Bonavista, Newfoundland. Fall. What no one prepares you for is the beauty. Along the peninsula, the road winds through fishing settlements known as outports. As I turn off the highway onto the coast road, the sun breaks through a stormy sky making the squat orange maples and yellow birch glow against the wind-stunted fir and spruce. Seawards, in the bays between the rocky promontories, stand wooden stages or flakes, where cod used to be dried. These look like the remnants of a gold rush, which in a sense is what they are: relics of a gold rush that lasted 500 years.
In Abbotts’ B&B on Capeshore Road home-made sheets of tourist information tell how John Cabot discovered the cape in 1497. Cabot, a Venetian whose name was anglicised to reflect the national significance of his mission, was trying to find a western passage to Asia for Henry VII. What Cabot actually found was a landfall on which Britain’s claim to North America was based, and, as luck would have it, the world’s largest population of cod: a population so plentiful the fish could be caught by lowering a basket from a ship’s deck.
The typed sheets in Abbott’s tell you that the Bonavista peninsula is windy all year but never gets particularly hot or cold. The spring is short. Icebergs float down the coast well into May. Under the heading, ‘daily life in the community’ there is the following: ‘The fishery is Bonavista’s main industry. Cod drew the Europeans here in the 1490s and keeps us here in the 1990s. Without the fishery Bonavista could not survive. In cod we trust.’
Nothing has been added to this since 1992, when the Canadian government closed the local cod fishery for the first time. Maybe no one knew how to come to terms with such a seismic change in Newfoundland’s economy. More likely, the author of those typed sheets thought, as did the Canadian government of the day, that the crisis would be over in a couple of years. What we know now is that the northern cod has declined by 99 per cent since the early 1960s, and that it may take 20 years, even by the most optimistic estimates, for it to come back. It may never do so. It is showing no signs of doing so yet.
The crash of the northern cod was the first example in modern times of a major commercial fish stock being reduced to a non-renewable resource. ‘It is harder to kill off fish than mammals. But after 1,000 years of hunting the Atlantic cod, we know it can be done,’ said Mark Kurlansky in the last lines of his admirable book Cod: a biography of the fish that changed the world. We are now beginning to realise that Kurlansky described only the beginning of a story of how over-fishing is changing the world and what we eat.
What we did not know when Kurlansky wrote those words was that the world’s fisheries were beginning to tend in the same direction. Unforgivably, the discovery that global catches were declining was not made by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the outfit responsible for global catch figures, but by Daniel Pauly and Reg Watson of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
In an article published in Nature, Pauly and Watson put the FAO’s global catch figures through the wringer and found that if you excluded the numbers for China the world’s catches were declining. And when you looked closer, the high figures the Chinese were declaring were, judged by the productivity of the sea elsewhere in the world, a biological impossibility. In fact, Watson and Pauly decided, global catches began to decline around the late 1980s: around the time Newfoundland’s did. The apparent anomaly of China was due to the fact that Communist Party officials there had to show a rising graph in order to get promoted.
We now know that what happened in Newfoundland was not a one-off: it was the logical conclusion of a trend that is going on virtually everywhere in the sea, except in a few isolated well-run fishery regimes. It seems obvious that in looking to prevent a Newfoundland-style crash happening anywhere else, we should take particular care to apply the lessons the Canadians learned.
When it comes to our own waters – and remember, half of the fish we eat now come from overseas – we appear to be ignoring one of the main lessons of Newfoundland which is: when you get into trouble, stop fishing. The Canadians now calculate that a fish stock has collapsed – and fishing must stop – when numbers have declined to below a tenth of its pre-exploitation spawning size. Despite the North Sea states paying the wages of the Copenhagen-based International Council for the Exploration of the Sea for 102 years, scientists there have still not worked out the pre-industrial spawning stock biomass of the North Sea cod, but it is reasonable to assume it was more than 500,000 tons. Some scientists say it was 7 million tons.
The cod stock in the North Sea is down to a mere 46,000 tons, a third of the 150,000 tons that scientists recommend as a bare minimum for future reproductive success. Even now, every other cod is taken from the cod illegally, because the EU’s enforcement is so bad, so little respected by the fishermen and the penalties are so light that they are seen as a tax by hard-pressed businesses.
