PETTY HARBOUR, Newfoundland - For more than 500 years, the black waters off this craggy coast of rust-colored hills and ice-bound coves teemed with a seemingly endless supply of cod, so much that it sparked wars, drew immigrants from far away, and gave rise to a thriving fishing industry and a way of life passed across generations.
But after years of overfishing, changing sea temperatures, and mismanagement, the olive-backed, spotted fish known as the northern cod virtually vanished. In the summer of 1992, as boat after boat returned to this windswept land with empty nets, Canadian officials did something once unthinkable: They banned fishing cod.
“It was devastating, like somebody just cut the legs right out from underneath me,’’ said Bernard Chafe, 57, who began fishing with his father on a skiff here when he was 8 years old. “It was the only thing I knew how to do.’’
The ban has yet to be lifted, and 20 years later the cod have failed to rebound, despite predictions that the moratorium would revive the stock after a few years. Without the fish, a way of life here is ending - abandoned boats rot along the quay, fishermen have given up their licenses, and many of their children have chosen other vocations or moved, leaving local officials searching for ways to revive the aging community.
For cod fishermen in New England, who have resisted government-ordered cuts to their catch, it is a sobering spectacle, a lesson hard to understand, much less accept.
As the number of cod counted in the waters between Provincetown, Mass., and Port Clyde, Maine, has plummeted, scientists and policy makers fear that what happened in the frigid waters 1,500 miles northeast of Massachusetts may be occurring in the Gulf of Maine, potentially dealing a dire blow to a multimillion-dollar industry that helped fuel the birth of the United States and continues to support hundreds of fishermen.
Last fall, scientists who study New England’s most storied fish - a wooden “Sacred Cod’’ has hung in the State House for more than 200 years - found major errors in a federal analysis that three years before had shown the local cod stock was healthy and regenerating, after an earlier round of catch limits.
The most recent assessment estimates there were only 26 million pounds of adult cod in the Gulf of Maine in 2010, about 19 percent of what scientists say is necessary for a healthy population.
The parallels with the sudden disappearance of cod in Newfoundland were so frightening to J.J. Maguire, a fisheries biologist in Quebec City who advises the New England Fishery Management Council, that he urged his colleagues in a January e-mail to consider this an emergency alarm.
A few weeks later, the council, which oversees fishing issues in the region, voted to recommend that the US Commerce Department reduce the local cod catch for the coming fishing season by 4 million pounds, or 22 percent. Fishermen say such a cut could put many of them out of business, while environmentalists warn that it may be insufficient and risk triggering a collapse in the fishery, similar to what happened in Newfoundland.
A bipartisan New England congressional coalition recently sent a letter to Commerce Secretary John Bryson, warning against precipitous cuts that “would devastate the commercial fleet.’’
Bryson will decide what to do in coming weeks.
“With the northern cod, everything seemed OK. But we found through later assessments that we were considerably off track,’’ Maguire said in a telephone interview. “Things didn’t turn out the way we projected. My concern is that New England doesn’t repeat the same mistakes.’’
A lesson for New England
In Petty Harbour, among the oldest fishing communities in North America, the failure of the fishery offers lessons about the limits of science and vagaries of nature, the pressures of politics, and ways to mitigate the inevitable pain that comes from an abrupt end to a centuries-old culture. But a people who had relied mainly on one fish found that the sea continued to provide, bringing a measure of prosperity back to some fishing families.
For Chafe, who speaks in an Irish brogue brought to this former British colony by his ancestors, it took years to adapt. After the moratorium took effect, he considered moving, because it depressed him to look at the sea from his kitchen. “How would you like to be looking at your office but not be able to go to work?’’ he said. “I kept saying, ‘What am I going to do? How am I going to feed my family?’’
Chafe, his wife, and three young children survived on government subsidies for several years, rarely going out or buying anything but food. Their community of nearly 1,000 people - where fishermen’s wives worked at local cod-processing plants and children waited at the docks to help prepare the fish for sale - had become quiet. Alcoholism and depression spiked, and the government trained fishermen for new jobs, such as repairing furniture.
Neither Chafe’s children nor his neighbors’ children would become fishermen.
