TW Viewpoint | Have We Destroyed the Bounty of the Sea?

June 27, 2018 | Stuart Wachowicz

Canada is the world's second largest country by land mass and filled with an abundance of natural resources but how richly abundant are the surrounding oceans? Have we destroyed the bounty of the sea?


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In May of 1497, Master John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto) sailed from Bristol, England on what would become Britain's first naval exploration of North America. On June 24, Cabot disembarked, likely in Newfoundland. Upon returning to Bristol on August 6, he brought not gold or silver, but news of a territory claimed for England, and of a treasure that would prove to be more valuable than precious metal. He had discovered in the seas off Newfoundland the richest fishing grounds on the planet.

An acquaintance of Cabot, wrote to the Duke of Milan in December 1497 describing these huge fish populations. Canadian historian James Careless relates this scene: "It was a sea so thickly swarming with fish that it seemed almost solid, and baskets let down on ropes from the deck of the ship could be taken up crammed full"(Canada: A Story of Challenge, p. 25).

For five centuries, the waters off Newfoundland and Nova Scotia filled the holds of thousands of vessels every year. There seemed no end to the bounty. Yet suddenly, in 1992, the Canadian government announced a moratorium on the fishing of northern cod. The most plentiful fishing ground on the planet had seemingly collapsed. Communities were devastated, and thousands were suddenly without a livelihood. Everyone sought an explanation for the disappearance of the cod. The Department of Fisheries blamed everything from water temperature to growing seal populations. Experienced fishermen knew otherwise...

In the 1950s Large vessels began to drag enormous bag-shaped nets over the ocean bottom. These nets are up to 2.5 km long and 60 meters (200 feet) wide at the mouth, which is held open by two trawl doors of up to two tons apiece. The net is preceded by a row of steel balls (bobbins) called "rock hoppers," which serves to lift the mouth of the net over obstacles on the ocean floor ("Coral Champions," Canadian Geographic, May 2002). "High Sea Bottom Trawling" had begun.

Fishermen suspected that these trawl nets, which were operating at depths up to 6000 feet, were destroying the ocean floor ecology, and impacting the ability of fish species to survive and repopulate. In 1983, a Nova Scotia fisherman named Sanford Atwood campaigned against the deep-sea trawlers, especially in sensitive areas. Atwood was a longlinerman-one who fishes with a long line strung with hundreds of baited hooks. He and others had argued that the trawlers, each capable of taking 600 tons of catch, saw a high percentage of their catch deemed undesirable and tossed back into the sea dead or dying. But this was by no means the biggest problem.

Atwood and fellow fisherman Derek Jones, had for years tried to draw a linkage between the collapse of the fishery and the destruction of deep-sea coral beds. To most people, coral lives in warm and relatively shallow water; thus many discounted the existence of the deep-sea species. In 2001, after convincing some academics of the existence of these deep corals, Atwood guided a Canadian research vessel, the Martha L. Black, to a spot in the ocean off Nova Scotia that fishermen knew as "Hell's Hole." There a robotic submarine sent back from a depth of 1600 feet images of colourful and flourishing corals ("Coral Champions," p. 52).

It was in these deep coral fields that fishermen had long known their best catches would come. "... when you're over strawberries, a soft red coral known to scientists as Gersemia rubiformis, you set your gear for haddock, while the bubblegum tree (Paragorgia aborea), which grows to a height of at least three metres, is good for cod and halibut. Moreover, Atwood knew that when a bottom trawler, or dragger, had swept an ocean sector, the forests were gone and so were the fish" (ibid., p. 54).

In a report from the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition entitled "Why the world needs a time-out on high-seas bottom trawling," scientists from Cambridge University, and Oceanography institutes, explained that deep sea fish will congregate in massive numbers in food-rich waters to spawn. The trawlers target these spawning congregations. They write: "As with most fisheries where spawning aggregations are targeted, these declines [in population] were not recognized until it was too late to mitigate them" (June 2005, p. 8). In addition, numerous studies have shown the dragnets are destructive of spawning beds, drastically reducing the production of the next generation of fish.

For centuries sustainable fishing methods permitted a thriving ocean ecology. What, then, permitted the present situation?

"Human greed." Perhaps nothing more accurately describes the plight of Canada's east coast fishery.

An ancient prophet named Hosea long ago predicted that the descendants of ancient Israel would eventually act in a way that would squander their wealth, including the bounty of the sea.

"Therefore the land will mourn; and everyone who dwells there will waste away with the beasts of the field and the birds of the air; even the fish of the sea will be taken away'" (Hosea 4:3).

It remains to be seen whether governments, companies and others in authority will act on the overwhelming evidence and have the courage to opt for long-term sustainability as opposed to short-term profit. Will Hosea's warning be heeded?

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