Will Cod be King Again After Newfoundland Moratorium Lifted?

Last week, the Canadian government lifted a 32-year moratorium on the commercial fishing of cod in the country’s easternmost province.

Photo of a fisherman using a cod pot in Newfoundland, Canada
Photo by Phillip Meintzer via CC BY-SA 4.0

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The Northern cod may or may not be back.

Last week, the Canadian government lifted a 32-year moratorium on the commercial fishing of cod in the country’s easternmost province, Newfoundland and Labrador. It sounds historic, but environmentalists and political observers found the details a little fishy.

School of Codonomics

It was 1992. Northern cod populations had fallen to 1% of historical levels after decades of overfishing by local and international trawlers. On July 2, the day after Canada Day, the federal government shut down a then-$700 million industry accounting for 40% of the fish caught in the province. As many as 30,000 of the 570,000 people in the province lost their jobs in the largest mass layoff in Canadian history.

Emotions ran so high on the day of the announcement that irate fishermen tried to break into the government’s press conference, which security barricaded with chairs. Growth in the shellfish and offshore oil industries helped offset the blow in the ensuing years, but Newfoundland’s population has since declined about 60,000 to 510,000 as low wages have driven people to richer regions. The lifting of the moratorium, meanwhile, has raised environmentalist eyebrows:

  • The total allowable catch (TAC) for 2024 is 18,000 tonnes — a modest increase from the 13,000 tonnes the government already allowed under a so-called stewardship fishery. The 1992 TAC? 120,000 tonnes. While government scientists say Northern cod populations have climbed to the “cautious” from the “critical” zone, they haven’t grown since 2016, and remain at historic lows.
  • “Prematurely celebrating the recovery of Northern cod and opening the commercial fishery puts the stock at significant risk and undermines efforts to rebuild healthy oceans and coastal communities,” said Rebecca Schijns, a fishery scientist at Oceana Canada. George Rose, a cod scientist who previously worked for the government, told Newfoundland news outlet The Independent that the decision “frames success as crawling above the threshold of disaster.”

Fish Politics: The press release announcing the end of the moratorium included statements from six Newfoundland and Labrador members of parliament, all of whom happen to be members of the governing Liberal Party — it’s trailing badly in the polls and must face an election before October 2025. One of them told the CBC the announcement was “definitely not” political. Definitely, eh?