Scientists, policy makers, and fishermen say the commercial extinction of cod here began after World War II, when factory-sized trawlers, first from Europe and then from Canada, began vacuuming up the seas. As the massive ships took in well over a billion pounds of cod a year, rising global temperatures began melting Arctic ice, cooling the surrounding waters and severely stressing the thinning stocks, fisheries scientists in Newfoundland said. Other sources of food for cod, particularly a type of smelt called capelin, also began to decline sharply.
“It’s absolutely clear that [the demise of the cod] was a combination of environmental effects and overfishing,’’ said George Rose, director of the Centre for Fisheries Ecosystems Research at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland.
While small-boat fishermen such as Chafe had complained about the declining catch and smaller size of fish for several years before the moratorium, Rose and others who monitored the cod population said the scientific assessments were probably as good as they could have been, even if they overestimated the health of the stock. Scientists had urged the government to cut the annual quotas in the late 1980s by half, but with pressure from the trawlers and cod-processing plants, the government ignored the advice.
“In retrospect, and what I would tell those in New England, is that the best approach is to err on keeping the catch down,’’ said Eric Dunne, who served as regional director of the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans until 1995. “It’s easy to say and hard to do, but if you push the limit of what’s being advised, you’ll be in trouble.’’
The trouble in Newfoundland meant a loss of jobs for about 35,000 fishermen and plant workers from some 400 coastal communities. It also required government subsidies that were initially designed to last for two years, but were extended when the cod failed to make a comeback, eventually costing taxpayers about $4 billion.
Twenty years later, the government allows local fishermen a small catch. In a year, they are allowed to take what they used to haul up in a good day.
A town ‘died overnight’
In Petty Harbour, Mayor Ron Doyle recalled how the town changed abruptly after the moratorium. The gulls no longer flocked to the harbor. The cod-processing plants were shuttered, eliminating about 200 jobs, and the constant flow of trucks that used to roll in and out of town fell to a trickle.
Many of the younger residents left for jobs elsewhere, and the town had to cut services and search for new sources of revenue, such as tourism.
“It was like the place died overnight,’’ said Doyle, who had to close his convenience store because of a lack of customers. “They said the cod would come back after five years, but it’s been 20 years. I don’t think it ever will come back.’’
But within a few years, the town’s loss made way for a new boon.
The absence of cod, a predator, and the infusion of colder waters gave rise to snow crabs, shrimp, and other shellfish over the past decade, giving a new source of income to the 120 fishermen still working the waters off Petty Harbour.
The shellfish require significantly less time and effort to catch than the cod, and they’re more valuable. Shellfish brought in $400 million for Newfoundland fishermen in 2010, considerably more than the $119 million earned from cod in 1990, right before the crash.
“A lot of people got sick, lazy, and tired from doing nothing,’’ said Sam Lee, 62, who began fishing with his father when he was 10 years old. “The crab was a godsend. You make now in a week with crab what you made in six months in cod.’’
In an odd twist, some here now worry about the return of cod and the potential impact on the shellfish, which have recently shown signs of a decline.
With the number of northern cod slowly rising - the population, controlled by predators such as seals, food supply, and other factors, remains about 5 percent of its historical size - local officials and businesses have sought to avoid repeating past mistakes by reducing the catch of shellfish now.
“It’s a cute saying that if we’re not going to learn from our history, we’re condemned to repeat it; but it will be sad if it happens,’’ said Derek Butler, executive director of the Association of Seafood Producers, which represents processing plants in Newfoundland. “We’d better learn the real lesson: Take care of the fish, and the fish will take care of us. We have to police our appetites to sustain the fishery.’’
For those who grew up fishing cod, and see it not just as a means of income but as a way of life, the losses here are still being tallied.
Doug Howlett, who grew up pulling in cod one by one on a skiff with his father, laments the loss of the legacy. His children have already moved on, with one becoming a teacher, another going into retail, and another becoming a marine engineer.
And because the crab fishing season is so short now - it lasts only a few weeks in the late spring - the 49-year-old now drives a taxi to make ends meet.
“When we’re no longer here, and our kids aren’t in it, a part of our history will be gone,’’ he said.