The Collapse of the Grand Banks Cod Fishery

The Early Years of the Grand Banks

Giovanni Caboto
Giovanni Caboto

When Italian explorer Giovanni Caboto (know in the English speaking world as John Cabot) travelled to Newfoundland in 1497 he remarked that the seas were so full of fish that it was possible to catch them by lowering a weighted basket into the water and retrieving it quickly, while English fishermen in the 1600s described the shoals of Grand Banks cod as being “so thick by the shore that we hardly have been able to row a boat through them (1).” For hundreds of years following this the Grand Banks of Newfoundland produced a seemingly limitless supply of cod. Ships sailed from Spain, Portugal and Scandinavia to catch Grand Banks fish, salting and drying them for preservation on the long journey home (2). Many fishing communities grew up around Newfoundland and the wider Eastern Seaboard area, attracted by the profitable fishing from these unique waters. Canadian fishermen themselves usually worked in small-scale family businesses. Working fairly close to the shore they used gill and drift nets, long lines and small trawlers to catch the now-famous Grand Banks cod. With around 200,000 tons of cod being taken from the area every year fishing was sustainable as the breeding stock of cod was able to reproduce to its full extent every year.

The Grand Banks were so full of cod because of their location. The warm Gulf Stream mixed with the cool Labrador Current creating unique currents and tidal patterns. These conditions combined with the relatively shallow waters of the Grand Banks (the depth rarely exceeding one hundred metres) to lift sediment, and therefore shellfish, marine worms and other sources of food, into the sea creating the perfect feeding grounds for multiple species of fish. Swordfish, capelin, haddock, American plaice, lobster, crab and all manner of shellfish were attracted to the Grand Banks, but it was cod that came in the greatest numbers of all. Things began to change in the early 1900s when the catching power of vessels began to increase. Larger trawlers and long lines meant that cod could be taken from Grand Banks waters in greater numbers, and the increased profit this created for fishermen attracted more and more vessels to the Grand Banks fisheries. Realising that fishing could reach unsustainable levels the North American Council on Fishery Investigations was set up to monitor and regulate fishing in the Grand Banks (3). Canada, the USA and several European countries all took part, but it was disbanded in 1939 following the outbreak of the Second World War. Following the war the concern over the long term sustainability of Newfoundland cod stocks remained, although any talks that were convened to discuss this ended with no agreement being reached (3) .

Gulf Stream and Labrador Current
The Grand Banks location – between the Gulf Stream and the Labrador Current – led to conditions where cod could thrive in massive numbers.

Intensive, Industrial Fishing

In the 1950s the Grand Banks fisheries were subjected to their most intensive fishing ever. Factory trawlers had emerged and sailed to the Grand Banks to make their money from the cod that were found there. Under international law at the time Canada could only control the fishing in waters up to twelve miles off its coast. Once outside this limit vessels were in international waters and could catch whatever they wanted. Huge freezer factory trawlers came from Britain, Germany, Spain, France Portugal, the USSR and even as far as China and Japan. Cod were the main target but haddock, hake, capelin, redfish, American flounder and all kinds of shellfish were all taken as well. Recent advances in technology meant that these vessels could fish in Grand Banks waters for weeks, freezing the thousands of tons of fish they caught before heading for home, landing their catch and then returning to the Grand Banks to do it all over again. This continued for years with the peak of the Grand Banks cod catch happening in 1968 when this year alone saw over 800,000 tons of fish taken (4). Newfoundland resident Wilson Hayward spoke to the BBC in 2002 about commercial fishing in the Grand Banks during this time. The 76-year-old described the rush of foreign trawlers that came to the area: “I remember going out on to the cape in the night, and all you could see were dragger [trawler] lights as far as the eye could see, just like a city in the sea. We all knew it was wrong. They were taking the mother fish which had been out there spawning over the years” (7).

By 1974 the same fishing intensity could only yield 300,000 tons of fish. The Grand Banks fishery had been slashed to about a quarter if its original size. In the two centuries of the 1600s and 1700s an estimated eight million tons of cod were taken from the grand banks. In the fifteen years between 1960 and 1975 factory trawlers took the same amount. In 1976 Canada passed legislation to extend its EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone – the area in which it controls who fishes) from twelve to 200 miles. This was passed successfully, but instead of protecting stocks within the new EEZ and allowing them to recover Canadian fishermen wanted their share of the cod and the big money that the foreign factory trawlers had been helping themselves to. Canadian fishermen had their own factory trawlers and began trawling for cod, taking 140,000 tons in 1978. Encouraged by the profits quotas were continually raised until 250,000 tons were being taken in every year by the mid-1980s. Why should they limit catches to protect stocks when foreigners had made a fortune by plundering stocks with no thoughts for sustainability? Professor George Rose of Newfoundland Memorial University spoke to the BBC in 2002 about the race for Canadians to profit from the extension of the EEZ to 200 miles: “There was a euphoria – the provincial government thought we’d hit the jackpot. So things just took off – boats were built, plants were commissioned … [when] the biological reality of what we were doing to our fish stocks hit home, it was just too late (5).