The ICES scientists who count fish in the North East Atlantic have recommended this autumn for the third year in a row that cod fishing in the West of Scotland, Irish Sea and North Sea should be banned altogether. On the face of it, this recommendation has much to be said for it, since the strategy proposed by EU Ministers for the past two years, that they would ‘recover’ the cod stock by allowing it to be fished at a low level, stands revealed as an abject failure.
But will EU ministers finally have the nerve to ban cod fishing and pay fishermen not to fish until the cod recover? What makes things complicated is that the North Sea haddock stock stands at its highest for 30 years, at around 460,000 tons. The political pressure is on allow fishermen to benefit from a modest quota of haddock, while preventing cod being taken in the same net. The European Commission has never favoured the separator trawls that United States fishermen say enable them to separate cod from haddock, or the temporary closed areas which enable Iceland to stop the killing of juvenile fish or the wrong species, or the ban on ‘discarding’ small fish practised by other enlightened regimes, such as Norway. So in the absence of EU ministers having the nerve to set up a system of enforcement that works as well as the world’s best, the danger is that the remaining cod are likely to be thrown over the side, dead, or landed illegally, as part of the new haddock bonanza.
My advice to any concerned consumer would be not to buy cod from the North Sea until politicians take the correct advice and ban, or as close as they can, cod fishing. And then only touch cod again after the cod has been given its own large closed areas and sufficient years to recover. For heavily fished populations (and populations hit by climate changes believed to have been involved in the breeding failure of cod on both the Grand Banks and in the North Sea) behave much less robustly than healthy ones – another lesson from Newfoundland.
Many people in Europe are unaware that the Canadian government re-opened the Grand Banks cod fishery in 1995, against the advice of many independent scientists. Ottawa decided it could not go on paying billions of dollars indefinitely in social security and restructuring payments to 44,000 Newfoundland fishermen and fish processors.
The revived or ‘sentinel’ fishery was meant to be small in scale and helpful to those scientists who were measuring the recovery of the cod. But it was poorly monitored. Licences were given out in large numbers, for political reasons. There was large-scale cheating, and when the fishery was closed again in 2003 Ottawa was forced to accept that ‘serious damage’ had been done and stocks were even lower than they were in 1992.
Since then, the cod of the Grand Banks in the north Atlantic have shown no sign of recovery. Paradoxically, there is a lot of big cod inshore, in a couple of big bays on the eastern coast of Newfoundland, Bonavista Bay and Trinity Bay, which inshore fishermen find frustrating as they face fines of $500 if they catch so much as a single fish. But out on the Grand Banks there is nothing, except for a little remnant cod population more than 200 miles out, on the Grand Banks’ ‘nose’ and ‘tail’, which protrude beyond Canadian territorial waters. More of those remnant cod later.
What there has been, however, to the great good fortune of those fishermen with big enough boats to harvest them, is an explosion of snow crab and shrimp on the Grand Banks. Fishermen are now making more money than they were in the late 1980s, but out of different species. Total production of seafood has been worth in excess of $1 billion in the past five years; it was worth only $800m in the late 1980s. The only downside to this is that nobody seems to know what a sustainable quota of prawns or snow crab is.
And if the cod decides to come back, which it doesn’t look like doing for 15 to 20 years, if ever, there is going to be less of everything, because the cod will eat the shrimp and crab as it recovers. It seems that fishing may have ‘flipped’ the whole ecosystem from a fish-based ecosystem to a shellfish one. Nobody knows if it will ever flip back. A similar ecosystem flip happened in the Black Sea, where introduced jellyfish took over from fish. There has been talk of something similar also happening in the Baltic with the disappearance of cod there. Meanwhile, catches of prawns, crabs and langoustines have been rising in the North Sea.
I don’t recall anyone asking the people of Europe whether they would prefer a fish-based ecosystem around their shores or a shellfish-based one, but there is a danger of this decision being taken by default as a result of the continued exploitation of endangered fish populations, such as cod. The EU’s Common Fisheries Policy doesn’t really take citizens’ interests into account: it is assumed that what is in the interests of the most commercial, most technological fishermen is in the common interest; but in fact the common interest must include the protection of nature, biodiversity, tourism and angling. (Anglers in Britain number 1.5 million; there are 11,000 commercial fishermen in the UK.) We once used to talk of the theft of the countryside by farmers. Truly, what is happening in Europe at the moment is the theft of the sea by commercial fishermen.
