Northern cod fishery: a snare and delusion – the voodoo arithmetic underlying ‘fisheries conservation’ schemes


HALIFAX (May 16, 2002) – ON MAY 15, the news media reported that the northern cod fishery – the lifeblood of fishing communities throughout Newfoundland and Labrador from the 1500s until the groundfish moratorium imposed in 1992 – will likely be curtailed.

The cod catches of this fishery in the northern Grand Banks and up the northeast coast of the island of Newfoundland averaged more than 200,000 tonnes by the late 1980s, then collapsed below 20,000 tonnes before it closed. Starting in 1998, the government allowed a reopening, increasing the annual allowable catch to 7,000 tonnes. Now the stock is reportedly again in decline.

While preparing to re-impose a full moratorium on northern cod, to give the appearance that it is nevertheless concerned for the welfare and survival of the affected communities, the government is permitting a two-week extension of the seal hunt off the northeast coast to the end of May. While another public relations circus is being whipped up on the sidelines about extending the seal hunt, re-closing the northern cod fishery is being justified as an undebatably necessary conservation measure.

Just what is being conserved – and for whom?

In a brief moment of candour almost 20 years ago, when he was vice-president of the United States, George Bush (Sr) famously dismissed as “voodoo arithmetic” the promises of Ronald Reagan that the U.S. could spend endlessly on weapons systems and still not only balance the federal budget but also give the rich a tax cut. In its utterly cynical contempt for the ability of the thinking individual to recognize a snare and delusion and overcome state-organised disinformation, this phrase also encapsulates the motives and content behind claims by the rich in Canada to the effect that they even give a damn about conserving the fish stocks.

If one accepts without question the eco-catastrophe scenario carefully constructed around the cod collapse since the late 1980s, it seems no big deal to accept the necessity to end the northern cod fishery at this time. The moment the politics surrounding this scenario is examined, however, it’s another story.

Behind the groundfish moratorium

Simultaneously with its preparations to end the groundfish harvest, the Mulroney cabinet in the winter of 1992 also approved a scheme to replace Gulf Canada Resources’ stake in the Hibernia offshore oil exploration project with PetroCanada (in which the Canadian government remains an important shareholder). Crosbie Offshore Services, an offshore drilling services company based in Newfoundland and tied to the Hibernia project, was in serious legal and financial trouble. Petro Canada taking over Gulf’s former 25 per cent stake would secure long-term Canadian involvement. Clearing the surrounding waters of fishing fleets would guarantee the oil barons the freest possible field of action, and with it the fortunes of the Crosbie interests. Crosbie Offshore Services was owned by the family of the fisheries minister, John Crosbie, the DFO minister who imposed the groundfish moratorium

Back in 1990, the fish monopolies in eastern Canada wanted to shed their harvesting capacity – expensive fleets manned by trawlermen enjoying the security of a collective agreement – but accepted a multi-billion federal government bailout instead, postponing the inevitable. However, with the unanticipated collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1991, at that time the largest producer of raw and processed fish in the world, markets had become impossibly glutted. The Canadian monopolies were more desperate than ever to protect their profits and avoid having to inventory catches that might never find a market. Having the government declare a groundfish collapse along with implementing a compensation scheme for the unemployed would give the companies a perfect way out. It is a fact that the groundfish collapse turned out to be a tragedy for everyone and everything except these monopolies’ profits and their shareholders.

Under the circumstances, two things were clear. The rich had absolutely no interest at any point actually to count the fish (let alone establish whether the fish stocks had indeed collapsed or become geographically displaced), and the monopolies and the government had been handed a heaven-sent opportunity to eliminate the remaining inshore and independent fishers by keeping the moratorium in place indefinitely, all the while claiming “the stocks haven’t come back.”

The rich and their state are old hands at placing the working people on the defensive, compelling them always to react to events.

Nowhere has this been more the case than when it comes to establishing the level of commercially valuable fish stocks available and the extent to which they may be harvested in the waters of Atlantic Canada. The scale of the fishery resource base in Atlantic Canada alone is enormous. In addition to the fishery resources of the Gulf of St Lawrence, one of Canada’s inland seas, which are not shared with fishing fleets outside Canada, these include the wide range of species extensively parceled out for the past 25 years to foreign fleets in the 1200-km-long string of fishing grounds running north-north east from Georges Bank off the southwest tip of Nova Scotia (which abuts boundary waters of the United States off the coast of State of Maine) along the Continental Shelf paralleling the Atlantic Ocean coastline of Nova Scotia all the way to the Grand Banks (which themselves reach almost 500 km into the Atlantic beyond the easternmost point of land) off Newfoundland and Labrador.

The attitude taken historically by the fish capitalists towards this bounty is quite revealing. Before the late 1960s, when the northwest Atlantic fishing grounds became the plaything of foreign monopolies and cartels, they subscribed uncritically to the mythology of a boundless harvest. “Fishes enow to laste to the ende of tyme” was the verdict handed down by Giovanni Caboto at the end of the 15th century following the first colonialist expedition from Europe to covet these resources on behalf of the English Crown.

