1 Off the northeastern shore of North America, from the island of Newfoundland in Canada south to New England in the United States, there is a series of shallow areas called banks. Several large banks off Newfoundland are together called the Grand Banks, huge shoals on the edge of the North American continental shelf, where the warm waters of the Gulf Stream meet the cold waters of the Labrador Current. As the currents brush each other, they stir up minerals from the ocean floor, providing nutrients for plankton and tiny shrimp–like creatures called krill, which feed on the plankton. Herring and other small fish rise to the surface to eat the krill. Groundfish, such as the Atlantic cod, live in the ocean’s bottom layer, congregating in the shallow waters where they prey on krill and small fish. This rich environment has produced cod by the millions and once had a greater density of cod than anywhere else on Earth.
2 Beginning in the eleventh century, boats from the ports of northwestern Europe arrived to fish the Grand Banks. For the next eight centuries, the entire Newfoundland economy was based on Europeans arriving, catching fish for a few months in the summer, and then taking fish back to European markets. Cod laid out to dry on wooden “flakes” was a common sight in the fishing villages dotting the coast. Settlers in the region used to think the only sea creature worth talking about was cod, and in the local speech the word “fish” became synonymous with cod. Newfoundland’s national dish was a pudding whose main ingredient was cod.
3 By the nineteenth century, the Newfoundland fishery was largely controlled by merchants based in the capital at St. John’s. They marketed the catch supplied by the fishers working out of more than 600 villages around the long coastline. In return, the merchants provided fishing equipment, clothing, and all the food that could not be grown in the island’s thin, rocky soil. This system kept the fishers in a continuous state of debt and dependence on the merchants.
4 Until the twentieth century, fishers believed in the cod’s ability to replenish itself and thought that overfishing was impossible. However, Newfoundland’s cod fishery began to show signs of trouble during the 1930s, when cod failed to support the fishers and thousands were unemployed. The slump lasted for the next few decades. Then, when an international agreement in 1977 established the 200–mile offshore fishing limit, the Canadian government decided to build up the modern Grand Banks fleet and make fishing a viable economic base for Newfoundland again. All of Newfoundland’s seafood companies were merged into one conglomerate. By the 1980s, the conglomerate was prospering, and cod were commanding excellent prices in the market. Consequently, there was a significant increase in the number of fishers and fish–processing plant workers.
5 However, while the offshore fishery was prospering, the inshore fishermen found their catches dropping off. In 1992 the Canadian government responded by closing the Grand Banks to groundfishing. Newfoundland’s cod fishing and processing industries were shut down in a bid to let the vanishing stocks recover. The moratorium was extended in 1994, when all of the Atlantic cod fisheries in Canada were closed, except for one in Nova Scotia, and strict quotas were placed on other species of groundfish. Canada’s cod fishing industry collapsed, and around 40,000 fishers and other industry workers were put out of work.
6 Atlantic cod stocks had once been so plentiful that early explorers joked about walking on the backs of the teeming fish. By 2008, cod stocks were still at historically low levels and showed no signs of imminent recovery, even after drastic conservation measures and severely limited fishing. Some fishermen blamed the diminished stocks on seals, which prey on cod and other species, but scientists believe that decades of overfishing are to blame. There have been occasional signs of hope. For example, studies on fish populations show that cod disappeared from Newfoundland at the same time that stocks started rebuilding in Norway, raising the possibility that the cod had simply migrated to a different region. Still, in the early twenty–first century, it remains uncertain whether or when the cod will return to the Grand Banks or the moratorium will end.