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The end came officially on July 2, 1992: John Crosbie, Canada’s Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, announced a moratorium on Northern cod stocks. For half a millennium, the Grand Banks cod had sustained international fishing fleets, boosted the world’s economy, become the flash point in power politics, and was the lifeblood of generations of villages perched on rocky outcrops along the Newfoundland coast. Crosbie’s announcement was the final nail in the Grand Banks coffin.
What happened? For 16 years, accountability has been dodged. The media has been mute. Successive governments buried the shameful tale under layers of secrecy, subsidies and the “good news” story of off-shore oil.
The new cod-fishing fleets – technological juggernauts with the capacity to ravage a sea floor – have denied responsibility. A few courageous marine biologists have spoken up, only to find themselves squarely in the sights of government censors. The in-shore fishery – the small-boat fishermen who plied the cold waters of the Banks for generations – now reflect bitterly on better times.
When they saw the stocks decline – and their livelihood with it – they sounded the first alarm, but apparently no one was listening.
Alex Rose asks who is listening now. The answer to who killed the Grand Banks just might be another alarm bell for us today, signalling future environmental and ecosystem destruction. And while theories abound as to what caused the catastrophic collapse – botched science, timorous and fluctuating political will, a boom in the seal population -- it is indisputable that the ecosystem of the cold Grand Bank waters has changed dramatically.
Despite a decade of rhetorical hand wringing, served up with dollops of Canadian official denial, Rose has salvaged one hard truth: the Grand Banks cod fishery was wiped out because of made-in-Canada greed and willful blindness. Newfoundlanders and Canadians, now shamed and embarrassed into a stony silence, worked overtime to decimate one of the world’s greatest biological bounties. In a frenzy of collective hysteria, Canadians created an environmental catastrophe here on our own shore.
As the oil sands exploration gouges the landscape of northern Alberta, as overfishing hammers stocks of Pacific salmon, the fate of the Grand Banks has become a cautionary tale now told around the world. There’s a price to pay when a society ignores its role as a steward of the environment. This book poses the question of our generation: will the ecological disaster that befell the Northern cod happen again?
Alex Rose is a Vancouver-based writer and journalist who helped to write three Royal Commissions and Provincial Inquiries, including one on Canadian fisheries which resulted in changes to public policy. A contributor to the National Post Saturday Review, The Toronto Globe and Mail, and BC Business Magazine, he co-authored North of Cape Caution, an investigation of ecotourism opportunities on the British Columbia coast. His book, Nisga’a: People of the Nass River, won the 1993 Roderick Haig-Brown B.C. Book Prize and his essay, In Search of Meaning, was shortlisted for Canada’s 2004 National Magazine Award.