A personal history of the cod moratorium

Photo by Shelley Bryant

Today is the final day of the Fishing For the Future Film Festival, a festival showcasing film and video work on maritime communities, oceans, marine fisheries and aquaculture in Canada and around the world. The festival coincides with the anniversary of the announcement of the cod moratorium this week, which resulted in the biggest layoff in Canadian history, which left 40,000 people out of work and drastically changed the history and culture of Newfoundland and Labrador. It’s considered one of the biggest ecological disasters of the twentieth century.

Petty Harbour resident Bernard Martin was, and is still, a fisherman. His father was also a fisherman. His grandfather was a fisherman. His great-grandfather was a fisherman.

Throughout his life, Martin has been outspoken about marine conservation. In 1999 was awarded an international award, the Goldman Environmental prize, for his work speaking out about fishing practices that were harming the stocks, and his work helping organize inshore fishermen in Petty Harbour.

Elling Lien sat down with him to talk about what it was like for someone whose family history was so linked to cod, and who had long been fighting to protect the future of the stocks, to have the it taken away on July 2, 1992.

Where were you when you heard the announcement of the cod moratorium?

It was the beginning of the season so we weren’t quite into the swing of things. I seem to recall that the cod was pretty scarce and late. Late coming inshore that year. Some guys had cod traps out, but, like I said, there wasn’t very much fish being caught at that moment when the moratorium was declared. But people were certainly geared up and prepared to go fishing.

I happened to be on the road at the time, I was with Neil Tilley [of the Community Development Co-Op] and a bunch of other guys and we were on the road doing a speaking tour across the island talking about this issue. The collapsing cod stocks.

We were in Grand Falls, we were getting ready to give a talk and so we were in some motel room getting ready for the next day. We were going to do a talk to some local people or organization. We were sitting around looking at the TV, watching the news, and we saw all the guys down at Delta Hotel, and John Crosbie was in there making the announcement, and the fishermen were…


Barred outside. The doors were barred and they all started banging on the doors.

Jeez. For me that was a pretty emotional time. Because I wanted to be there, right? I was in Grand Falls and I was just like, “oh jeez, I wish I was there.”

Even though I think everybody expected it, it was a real shock to everybody when it hit home, you know? The fishery’s closed down for the first time in… Well, it was the first time in history that it was shut down, because there was no fish left. There was so few fish left that there was nothing else left to do — only shut it down completely. So that’s where I was at at that moment.

You were doing a speaking tour about the cod stocks, so it couldn’t have been much of a surprise for you.

No, it wasn’t too much of a surprise, no because I think a lot of fisherman, not just myself, especially inshore fisherman… I’m sure other offshore fisherman could see the writing on the wall too. Years before the moratorium a lot of inshore fisherman—from at least the mid-1980’s to the early-90’s—they saw their catches declining, and they saw the average size of cod declining. They had to spend more time on the water to catch, in some cases, smaller amounts of fish, smaller fish. So they were spending more time on the water, they were having to use more gear, more gillnets, more cod traps, or having to spend more hours with their hand lines or whatever to catch smaller amounts of fish. And smaller fish. So those are the warning signs that we took, we took that to mean that the stocks had something very serious was happening with the stocks.

Was there a particular moment when you were fishing where you were particularly shocked about what you were seeing?

I don’t recall any particular moment, no. There was just the general realization. There was just sort of a grim realization that, “jeez, things are not getting any better.”

Stocks were in decline. And, you know, inshore fisherman tried to do something around around mid-1980’s or something. There was an organization of inshore fisherman called NIFA, the Newfoundland Inshore Fisheries Association. Tom Best was heavily involved in that, and Cabot Martin… One of their big efforts was to try and get the fishing on the spawning stocks in the winter time, trying to get the draggers to stop fishing in the spawning grounds during the winter months. Because what happens in winter, cod sort of congregates in certain areas to spawn, to mate and to spawn and because the cod is so concentrated they’re an easy target for the draggers. So you had draggers at that time, mostly the Canadian dragger fleet because this is after the 200-mile limit, so it was mostly Canadian dragger fleets that were fishing the cod stocks during the winter spawning season.

And through talking to some of the offshore fisherman, we got this picture of the draggers fishing through the spawning cod, through these dense schools of spawning cod and coming up with huge nets full of cod; dumping the cod out on the deck and literally seeing the spawn running out of the females.

I don’t know how much is exaggeration and how much is fact, we heard stories about the fisherman on the decks on some of these trawlers, sometimes standing knee-deep in spawn and milt.


You know, it’s horrible when you think about it, right?

