would result in great damage.

•Detail: the government* tried to make the Harris Report seem out of date in view of recent surveys they called encouraging, and made no serious implementation of the recommendations, and set the TAC at 235,000t, nearly twice the science recommendations, and still vastly exceeding the management target F0.1 which had been a purely lip-service item for years in any case. Government insisted that the Cod stock was still growing, and had been growing since 1977. [* "Response of the Government of Canada to the Independent Review of the state of the northern cod stocks (Harris Report)". Dated May 7 1990. E.g.: Recommendation 1 "The Panel strongly recommends that in respect of the Northern Cod stock(s) and as a matter of urgency there should be an immediate reduction of fishing mortality to the level of at least 0.30 and, at the earliest date, tothe level of 0.20". Response: "The TAC has already been reduced by 25 per cent since 1988 in order to conserve the resource. The lowering of the TAC is consistent with the government's long-term conservation goals. Future TACs will depend on scientific assessments and industry consultations, taking into account the socio-economic impact." In other words, government said "don't tell us what to do, even if we asked you".]

That the fishery was collapsing had been evident to most who cared to look, except DFO’s bureaucrats, by 1988 at least;
•by 1992 even the bureaucrats had to admit it had to be closed.

•Scuttlebutt has it that the bureacracy knew that a number of areas needed to be closed, but chose in 1992 to close only 2J3KL and to again cite cold water environmental factors (the old standby -- environmental factors had been invoked before, but the test of sincerity is failed because no TACs were ever cut on the basis of expected unfavourable environmental factors).
• When announcing the moratorium on cod fishing in St. John’s, fishermen not allowed into the meeting became agitated and tried to break down the door; the Minister was quickly taken away by a rear door.
•The Minister later said he had no scientific evidence at the time that this consituted a risk to the fishery, and blamed scientists for not “saying they didn’t know what they thought they knew”, and “It was no good of them coming to you after the fact and saying we have been giving you the wrong information ... no one can manage a system like that” -- but in fact the Minister had placed economics above conservation, and economics itself paid a heavy price for that.

E. (Graph C again)

F. Cartoon [men in white coats dip a thermometer into the sea]

•while the official line blamed cold water, seals and God generally, there was no official acknowledgment that scientific advice had in fact been ignored.

•Science became the scapegoat, but government scientists were strongly discouraged from commenting. •How? The Official Spokesperson Policy, a.k.a. Gag Rule.

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

•This paper explored the issue of bureacratic interference that had rankled with many scientists, within and outside DFO. It reported on a scientist who had been disciplined for discussing with the press the contents of one of his published papers (cod). It also reported on the conditioning of scientific recommendations in a water diversion evaluation, with scientists being told what to support. This article came out as a Perspectives piece in the Can. J. Fish. Aquat. Sci. and was hotly contested by the bureacracy, using the very means they sometimes denied using.
•“A June 18, 1997 memo to Newfoundland Groundfish personnel states that George Lilly, the acting division head, wishes ‘to inform staff that you are not to comment onthe two articles appearing in the CJFAS regarding DFO science.’ According to a CP[Canadian Press] report, this order was supposed to have been issued verbally. A gag order was placed on the gag order” p300d; •and DFO also had a DISCIPLINE GUIDE ... “Group four infractions might get you fired. They included fraud, assault, drunknenness, and impeding the progress of a voyage. Group four also included ‘public criticism of the employer’. ” p300c; (•BUT, WHO IS ‘THE EMPLOYER’ OF A PUBLIC EMPLOYEE?)
-- Harris, M. 1998. Lament for an ocean: the collapse of the Atlantic cod fishery: a true crime story. Toronto: MacClelland and Stewart, Inc. 342 pp.

H. Ottawa Citizen lets the cat out of the bag, re DFO's manipulation of science

•A 1993 DFO internal report canvassing DFO scientists’ experiences commented: ‘Scientific information, specifically the role of the environment, was gruesomely mangled and corrupted to meet political ends’

The machinations within the resource-management department created a structure that was more liable to let down the public, by numbing its sensitivity to warning signs. Michael Harris's book "Lament for an Ocean" carried the following subtitle ...

DFO became characterised by conformity with attitudes of the higher-level bureaucrats. Not rocking the boat. It is easy to think of scientists as being independent and enjoying the freedom to explore and communicate their findings, but that freedom was subject to pressure to avoid conflict. A line had to be toed.

What are "other factors"? Political considerations that do not include the state of the resource, but put more weight (we speculate) on who wants to harvest it.

What's apt about Harris' phrase "a true crime story"? Because, fundamentally, there were people who knew what was happening but did not let on.

The same applies after the collapse: information implicating overfishing is dangerous to the political levels & senior bureaucrats, and is combatted with alternative theories adopted on the basis of convenience rather than evidence. In effect these were bureaucratically-generated hypotheses of convenience, and the Official Line now became inarguable because it came under the Official Spokesperson Policy that gagged all but the Official Spokesperson. Of course, there was no requirement that the Official Spokesperson recognise the hypothetical nature of the scapegoats of climate, seals, miraculously reduced natural mortality. Any exploration likely to shed real light on the problem, and therefore enable the department to get past the problem, seemed to be discouraged. The considerable scientific power of DFO, once a world-respected center of fishery science, was hog-tied.


The following has been proposed as a succinct guide to what is immorality is: the sacrifice of a higher principle for a lower one.  No person's short-term comfort or career advancement can ethically take precedence over the health of an ecosystem, over the mandate.