But our hunt for fish does not stop in European waters any more. Few Europeans are aware of the extent to which the EU now extends its malign influence, and its voracious demand for fish, across the oceans of the world.
I came across an aspect of this unregulated greed myself in Newfoundland, and at first refused to believe it. I was talking to Betty Fitzgerald, the mayor of Bonavista. Betty’s three sons still work in fishing or fish processing so she knows a thing or two about what fishermen get up to. Betty told me that she had been out on the Grand Banks a few times since the fishery was closed and every time she saw the sea lit up, ‘like a city at night’, with the lights of foreign trawlers.
At the time I thought this information a touch out of date. Didn’t everyone in the world know, after Kurlansky’s book, that cod fishing had been banned on the Grand Banks in 1992? I wrote off the story as part of the universal tendency to blame foreigners for overfishing.
But Betty was right. I made a few inquiries in St Johns, the capital of Newfoundland, and then Brussels and uncovered an extraordinary story. There may be a fine of $500 for catching a single cod in Bonavista Bay. But EU trawlers still fish illegally, and with virtual impunity, on the nose and tail of the Grand Banks.
As ecological crimes go fishing for stocks that are internationally known to have collapsed and on which there is a moratorium (in the faint hope that they might one day recover) is about as serious as you can get. It cheats present and future generations.
You may remember that a decade or so ago Canada caused a diplomatic incident when its fisheries minister, Brian Tobin, authorised the arrest of an EU vessel, the Spanish-flagged Estai, that was fishing for Greenland halibut just outside Canadian territorial waters. The EU accused Tobin of acting illegally. Since then Canada has tried to avoid any similar disputes. But it still has a controversial law on its statute book that bans boats flying flags of convenience from fishing on the banks outside the 200-mile limit of its waters. (To diminish their chances of being seized, vessels that do fish there only do so under the flags of EU member states.)
Ironically, one of the legacies of the Estai incident is that the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organisation (NAFO), which is responsible for conserving fish stocks from the edge of Icelandic waters to the edge of Canada’s, now has some of the strictest rules of any such regional fisheries organisation. These rules say that any vessels fishing in the area must carry observers at all times. I took advantage of EU freedom of information legislation to get hold of a sheaf of these observer reports: they are faithfully compiled and then sent to the state in which the vessels concerned are registered and to the fishery inspectorate in Brussels, where they gather dust. The reports show that on 72 days in 2002 EU vessels deliberately targeted species for which fishing was banned, primarily American plaice and cod: they apparently steamed knowingly over an entire ocean to catch fish which they knew should have been left alone.
The Portuguese-registered stern trawler Solsticio, for example, entered NAFO waters on 19 March 2003 with a British observer on board. The Solsticio was also watched closely by Canadian inspectors on its month-long trip. The inspectors boarded it on 5 May and reported finding moratorium species hidden in its freezer. The observer’s figures shows that out of a total of 284 tons of fish caught on the trip, 65 per cent constituted the moratorium species cod (83 tons), plaice (88 tons) and witch (also known as deep-water sole, 14 tons).
The Solsticio was reported to the NAFO for deliberately fishing for banned species. Three independent sources confirmed it had done so. Yet when the vessel was inspected back in Portugal, the port inspectors found no infringements: they said they found that less than 10 per cent of the fish on board were from illegal sources. So much for the rigour of the EU regulatory system.
There are plenty more of such stories from observers on Spanish and Portuguese vessels. There are also plenty of cases of flagrant abuses by vessels from Russia, which is much less interested in enforcing regulations than the Soviet Union used to be.
The NAFO is one of the most enlightened and up-to-date of the regional fisheries organisations. Its coastal members take their duties seriously. The system depends, however, on the good will of the states where vessels are registered if offenders are to be prosecuted. I put it to the European Commission that the observer reports should be sufficient evidence to justify prosecutions, or that the commission ought to prosecute member states for not acting on those reports. An official told me that this was not possible, as in Europe observers’ reports do not carry any greater weight than the word of the masters of the vessels concerned. But they do in Canada, where the observer is regarded in law as a dispassionate figure whose evidence should be believed.