What we can do with technology. Somebody invents a technology that’s so efficient that it’s way too efficient and it ends up destroying the stocks. What NIFA tried to do was to take the federal government to court, because it was DFO’s responsibility to protect fish habitat. It’s one of their prime mandates, right? So NIFA says, “Well wait a second… Why is DFO allowing draggers to fish on the spawning grounds during the winter months?”

So they somehow managed to take DFO to court, but the judge ruled that the burden of proof was on NIFA to prove that damage was being done.

So that failed. They weren’t able to stop the fishing the spawning grounds through legal action. Yeah so, fishery scientists were basing their estimates of stock abundance on, well, they had their own random surveys… Fisheries Research boats would go out and do random surveys here and there, and all over the range of the northern cod. The random surveys were coming back with numbers that indicated that the stocks were in decline, but the other information they relied on to make their stock assessment was the catch per unit. CPUE, catch per unit of effort I think is how it is. The catch per unit of effort for the offshore dragger fleet. I guess most people just call it catch rates.

Their catch rates stayed quite high right through the 1980’s, and it was only just before the moratorium that they started to go down, right? So based on the catch rates of the offshore dragger fleets, everything looked fine. But what they weren’t taking into account was that they were using more and more sophisticated technology to catch and find the fish.

The technology was such that they could find the last concentration of cod, and get their quotas, and the catch rates were going to stay high right up until there was almost literally no more big schools of fish to find. And then that’s when the catch rates for the offshore trawler fleet started to drop off. And that’s when the warning bells went out in Ottawa.

But before I finish that thought, at the same time that the scientists were getting their results from their random surveys and that was showing a decline, the offshore catch rates were going along just nice and level.

That’s offshore. Meanwhile, the inshore catches were declining throughout the 80’s and for some reason the inshore catch rates they weren’t as clearly understood or measured or something or other. Also, the anecdotal information, the fisherman telling how they had to use more nets, or more traps, or more hours hand lining, and the fish were getting smaller and smaller. That whole story wasn’t being taken into account, as far as I understand. So you had all those three things going on.

So at the point where the offshore dragger catch rates started to go downhill pretty quickly, that was when the Fisheries Minister acted and slashed quotas. Around 1990 they slashed the quotas, but I guess it was too little too late.

And then 1992 came. The draggers went out to fish their normal fishing grounds and they came back, “No, can’t find any cod.”

And then that was when the decision was made to; well I don’t know if it was that dramatic but they came back certainly, you know they weren’t able to fill their quota. So that was when the decision was made: well there’s nothing left for us to do, only just closed it down.

That was in the spring of 1992.

So I mean the decision wasn’t actually made until July—July 2nd.

Your family I mean… Your grandfather, great grandfather, and father all fished. And to hear that. I can’t even understand.

Yeah, I know, yeah.

I did speaking tours across Newfoundland, across Canada. I did a speaking tour in Alaska with the Alaska Marine Conservation Council. I did another tour in New Zealand with the Greenpeace New Zealand, and I was also involved at Oxfam in small-scale fisheries development in Nicaragua and Eritrea. And I spent 10 days down in New York City at the UN High-Seas Fisheries Conference in ’93 I think it was.

I was there at the invitation of the Canadian Environment Network, and I was also sponsored in part by the Newfoundland and Labrador Environment Network… I think they’re connected or were connected with the Canadian Environment Network. So I got sent down there and was down there for 10 days.

So I got to see and talk to a lot of people about what was happening here, and everybody was dying for information and stories about: “what’s it like?”

Because it was unprecedented for such a huge fishery.

All of these fishing nations and all these fishermen, environmental organizations, conservation groups they just they wanted information. They wanted firsthand experience about it. They wanted somebody to speak about, because in many cases, their fisheries were in decline or collapsing as well. I was able to get involved because I had a particular way of speaking about the issues. I lived firsthand through the cod moratorium and the sort of years leading up to that. It’s not something that I really wanted to do.

I don’t consider myself a public speaker. I’m not that type. I’m more an introvert. I’m not out there waving my arms and shouting to crowds. But I just got into it because I felt very, very strongly about the issues and what I wanted to say in my particular take on it I. I didn’t mind saying, “It’s mainly the offshore dragger fleets.”

Not to say that inshore fishermen are angels.

I guess when I started out I used to think maybe I think I was just being naïve or something. Or maybe I just wasn’t looking at things objectively enough. But I used to think there was a conservation ethic of sorts particular to the inshore fishery. But I don’t believe that anymore.

If they could catch more, they would, kind of thing?

It often comes down to lack of opportunity. If you have the opportunity or if you have the technology, if you’re an inshore fisherman or an offshore fisherman, it doesn’t matter, you’re going to use it. You’re going to catch as much as you can. That’s just human nature.