By the early 1980s the small-scale inshore fishermen of Newfoundland were warning that cod catches were down and the average size of the fish they were catching was reducing. However, all scientific advice maintained that stocks were healthy and the 250,000 ton annual catch was sustainable. It was not until the late 1980s that the scientists and government accepted that the cod stocks were actually in deep trouble. Drastic action was needed, but fearful of upsetting the fishing industry and causing job losses only small reductions in quota were put forward. Following re-analysis of existing data and new scientific surveys it was found in 1990 that the famous Grand Banks cod stocks were in terminal decline. In 1994 a major scientific study made estimates that Grand Banks cod levels were 1% of what they were in the 1960s, meaning that less than 2,000 tons of breeding stock cod remained (6).
Grand Banks Cod Landings in Tons

The Impact of the Decline

Finally the Canadian government acted. There was a total ban on commercial fishing for cod in the Grand Banks and many other areas of eastern Canada had fishing either banned or severely limited (7). The effects on the local economy were devastating. An estimated 30,000 fishermen lost their jobs in and around the Newfoundland area, while a further 15,000 people working in related industries such as shipbuilding and fish processing and selling also found themselves out of work. Fish processing plants shut down, trawlers were dismantled or sold to other countries for knock-down prices, and as people left the communities to find work elsewhere, and other business such as cafes and shops found that they were no longer making enough money to stay open. Around 46,000 people were thought to have left the province to seek work elsewhere following the collapse of the Grand Banks cod stocks . While many fish processing plants closed others managed to stay open in a much reduced form. Plants owned by the largest companies were able to scale down their workforce and operations and survive by processing frozen cod which was imported from Russia and Norway – a sad fate for factories which once employed large numbers of local people and processed huge amounts of fresh cod from local waters (8). The collapse also had effects that stretched way beyond the fishing industries of Newfoundland. It was estimated that in the early 1990s the Canadian government paid $1 billion in unemployment benefit, housing costs and retraining for people hit by the collapse of the fishing industry, and at least another $1 billion was spent in the following years on similar measures.

While cod were not biologically extinct in Canadian waters they were commercially extinct, meaning that there were so few cod left it was not financially viable to fish for this species on a commercial basis. As Mark Kurlansky states in Cod: The Biography of a Fish that Changed the World:

“Just three years short of the 500-year anniversary of the reports of Cabot’s men scooping up cod in baskets, it was over. Fishermen had caught them all.” (Page 186) (9)

The Canadian government was heavily blamed for not protecting the cod stocks when they were plentiful, and fostering a ‘gold-rush’ mentality where short-term profit was given priority over long-term sustainability. The government was only too happy to issue licences to new fishing vessels and provide subsidies to shipyards to build new trawlers to increase employment levels with no thought to the future. The scientific community were also heavily criticised for providing over-optimistic advice on cod stocks and allowing themselves to be influenced by pressure from the commercial fishing industry. However, to the dismay of the Canadian government, scientists and Newfoundland communities the commercial fishing ban in the Grand Banks had little effect. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s the cod simply did not return to the area. There are several theories put forward about why the cod were not coming back.

Capelin (Mallotus vilosus) were once a source of food for Grand Banks cod – now they are suspected of eating the immature cod, further hitting chances of a recovery.

The intensive bottom trawling that had taken place in the Grand Banks was seen as a major factor. It was thought that the constant trawls had torn up the seabed to such an extent that marine life could no longer be supported in the area. The shellfish and seaweed beds which had supported crustaceans, molluscs and small fish had been destroyed and without them there was nothing for the cod to feed on. Furthermore trawlers were thought to have seriously disrupted the breeding patterns of the cod as the trawler’s nets are thought to have damaged and dispersed the fertilised eggs of cod, further reducing birth rates. Another theory was that the capelin  (a small forage fish that grows to around 25cm) which had once provided a food source for cod was now eating up the cod larvae before they could grow and repopulate the Grand Banks. A further theory is that an abundant cod fishery relies on the large female cod – so called motherfish which are generally at least ten to fifteen years old – which produce huge amounts of eggs. With these fish absent an meaningful recovery would never materialise (10). This idea is backed up by a phenomenon called the Allee Effect – a scientifically proven theory that creatures which are used to living and feeding in great numbers do not reproduce in the same way once their numbers have been reduced, even if the individuals within the group are perfectly healthy. Some fishermen blamed seals for eating all the cod and stopping numbers from recovering. Although it is true that hood and harp seals of the Grand Banks do feed on fish conservationists claim that only a tiny proportion of this is cod, and the problems of seals depleting fish stocks are often greatly overstated. Seal culls that have taken place in Newfoundland to preserved cod have been extremely controversial and with environmental groups such as Greenpeace heavily opposing them (10). Another side-effect of the cod’s disappearance was that shrimp and crab populations exploded as these animals now had few natural predators. This meant that some fishermen were able to continue fishing, catching the plentiful crustaceans – a perfect example of fishing down the food chain. However, there was a large cod bycatch with this type of fishing, further reducing the chances of a revival of cod in the Grand Banks, and crab and shrimp fisheries could only support a fraction of the workers that the cod fishery could.