The Baranov papers

It was after 1908, in the waters off Nova Scotia and in the North Sea, that industrial methods of fish-harvesting – bottom trawlers and midwater seiners – appeared. Their impact with regard to fish stocks in the Baltic and the North Sea began to be studied by the leading Soviet fisheries scientist Baranov after the Russian Revolution. In a series of landmark scientific studies published in the 1920s, Baranov and his coworkers demonstrated convincingly that human intervention on this scale had now reached the stage of seriously modifying reproductive behaviour among the commercially most-sought-after species. Their articles also spelled out the implication that, beyond a certain level of industrial-scale harvesting of the resource, if production was not planned and the role of market forces curtailed, it would become practically impossible to establish what (if anything) a sustainable level – either maximum or optimum sustainable level – of fishing effort would be.

In Canada, meanwhile, after supporting the firm opposition of inshore fishermen to steam trawlers (from Gloucester, Massachusetts) in order to push the Americans out of local waters, the largest fish capitalists in Nova Scotia after 1927 began putting their own trawlers into these waters. They subsequently pressured inshore fishing communities to give up their economic independence step by step, compelling them to give up producing for merchants selling in the salt fish trade and to switch to catching fish for their processing plants instead.

By the late 1960s, the US determined that Soviet-bloc fishing fleets represented a strategic threat to its dominance of the Atlantic basin.

Capital-centric pseudo-science about sustainable yield

Fisheries studies appeared, especially from the U.S., elaborating the necessity for a fish stocks conservation model based on a so-called “maximum sustainable yield” (MSY). In the absence of any convincing model for arriving at a reasonable and provable estimate of the number of fish in the sea in the first place, however, this was modified to something called “optimum sustainable yield” (OSY). The OSY was arbitrarily set at an allegedly “conservative” level. (The benchmark most commonly used was 10 per cent of the number of newborn fish expected in each species in a given season, designated “F0.1”). This was to be applied by the International Commission for the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries (ICNAF, today the “Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization,” or NAFO) in the form of setting quotas on various species – but solely against fleets from the Soviet bloc. This had everything to do with superpower Cold War competition and nothing whatsoever to do with conservation: it was never applied to Canadian or U.S. trawler fleets.

Meanwhile, conducting their own “oceanographic studies” off Canada’s coasts, research teams from the other superpower published monograph after monograph ritually saluting Baranov’s insight into the impact of industrial harvesting methods on fish stocks in order to justify rejecting the Americans’ “sustainable yield” approach for its “capitalist bias” – while their own fleets continued to plunder offshore without restraint, serving to demonstrate how far their own system had already left socialist principle behind.

Selling out the so-called exclusive economic zone

By 1975-6, before daring to erect the 200-mile limit, far away from the tremendous fanfare about the “gold rush” that Atlantic Canadian fishing communities were supposed to experience once it was in place, the Canadian government was parceling out control over 88.4 per cent of the fish stocks inside the so-called exclusive economic zone according to the relative strengths of the competing imperialist and other great powers of world fisheries. (At that time, the Soviet bloc grabbed the lion’s share, followed by former European colonial powers.)

How could sellout on this scale – selling off the people’s sovereignty and birthright in the form of their labour and uncaught fishery resources – take place legally and without overwhelming protest? The people are nowhere defined in Canadian law or constitutional practice as the sovereign power or source of sovereign authority. They were thus utterly disenfranchised and left without any independent voice.

“Conservation” became a handy cover for systematically criminalizing resistance of the fishery workers to the monopolies’ dictate.

After March 1977, when the 200-mile limit was in place, the government amended the Criminal Code to give fishery officers the same powers as RCMP or other police over the fishers. The fisheries department established an additional bloated apparatus to count the fish stocks, set quotas on Canadian fishers and enforce “conservation.” The entire subsequent apparatus of species licensing, enterprise allocations, and transferable quotas was developed first and foremost to bend the fishers and communities to the monopolies’ will, by threatening to isolate them in public opinion as “menaces to the environment” if they failed to shape up.

Ten years after the moratorium was imposed, tens of thousands have been forced out of the fishery but not one of these laws has been taken off the books.

Meanwhile, up until the moratorium, the amount by which the Canadian monopolies’ fleets annually overfished the department’s estimate of the “total allowable catch” was never less than 30 per cent. Instead of threatening the least corrective action against the corporate interests responsible, the House of Commons would instead entertain meaningless exchanges of accusations of “bad science” countered by complaints about “poor cooperation with the private sector.” Such has been the voodoo arithmetic of the fishery that continues down to this day. It was and remains a matter, not of “bad science” or “poor cooperation,” but of the government being free to operate beyond and outside any accountability to its own people. And regardless of when, or whether, the cod come back or the groundfish moratorium is lifted, this profound problem is high up on the agenda of the entire working class and people for solution.

Source: TML Daily, May 16, 2002 – No.  98 and published under the original title, Fisheries ‘conservation’ – a snare and delusion: the voodoo arithmetic underlying ‘fisheries conservation’ schemes

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