It’s hard to get people to hold back. What did you think was different about the inshore fishery?

Yeah. I guess the thing with the inshore fishery, there were certain practices that limited how much impact it could have on the stocks. It was the seasonal fishery. Lots of years the fish didn’t come inshore or it came in small numbers or fewer numbers, and so the fishermen weren’t able to catch as much as they would like to in other years. Weather is a big factor; cold water temperatures. Those factors don’t really apply so much to the larger industrial dragger fleets.

There’s also other cultural practices, like Sunday. Nobody fished on Sundays. Right up ‘til just a few years before the moratorium it was unheard of for fishermen to go out fish on Sunday. But the idea wasn’t let’s give the fish the break. “Let’s just take one day and we won’t fish on that day so that’ll give the fish a break, we won’t be fishing.” It was, “no, we’re going to stay home with our families since we worked 5, 6 days this week really hard and we’re going to stay home on Sunday and take a break; go to mass or whatever.” For those who went to mass.

But that practice, it was, in a sense, a conservation measure. Whether it was conscious or not. It had the effect of being, at least conserving a little bit of the cod stocks. And the technology, hand lining for cod, it’s pretty simple. It’s pretty basic, and has almost no impact on the habitat of the cod.

Cod traps, well there’s problems with cod traps, but again it’s a passive technology, it’s not something like a big net that gets scraped over the ocean bottom and drags up everything in its wake. It doesn’t destroy the bottom habitat.

So like I said, there are particular problems with cod traps but nothing as severe as draggers.

I remember seeing satellite images of Chinese shrimp trawlers a few years ago with plumes of mud and silt behind them. Just incredible.

The other gear type that’s problematic is gillnets, monofilament gillnets.

The problem of ghost fishing. [Abandoned nets that continue to catch fish.] Those are all technologies that inshore fishermen use. And cod jiggers are problematic.

Really? Jiggers are bad?

Because they damage a lot of fish. We used jiggers years ago. Mostly we used baited hooks. But sometimes like late in the fall or when the fish went deep and it was harder to catch, jiggers would be used. But a lot of fish get hooked and the hook tears out, just because of the design of the hook.

So I mean like I said, there are problems with some of the inshore gear types. I think hook and line gear is probably the least offensive. Baited hooks.

Where they’re coming up to it and biting it?


So when you were going around talking to fisherman around the world, what kind of questions were they asking you?

Well they just wanted to know what the hell happened–what happened to the Canadian cod stocks. A fishery and a fish stock that was known all over the world for its abundance and long, long history, and it was just unbelievable that it just collapsed overnight, literally, or so it appeared.

So I would just tell them the story, the events leading up to it. I would generally go chronologically. Start out by saying up until 1950’s or early-60’s is when the large foreign dragger fleets started to come over here from Europe from Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, Western Europe, and they started plundering the cod stocks. There were no rules. No regulations, pretty much. It was just a free-for-all.

And the stocks were very nearly wiped out.

And so after that the 200-mile limit was put in place?

The 200-mile limit was declared in 1977. That’s when Canada got control out to the 200-mile limit. Before that it was open water, and we only had a 12 mile territorial limit.

So in 1977, Canada took over and had jurisdiction out to 200 miles. Beyond that it was still open water, at the Nose and the Tail of the Grand Banks, and that’s still the case. And the Flemish Cap. But for the most part, Canada had control and had control of most of the range of the northern cod, and so it was an opportunity for Canada to set things right again.

And for a while after 1977 things did definitely start to improve, right up until the early, to the mid-1980’s—inshore catches were getting better, fish seemed to be getting larger. People thought, “hmm, okay, we’ve turned a corner.”

But at the same time the foreign effort wasn’t driven out, it was just removed from the inside the 200-mile limit; and that effort was replaced by the Canadian dragger fleet. And the Canadian dragger fleet started hitting the stocks just as hard. They were hitting the stock which was not yet fully recovered from the overfishing which happened throughout the 50’s, and 60’s, and early-up-to-the-mid-70’s by the foreign dragger fleets.

So before the cod stocks had a chance to fully recover, they were beaten down again.

Things weren’t as bad by the late-80’s as they were in the mid-70’s. That’s basically what I would tell them.

What kind of effect do you think that had on them? They wouldn’t have changed their fishing strategies based on that.

Well, telling the story and having people listen and act appropriately is another side of the problem. After I had done this for a few years I started to think this is getting a bit tiresome. I didn’t know if anybody was listening.

It must have been terrible to relive that so often.

Yeah. After a few years I got really tired of it and just when we got an opportunity to go to get back into the fishery, to get access to the crab fishery. I was more than happy to go back fishing.