The loss of the Grand Banks cod shows the devastating results of intensive bottom trawling. Belief that stopping fishing would mean that the cod would repopulate the area given time were wrong – constant trawling had fundamentally altered the entire eco-system in a way that humans could not predict and could not repair. Some local fishermen have even claimed that the few cod which survive in the Grand Banks have changed physically to cope with their new and reduced place in the food chain. Cod have been found with flat bellies, arched backs and in some cases an elongated body and different down-turned head as if they have adapted to scavenging hard on the seabed for any food they could find, rather than preying on other fish just above the seabed in the demersal area of the sea (11). This has been dismissed by scientists claiming that it is impossible that cod could have physically adapted to their new position in the food chain in less than a few decades, but the reduced physical condition and poor nutrition of parent fish could explain the deformities in young cod.

Slinky Cod
A modern Grand Banks cod, referred to as a ‘slinky cod’ by locals, this example lacks the fat belly that characterises this species. Other cod show even more pronounced differences such as down-turned mouths and flattened skulls.

It is also deeply worrying how little impact the collapse of the Grand Banks cod fisheries have had on fishing policy throughout Europe. Overfishing is still prevalent in British and European waters despite the lessons that have been learned in the Grand Banks. If the European Union’s Common Fisheries Policy cannot learn from the Grand Banks what will it take for Europe to limit commercial fishing to sustainable levels?

 The Grand Banks Today – A Partial Recovery?

Bonavista Harbour
Bonavista Harbour, Newfoundland. This area was devastated by the collapse of the Grand Banks. Remnants of the fishing industry remain, as crab and shrimp numbers have incrased with the absence of the cod, which were their major predator. However, these types of fishing employ only a fraction of the people that the cod fishery did.

Since the crash in Newfoundland cod many Canadians have waited for “the cod to come back.” The original plan was for the moratorium to last from the early 1990s to the year 2000. However, by the turn of the century it was clear that the cod has still not returned in any numbers and any chance of commercial cod fishing becoming viable again was still a long way off. Dr. George Rose, a fisheries scientist at St. John’s Memorial University of Newfoundland had been a long-time advocate of a ban on commercial fishing in the Grand Banks. When the initial moratorium was enforced in the 1990s he warned that the pressure placed on politicians to re-open the fishery would mean that a return to anything approaching pre-crash levels was near impossible:

“I am not optimistic that we will ever let it come back to what it was. If we get [higher cod stocks] there will be unbelievable pressure to fish it . . . We found 15,000 cod in the South Bay, and everyone said the cod are back. Hold on! Ten years ago, the biomass of the population, was 1.2 million” (12).

However, in the mid-2000s it was noted that cod did appear to be returning to the Grand Banks in small numbers (13). The reasons for this fragile recovery are still unknown. Perhaps the damage done by trawlers is not permanent and the marine fauna and ecosystems can rebuild themselves if given a prolonged period of time without any commercial activity happening, or maybe some cod are growing large enough to become motherfish. Either way the early stage recovery of the Grand Banks is encouraging news but caution is needed – over nearly twenty years of severe limitations on commercial cod fishing in the Grand Banks cod stocks are still only at approximately 10% of 1960s levels. It is hoped that in another ten to twenty years stocks may be close to a full recovery, although this would require the political pressure to maintain strict limitations on commercial fishing even when cod are back in higher numbers. If cod do come back to the Grand Banks in meaningful numbers we can hope that the Canadian fishing industry and politicians will not make the same mistakes again.


  1. Geoffrey Lean on the Future of Fish – The Telegraph, 25/5/2011.
  2. Pringle, H. (1997) Cabot, Cod and the Colonialists, Canadian Geographic.
  3. Early History of Northwest Atlantic Fisheries – Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization.
  4. B. McCay and A. C. Finlayson – The Political Ecology of Crisis and Institutional Change: The Case of the Northern Cod,
  5. Cod’s Warning from Newfoundland – BBC News.
  6. Decline of Atlantic Cod – NCSR.
  7. Cod Moratorium – Heritage: Newfoundland and Labrador
  8. Essex, S. (2005) Rural Change and Sustainability: Agriculture, the Environment and Communities, CABI Publishing.
  9. Kurlansky, M. (1997) Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, Vintage Publishing.
  10. No Cod? Blame the Seal! – Greenpeace.
  11. Downturn of the Atlantic Cod in Eastern Canada: What is Happening to these Fish and Why? – Fishery Crisis.
  12. Rose (1997) quoted in Asbury, S and Ball, R (2016) The Practical Guide to Corporate Social Responsibility: Do the Right Thing, Routledge.
  13. Cod Resurgence in Canadian Waters – Science Daily.