It’s as if the system in Europe has been set up to fail. If you’re a cynic, you might share the view of those who say that the people who set up that system are ministers of the so-called friends of fishing’ countries (countries led by Spain), who have never had, until recently at least, any intention of seeing a system of rules that works.
Once you have been to Newfoundland (which few fishing ministers do, but should be made to), you begin to see sad reflections of its cod disaster everywhere. You see parallels off the west coast of Africa, where EU fleets have quotas (bought for them by an unquestioning European public) so they can overfish waters that should rightfully belong to starving Africans.
You see them in the Mediterranean, where a scientific dispute about the original spawning stock biomass of the bluefin tuna in Roman times has become the excuse for allowing massively unsustainable numbers of immature tuna to be rounded up and ranched in cages before they are exported to Japan. And you see parallels again in the French- and Spanish-owned Indian Ocean tuna purse-seine fleet, which fishes in the waters of Somalia, a country that currently has no government and which is therefore ill-equipped to ensure the sustainability of catches. Somali warlords do exact a high price for fishing licences, but it is stretching the imagination to conclude that they worry much about over-fishing.
But perhaps the most alarming and least known example of a present-day fishery gold rush is that for blue whiting in our own northeast Atlantic. Iceland is often portrayed as a world leader in conserving its fish stocks, but in Reykjavik I saw on the cover of the local fishing industry trade mag trawlers returning to port so full of blue whiting that they looked like submarines, with waves breaking across their decks.
Not many people have heard of blue whiting, a small, deep-water member of the cod family, though it is said by chefs to be very palatable and a good substitute for cod itself. Nor could you buy it in Sainsbury’s or Tesco, even if you wanted to. That is because the vast proportion of the tonnage caught each year is used to make fish oil and meal, the principal use of which is in food pellets for fish farms. A vast new trawler equipped to catch blue whiting – which is a deep sea fish, commonly found at around 400 metres – appears on the pages of Fishing News each week. The world’s largest trawler, the Irish-flagged 14,000-ton ship Atlantic Dawn, has been after blue whiting for some time.
No one disputes that blue whiting is a plentiful fish. (The size of its population may have something to do with the fact that, thanks to the depth at which blue whiting lives, catching it has only become possible in the last 30 years.) But scientists have been saying for the past decade that a sustainable quota for the fish is around 650,000 tons. Last year, however, fishermen took an estimated 2.3 million tons. The single largest catch, 700,000 tons – itself more than the total sustainable quota for the whole northeast Atlantic, was taken by Norway. The EU’s response to this was instructive: Franz Fischler, the EU’s agriculture commissioner, called for other nations to exercise restraint, and then, when they didn’t, trebled the quota for the EU’s own vessels.
A baffling diplomatic impasse has prevented action being taken to conserve the blue whiting. A management plan has already been agreed by the London-based regional body responsible for the fishery: the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC). But nobody, not Iceland, not Norway, not the Faroes and not the EU, seems to want to attend the necessary meetings to establish quotas. I asked Kjartan Hoydal, the NEAFC’s Faroes-born secretary, what seemed to be the problem. He replied: ‘With blue whiting it is obvious what should be done, but nobody seems to want to do it.’ The last stock assessment of the fish from the ICES was very good, but Hoydal believes the fishery could be only a couple of years from collapse.
There are several disturbing lessons to be learned from the sorry saga of the blue whiting. The first is that the world’s fish farming industry in general, and the Scottish and Norwegian salmon farming industries in particular, must be regarded as unsustainable (this is true even of ‘organic’ salmon) while they depend on a stock as overfished as the blue whiting. The second is that with the wild-capture and fish-farming industries we have come up against what the much maligned think-tank the Club of Rome called in the 1970s a ‘limit to growth’. The fish oil and meal industry itself says that we will run out of fish oil (ie, the industries dependant upon it will not be able to expand any further) by the end of this decade.
We have reached a pivotal moment with fishing, as we began to do with farming with the publication of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s book about pesticides, in 1962. The past 42 years have seen scandal after scandal break over intensive farming, until even farmers themselves began talking about sustainability, rare breeds, traceability and saving the skylark.