How long after the moratorium did you get back to the fishery?

About four years. We started fishing crab in ’96. When we started out with crab fishery, we had pretty small quotas. So it wasn’t as big for us or important for us then as it is now, but still it was a start. So and we were still involved with the sentinel survey. So I was doing the sentinel survey, doing some crab fishing, and we did some lobster fishing too. Lobster’s not a big fishery in our area, but it was something to be involved in.

Were you ever tempted to leave the province for work?

Oh yeah, I was, many times. I could have, I could have. I was in a relationship at the time, myself and my ex-partner. We were together right up ’til the moratorium and shortly after. And we had a plan, we we said, “okay this is not looking like it’s going to end anytime soon. We’ve got to think about the practical problem of how do you earn a living with the fishery gone? Nobody knows when it’s coming back.”

There was some income support, but not enough to keep a family, you know? So she went out to Vancouver and started looking for work, and I was supposed to join her within six months or something. And things didn’t work out, so I stayed.

There was a part of me that didn’t want to leave, I think.

But anyway, that’s on the personal side. We split up a couple years down the road after the moratorium. And my youngest son was living in Vancouver for many years with my ex-partner because that’s where he wanted to be. And my other son, my older son, was at home with me. He was finishing high school and that’s where he wanted to be. And then he went from there to university. My two daughters — step-daughters — they were on their own anyway. They were in Vancouver; they were both out there and working.

Do you think the moratorium played a role in the family being divided?

Oh yeah, definitely, yeah.


The decision to move to Vancouver was the plan. That didn’t work out. But the decision to go was directly related to the moratorium. And lots of other people did it, they got out of the fishery, went other places, or found other work, or retired, or whatever. So I could have easily not been here today talking to you, I could have been out in Vancouver.

But you stayed with fishing. You went back to fishing after that.

Yeah, yeah. When the crab fishery opened up I decided I was going to hang in there, although it didn’t look very promising at first. Small quotas; there was only two of us that had a quota, starting out. Two small quotas. There was still some income support but that ended a couple of years later. It was difficult. I still had my oldest son living with me and he was finishing high school, starting university. But I hung in there and then a year later the crab fishery prices were up, the quotas were up and we got an extra quota, and the third partner got a quota, so we were doing quite a bit better. So things worked out in the end for us. For me, anyway.

You went back to it, so what does the fishery mean to you?

I like working with my hands. I particularly like working outdoors. I like being in a boat. So the opportunity to go fishing really appealed to me a long time ago, and it’s really stuck with me. At times it’s satisfying — very satisfying at times — but it also just depends on how much fish you’re bringing in, right? It can be very discouraging when things go wrong, but at other times you just sort of hit the jackpot and everything else gets forgotten. You forget about the last year when everything went wrong, and the price was down, and you couldn’t make your boat payment and stuff like that. Then the next year the price is up, and you’re doing good. It’s what keeps people going, right? And that’s just the nature of fishery.

So when you’re involved in it you just get used to that cycle, and you roll with it. It just becomes a part of the routine. Every now and then you’re going to have a bad year, but hopefully you’re able to pull through and keep going.

You have kids, did you recommend them to go into the fishery?

No, not really. There are too many uncertainties, and I felt like I would be irresponsible to encourage any of my kids to get into the fishery because of that uncertainty. From one year to the next, the highs and lows of your income and the frustrations of when things go wrong… Well, my son, he’s working in Ottawa, he’s an engineer and working with a company up there, I’m sure he’s got a very good income. My other son’s in San Francisco and he’s working for a software company down there, and he’s also got a very good income. My daughter is working in Iqaluit, she’s a lawyer. Adrienne. And Jennifer’s in Vancouver, she’s working for HRDC. They’ve all got very good jobs and good incomes. Better incomes than I had.

I’ve always encouraged them to, you know, do whatever you want to do. Find something that you really like and just do it, and go with it.

But, no, I’ve never said, “jeez, I’d really like you to take over this fishing business when I’m done with it.”

Like I said, I always thought that would be kind of irresponsible of me.

But so now you’re the last generation of fishermen in your family.

Yeah, yeah. Now, if one of the children came back and said, “you know, I’d really like to take over this business when you’re done with it.” Then, “Ah, sure, here, take it.” I wouldn’t deny them or anything, or refuse. But I certainly wouldn’t actively try and persuade them.

For information about the Fishing for the Future Film Festival, visit their website at www.fishingforthefuturefilmfestival.ca.

Photo by Shelley Bryant

One comment

  1. Gordon Gekko · January 17, 2011

    I didn’t take the fish from the goddamn water!