A fisherman's tale

OUR PLANET 9.5 - Oceans

A fisherman's tale


thrown out of work when his fishery was closed, describes his fight to end overfishing worldwide

lighthouseThe second of July, 1992. A day I will never forget. The day the Canadian Government closed the 500-year-old Northern cod fishery.

I had been an inshore cod fisherman for 20 years, fishing from Petty Harbour, a tiny settlement on Newfoundland's east coast. Until the moratorium, my community had been one of the most prosperous of its kind in all of Newfoundland and Labrador, depending almost entirely on cod. I, like many in my community, fished in the traditional way - using baited handlines and nothing more than the strength of our arms and backs to make a reasonably good living.

The cod moratorium threw me, and 40,000 other people, out of work. Faced with a bleak and uncertain future, I had to choose whether to stay and hope for cod stocks to rebuild or leave to find work elsewhere. I chose to stay and to use my time to work to change the path we were following.

Since the moratorium I have taken advantage of every opportunity to tell the story of what happened here. My main goal has been to warn others of the dangers of overfishing and the inappropriate use of technology, and of the social consequences of ruined fisheries. This quest has taken me across my own country, and to Nicaragua, New Zealand, Eritrea and Alaska. For several years I was supported by the United Nations Eco-volunteer programme.


A worldwide problem

I have learned that overfishing is a worldwide problem. In New Zealand, orange roughy stocks have been seriously depleted by industrial dragger fleets. Nicaraguan lobster stocks are in great trouble because foreign boats can purchase licences and fish virtually unrestricted. Fishing people in Eritrea have seen declining catches in inshore waters, and say they need larger boats and more nets to fish farther offshore. I remember hearing Newfoundland fishermen say the same thing as they watched their catches decline throughout the 1980s.

In 1993, I attended the United Nations Conference on Straddling and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks in New York. There I was able to share my story directly with delegates from all over the world who had gathered to negotiate a binding treaty to end the overfishing of the high seas. My message was not welcomed by the Canadian Government delegation, because I asserted that it was not only foreign, but also domestic overfishing that had destroyed the stocks; our own fisheries management practices had contributed to the collapse of the cod.

My community, Petty Harbour, was settled in the early 1600s by English and Irish immigrants drawn by the plentiful supply of cod in the nearby shoals. We have a strong tradition of community-based fisheries management and have clung tenaciously to traditional fishing methods such as handlines and cod traps. The community has recently taken control of its own destiny by establishing the Petty Harbour Fishermen's Cooperative, through which we can control the purchasing and marketing of fish, limiting the power of local merchants who had dictated these matters for generations.

Unique protection

Petty Harbour is unique for its Protected Fishing Area, established in 1961, which bans bottom gillnets and longlines. This enables more people in the community to fish and prevents the fishing grounds from being decimated by 'ghost nets' - gillnets that are lost and continue to fish indiscriminately and indefinitely.

Growing up with the Protected Fishing Area, and seeing first-hand the benefits it provided to my community, has led me to believe that establishing marine protected areas is essential for future sustainability. Fish need sanctuaries to reproduce and grow without human interference, and without them stocks will continue to decline worldwide. As one fisherman in my community said: 'If you killed all the mothers, there wouldn't be many babies, would there?' If we continue to drag the spawning grounds, there will soon be no young fish to replenish the population.

Northern cod stocks have begun to recover - although much more slowly than the Government of Canada predicted. But I continue to have grave concerns for the future of the fishery and coastal communities.

Government and industry do not always like me raising troubling questions or suggesting solutions they see as 'radical', such as banning dragger technology. I got into real trouble with the law in 1993, when I together with several hundred other environmentalists tried to make the connections between ruined Atlantic fisheries and the destruction of ancient Pacific rainforests in the west of Canada. I and some others were arrested for peacefully protesting against destructive logging practices, and served time in gaol. Although I was treated like a criminal, to me the real criminals are those who are destroying the Earth.

Facing reality

As a global society, we have not addressed the issues that are essential to ensuring the future sustainability of fisheries and coastal communities. We know more about the surface of the moon than the ocean bed. Factory freezer trawlers and draggers still fish the world's oceans - and we still have not admitted to (or even assessed) the ecological and social damage they cause. We have still not protected fish spawning areas. We still manage fish on a species-by-species basis, rather than use an holistic, integrated ecosystem approach. We still blame the seals for the collapse of the cod. We are allowing the privatization of fishery resources for the benefit of a very few. The multinationals are getting richer, and coastal communities are dying.

This is the International Year of the Ocean. If it is to have real meaning, if it is to accomplish anything, individuals and nations must redouble their efforts to conserve and protect what remains of the world's marine ecosystems. My community has survived for 400 years. I, for one, want to see it last 400 more

Bernard Martin is a fisherman and conservationist living in Petty Harbour, Newfoundland, Canada.

Complementary articles in other issues:
Tamari╣i Tutangata: Vanishing islands (Small Islands) 1999
Andrew L. Hamilton: A vulnerable global heritage (Freshwater) 1998
Ed Ongley: Quality control (Freshwater) 1998
Margaret G. Kerr: Profits with honour (The Way Ahead) 1997
David Nostbakken: The future is not what it used to be (The Way Ahead) 1997
Frank Wania and Don Mackay: Global distillation (Chemicals) 1997
Emma Bonino: Fishing forever (Food) 1996
Tony Loftas: Not enough fish in the sea (Production and Consumption) 1996

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