Now it is intensive fishing’s turn. Commercial fishermen are the new farmers. They stand revealed as the biggest and most indiscriminate killers of wildlife on the planet. They stand revealed as thieves of the birthright of unborn generations and of fish that truly belong to some of the poorest nations of the world. I am not unsympathetic to fishermen – indeed many of the insights in writing a book about overfishing have been derived from fishermen, both inshore and deep sea, who have expressed concern about what is happening to the seas around them. Indeed, I am a fisherman myself in a small way, with a fly, a spinner or a ragworm. But I believe commercial fishermen will eventually have to learn the lesson that took farmers 40 years to learn: listen to your customers, do what they want and don’t insult their intelligence.
Electorates are beginning to discover that fishermen have stolen the sea – their sea. Because of that discovery, I suspect politicians will soon lose sympathy for fishermen and side with their fellow consumers and voters. And when that happens one of the first things European fishing ministers could do is to take to heart another of the lessons of Newfoundland: fishing on a depleted stock is not compatible with recovery; if you want a crashed stock to recover, you’ve got to stop fishing. For the North Sea, Irish sea and west of Scotland cod, however, it may already be too late.
Charles Clover is environment editor for The Daily Telegraph. His book The End of the Line: how overfishing is changing the world and what we eat is published by Ebury Press, priced £14.99
UK fish eating guide
Next time you find yourself mulling over which fish to select from a menu, haggling with fishermen on the dockside, or pressing your nose against your local fishmonger’s window ask yourself these questions before you buy:
Are there enough of them? If you are in any doubt, consult the table opposite titled 'Fish not to eat'.
Is the fish local? Leave fish caught on the other side of the world for people who live there. Buy fish from local waters: it supports local fishermen, reduces transport-related pollution and should mean you get fresher fish.
Is the fish big enough? If fish are caught before they have reached sexual maturity they do not have a chance to reproduce. This reduces the stock's ability to replenish itself. Processed fish items such as fish fingers, and reformed fish products such as crabsticks, often contain undersized fish. Bottom line: if you can't measure the size of the fish, don't buy it. See the table titled 'Fish to eat' for acceptable sizes, by fish type.
Is the fish in spawning season? Fish should not be caught during their spawning season because this reduces their ability to sustain population levels. Roe should also be avoided: every mouthful of roe (taramasalata, caviar, etc) is thousands of fish that will never see the sea. Consult the table opposite to ensure that the fish has not been caught during its spawning season.
Has the fish been caught sustainably? Certain species of fish, and shellfish are more vulnerable to over-exploitation than others. Deep-water fish are usually long-lived and therefore slow to reach sexual maturity, which means that many will be caught before they have had a chance to reproduce.
Unacceptable fishing practices
Certain fishing methods inflict damage on the environment or non-target species or both:
Dredging Used to harvest shellfish. Has a damaging effect on marine habitats, disturbs non-target species and results in lower-quality catch.
Farming Farms that rear carnivorous fish, such as salmon, require large amounts of sea-fish as feed. It takes 3-5kg of wild fish, such as herring, anchovy and blue whiting, to make the feed necessary to produce 1kg of farmed salmon. Also, fish waste, excess fishmeal and chemicals added to the food, including antibiotics and pesticides, pollute the surrounding oceans as the salmon are kept in open netting or cages.
Drift nets Allowed to drift with prevailing currents, making them extremely non-selective. A huge number of sea creatures, including dolphins, whales, seals, seabirds and turtles, are killed by drift nets each year.
Purse seines Schools of fish are encircled with a large net, then trapped as the net is drawn together. One of the most aggressive methods of fishing; used to capture large, dense shoals of mobile fish, such as tuna, mackerel and herring.
Longlines Fishing lines up to 100 miles long, from which are dangled roughly 2,000 hooks. Longlining incurs significant by-catch, including sharks, swordfish, albatrosses and endangered sea turtles
Explosives In countries like the Philippines explosives are used on coral reefs to capture fish. Blast fishing is a particularly destructive method of fishing and is prohibited in many regions.
Cyanide poisoning Used by fishermen in many areas of southeast Asia, the Pacific and the Indian Ocean to stun reef fish such as grouper. Has a devastating effect on coral reefs.
Acceptable fishing practices
In order to reduce the damaging effects of these approaches, try and buy fish caught using the following methods:
Hand-lining Fishing with lines and hooks is one of the oldest fishing methods. It is highly selective and the catch is of good quality because it is live when brought aboard.
