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When the Fishing Industry goes Belly Up

It’s a tough time to catch cod.

The term "wharf rat" once described the young Canadian children who earned pocket money hustling cod byproducts throughout the coastal towns of Newfoundland and Labrador. As they grew up, many left the wharves on inshore, dragging and trawling fleets in search of white gold.

“Wharf rat” is now an anachronism. Twenty-seven years ago, the once bountiful coastal waters became increasingly fruitless, prompting a Canadian moratorium on the industry. Up to that point, cod supported over five-hundred thousand inhabitants of the region – the catching, transportation, and processing of the fish directly or indirectly tied most families to the singular species. As cod fell to 1% of previous numbers, the indefinite suspension of the industry with the goal of rebuilding offshore populations presented the largest industrial closure in Canadian history.

What followed may best be described as a socio-economic dumpster fire. If you put yourself in the wet, salt-encrusted boots of a Canadian cod fisherman, you would see why. Under two percent of rural inhabitants of Newfoundland and Labrador (the backbone of the cod industry) pursued a university education. The sudden closure, though not entirely unexpected, directly sparked the largest mass layoff in Canadian history. Thirty-thousand fishermen found themselves unemployed overnight, many of which had sunk tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars in fishing vessels and gear now useless and unsellable. In response, the Northern Cod Adjustment and Rehabilitation Program (NCARP) was passed to alleviate a portion of the economic burden on the frozen industry. The program offered weekly payments ranging from $200 to $500 to former fishermen, as well as training meant to siphon workers into remaining industries. Two years later, NCARP was replaced by The Atlantic Groundfish Strategy (TAGS), which envisioned similar goals.

Each program failed to address the underlying issue. Ask any autoworker in Detroit; trying to overcome monumental industrial change cannot be accomplished with stagnant solutions. The Canadian relief programs had the effect of subsidizing the social reluctance to move on from the phantom fishing industry. Many found the re-education programs inadequate and of little practical use. Continuing with the Detroit correlation, the response to a tanking industry an inadequate safety net is a mass exodus. The years immediately following the moratorium saw a historic 10% drop in the province’s population, compared to a 10.6% increase in the Canadian population across all provinces.

The global community must take the Candian cod crisis as a warning of the effects of fish depletion on the labor landscape; currently, the largest threat to the global fishing industry is climate change. In brief, rising ocean temperatures negatively affect marine productivity by destroying marine ecosystems, particularly coastal reefs. The 2015 Paris climate agreement detailed specific effects on the global fishing catch, highlighting an expected decrease of up to 12.1% by 2050, based on different emissions models. More troubling is the amount of regional variability, localizing many effects to tropics and, in particular, the South Pacific. Fishing is the dominant industry for the smaller nations in the Oceania region, and drastic changes in catch could produce massive unemployment similar to that still being experienced by Canada. For countries with substantially smaller budgets available for aid programs, fishing industry unemployment could bring unprecedented devastation.

The key to finding solutions to similar industrial collapse may lie in a New England town that faced a similar issue in the late nineteenth century – Nantucket. The small town was once the whaling capital of the world, sending ships across oceans to foreign whaling grounds to craft oil. A combination of over-fishing and petroleum advances shrank the industry and Nantucket’s population, halving in a span of thirty years. On paper, Nantucket’s fate seemed sealed much like that of Newfoundland and Detroit. However, in the period between the island’s decline and the present day, Nantucket found a new identity through the tourism business. Whale-watching excursions now leave the same port that processed thousands of whale carcasses decades before.

The transition from fishing to eco-tourism has a range of benefits. For one, it builds an economic stake in protecting lucrative natural resources thus encouraging sustainability. If regions under threat of fishing collapse begin to embrace the tourism industry early, it raises the chances of having an alternative industry that is open to those who have lost their employment. Industrial switching-costs are far less than those faced by Canadian fishermen unsuccessfully trained for industries to which they could not commit.

Countries with a vested interest in their marine resources must embrace economic transitions or accept their spot next to the Nantucket whaler, Detroit autoworker, or wharf rat in the pages of industrial extinction.

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