•It seems unlikely that, had DFO scientists been able to discuss their views openly, the errors in management could have continued.
•Hutchings and others have proposed stuctural changes to provide for greater open-ness, i.e. separating the science and the management of Canadian fisheries, as in the system the recent one replaced. But it seems that if the key problem, the non-recognition by management and scientists of the ethical obligation to keep the public properly informed, recurs in any system no matter how apparently distant administratively from the source of influence, the same pattern of politically-conditioned error can also recur.
In other words, a mechanical/organisational shuffle cannot be relied on to solve the problem, because ingenious bureacrats have long reach and can always find access. Arm's-length organisational links don't protect against influences with long arms.
In fact, this was shown when DFO influenced the (arm's length) National Research Council which was the publisher of CJFAS, to silence the editor who was outspokenly in support of the Hutchings article (though the clumsy attempt backfired by getting more press attention).

The key, instead, seems to be that the final barrier to any kind of impropriety is the moral fibre of those who have information needed by the public. Ethical statements are a part of many scientific associations, and need to be included in undergraduate science curricula.

What are the ethical obligations of a resource scientist?

•In determining the ethical course of action for each party, we have to recognise what the ethical obligations of each are. It is ridiculous to propose that a scientist’s supervisors are the sole determiners (and recipients!) of the ethical obligations of the scientist. That is outdated thinking and we have seen its resource/ecological results: the nearly complete loss of the cod fishery.
The supervisors are, after all, only intermediaries, with the Public being at least the ultimate employer; so at least scientists have a responsibility to inform the Public. In a proper arrangement some informing of the public may proceed via the supervisors, but if supervisors do not discharge this duty then the responsibility goes unfulfilled and the scientist -- every scientist -- then has an obligation to correct inadequacies in released information (including that accompanying decisions).
All parties have an obligation to be truthful, especially in the sense of pro-actively providing to all parties the information they need, by at the very least identifying the existence of information that the public would request if they knew it existed. That requires providing the rationale supporting management decisions, and requires also acknowledgment of the extent of departure from dissenting opinions. Democracy cannot tolerate the intentional disruption of the legitimate flow of information to the public. Neither is it proper for an employee’s work to be misrepresented or ignored when relevant to a decision, especially when it was requested or commissioned in respect of that decision.

•The current legislation for South Africa seems to contain in principle some elements that promote recognition of these ethical obligations, in fact more than it contains elements that work against them. In this time of flux of regulations and apportionment of resources, it cannot be doubted that the allocation of fish will have political significance. As such, the possibility of institutionalised optimism in setting TACS will remain present. The best defence against abuse of any system is by open-ness; if scientists (and others) recognise their ethical obligations to keep the public informed, there are always several million more opportunities to spot problems.

POSTSCRIPT (notes subsequent to seminar in 1998)

•[2002] And where are we now with Cod? It is ten years since the moratorium (eight years after the date that the bureaucrats pegged as back-to-normal). We have reduced scientific effort at precisely the time that we need expanded scientific effort to try to reverse this calamity. As long as science has the possibility of casting doubt on the Official versions/hypotheses of the collapse, the Officials are not likely to favour it. Therefore, DFO science needs to be radically reconstituted as a, or replaced by a new, transparently-functioning science organisation, that can get down to learning from the experience of this collapse and seeking ways to reverse it.

Reference list, partial (sometime to be centralised on the site)

CAFSAC 1989. Advice for 1989 on the management of cod in divisions 2J3KL. CAFSAC advisory document 89/1.

Cook, M. 1973. The head, guts and sound bone dance [play]. Portugal Cove, Nfld.: Breakwater Books. 65 pp.

The theme of this play is that there is no fishery, and the way of life and central traditions of Newfoundland are now without purpose. Yet the traditions have a momentum of their own, and men go into their net lofts and mend nets and talk about fishing as though in the present tense.
Janis Spence (prev. Janis Cook) told me (KNIB) that Michael had gotten this idea from talking with Ray Riche (Ed’s grandfather), a fisherman in the Battery. Riche had said, back in the mid 60's, that trawling would destroy the fishery. Cook had an interest in conservation, had also been appalled by the clear-cutting of pulpwood in central Newfoundland. Predicted collapse of [cod] fisheries in 1966 or very near then. Reasons: draggers, overfishing, people thinking it’d go on forever, but “nothing goes on forever” [R. Riche, as recalled and attributed by Janis Spence 991018].
I cited this play in the 1998 Status Report on Cod, for Cosewic. DFO was incensed, and complained bitterly that a play should not be cited in a scientific report. Well, it wasn't a very scientific objection, and if Cook had been supporting them then surely they'd have been delighted.

DFO 1990. Response of the Government of Canada to the Independent Review of the state of the northern cod stocks (Harris Report)". Dated May 7 1990.

Harris, L. 1990. Independent review of the state of the northern cod stock - final report. Prepared for the Hon. T. Siddon, Minister of Fisheries [Canada]. Submitted February 1990. pp.

Harris, M. 1998. Lament for an ocean: the collapse of the Atlantic cod fishery: a true crime story. Toronto: MacClelland and Stewart, Inc. 342 pp.

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.

Keats, D., Steele, D. H. and Green, J. M. 1986. A review of the recent status of the northern cod stock (NAFO Divisions 2J, 3K, and 3L) and the declining inshore fishery. A report to the Newfoundland Inshore Fisheries Association, on scientific problems in the northern cod controversy. St. John's: The Newfoundland Inshore Fisheries Association. 68 pp.

Kerr, S. R. and Ryder, R. A. 1997. The Laurentian Great Lakes experience: a prognosis for the fisheries of Atlantic Canada. Can. J. Fish. Aquat. Sci. 54: 1190-1197.

NORDCO 1981. It were well to live mainly off fish. Report prepared for Government of Newfoundland and Labrador. February 1981. Jesperson Printing Limited, St. John's, Nfld. pp.