Dive-caught In the case of shellfish, dive-caught or hand-picked fishing are better than dredged because they are selective methods that do not damage non-target species or have a detrimental effect on marine habitats.
Pots or creels A highly selective method of fishing using small baited traps. The catch is brought up alive, and sorting takes place immediately, allowing unwanted animals to be returned to the sea.
Oyster farming The farming of rock oysters, clams and scallops is totally sustainable because they are hatchery-bred filter feeders and only eat plankton.
Organic fish farms Organic farms, as certified by the Soil Association, have taken great measures to minimise the damaging effects they have on the environment. For example, their fish are not fed with antibiotics or pesticides, and their stocking density is approximately half that of conventional fish farms.
Fish to eat
The following fish are deemed to be fished within sustainable levels and are local to the UK. These are all OK to eat provided they are: large enough; not caught in their spawning season; and have not been caught using unsustainable or damaging fishing practices.
Name Suitable size Spawning season
Bib or pouting 20cm March-April
Black bream, porgy 20cm April-May
or sea bream
Coley or saithe 40cm
Dab 27cm April-June
Flounder 30cm February-May
Grey gurnard 22cm April-August
Herring 20cm January-April
Lythe or pollack 50cm
Mackerel 30cm May-July
Native oyster Months with an 'r' in them
Rock oyster Does not apply
Red gurnard 20cm
Summer Red mullet 24cm May-July
Sea trout October-January
Whiting 30cm March-April
Witch 30cm May-September
Fish to avoid
The following fish are deemed not to be fished within sustainable levels:
Alfonsinos or golden-eye perch Insufficient information to suggest that current levels of exploitation are sustainable
American plaice Stocks are overfished and many are subject to a fishing ban
Atlantic cod Overfished and assessed as 'vulnerable' by the World Conservation Union (IUCN)
Atlantic halibut Overfished and assessed as 'endangered' by the IUCN
Blue ling Stocks are overfished
Chilean seabass or Patagonian toothfish Vulnerable to overfishing and threatened by illegal fishing
Dogfish (including catshark and nursehound); also sold as huss, rock salmon or flake Vulnerable to overfishing as a result of their reproductive strategy
Greater forkbeard Insufficient information to suggest current levels of exploitation are sustainable
Grouper Currently overfished and assessed as 'threatened' by the IUCN
Haddock Currently overfished and assessed as 'threatened' by the IUCN
Hake Stocks are overfished
Ling Stocks are overfished
Marlin White marlin is in danger of extinction; there is insufficient information to suggest current levels of exploitation of black marlin are sustainable
Monkfish Stocks are overfished
Orange roughy Cannot support an intensive fishery Octopus Insufficient information to suggest current levels of exploitation are sustainable
Plaice Most stocks are now overfished
Rat or rabbit fish Insufficient information to suggest current levels of exploitation are sustainable
Red or blackspot sea bream Insufficient information to suggest current levels of exploitation are sustainable
Redfish or ocean perch Stocks are overfished
Roundnose grenadier Occupies a habitat that is vulnerable to the impacts of trawling
Seabass Trawl fisheries target spawning and pre-spawning fish and are responsible for high levels of dolphin by-catch
Shark Late maturing and therefore vulnerable to over-exploitation
Skates and rays Assessed as 'endangered' by the IUCN
Snapper Many species are overfished and some are listed as 'vulnerable' by the IUCN
Sprat Sprat are caught in purse seine nets, a method of fishing associated with dolphin by-catch Squid Insufficient information to suggest current levels of exploitation are sustainable
Sturgeon Stocks are vulnerable to over-exploitation Swordfish Overfished and assessed as 'vulnerable' by the IUCN
Tiger prawn Trawl fisheries for wild- caught tropical prawns cause a huge amount of by-catch, and farms destroy mangrove forests
Tuna (except yellowfin and skipjack) Stocks are overfished; bluefin is assessed as 'critically endangered' by the IUCN
Tusk or torsk Stocks are overfished
Wild Atlantic salmon Stocks are overfished and have halved in the last 20 years
Wild Pacific salmon Some species are endangered due to overfishing
This article first appeared in the Ecologist December 2004