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The cod are coming back to Newfoundland — and they’re eating the shrimp that had taken over

Theodore Genge has a big beautiful new dragger that’ll be ready to head for “the Labrador” as soon as the sea ice loosens its grip on Anchor Point.

When the 63-year-old Newfoundland fisherman began building the $2.2 million trawler two years ago he had 750,000 pounds worth of shrimp quota to catch.

But plummeting shrimp numbers in the cold water off Labrador have led Fisheries and Oceans Canada to drastically carve into quotas for that coast. Genge expects that by April he’ll be left with a total of 300,000 lbs of quotas — 220,000 lbs in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where there is still plenty of shrimp, and 80,000 lbs on the Labrador coast.

“Right now, yes, it’s pretty stressful – I don’t know whether there’s any hope or no,” said Genge.

“But it’s like this. I started at this fishing when I was 14 years old. There was never a year that looked good before you started. I’ve survived. With fishing you’ve either got to go in or get out.”

There’s a huge biological change happening on the banks that extend off Newfoundland and Labrador’s northeastern coast.

The northern cod are coming back.

And they’re eating the shrimp that had taken over their home range off the Labrador coast and northern Grand Banks.

Canada’s cold water shrimp had an export value of $345 million in 2013, making it Canada’s fourth-largest seafood export, behind lobster, Atlantic salmon and snow crab.

This week a House of Commons committee urged the Fisheries Department to begin annual studies of the northern cod population off Newfoundland and Labrador to monitor its recovery. A report by the committee found the cod stocks were showing signs of rebounding after being decimated in the early 1990s.

The return of the once mighty northern cod stock may be a boon for the natural world and, eventually, for the humans who haul them from the sea, process them and eat them.

After all, their disappearance 25 years ago almost killed the east coast fishing industry and seriously maimed the Atlantic provinces.

Now their return brings economic and social upheaval.

***

Theodore Genge was eight years old when his father, Rufus, rounded Cape Norman in his small wooden boat, aimed for The Black Joke.

It was 1968; Rufus was 25 years old and he was armed with a weighted hook, a couple hundred fathoms of line and gas and food to last him a few weeks.

The darkly named harbour on the uninhabited Belle Isle is in the strait separating Newfoundland from Labrador. With towering 100-metre-high cliffs, the island may have looked pretty to the French who named it, but not to Rufus.

“Nine miles long by four miles wide and he’s all bare rock and ponds,” said Rufus, now 80.

He was heading to meet one of the world’s great migrations.

A few million tonnes of cod, famished from their spring spawning on the offshore banks, were chasing billions of capelin into shore.

“When they get in amongst the capelin, they just gorge themselves,” said George Rose, a former Fisheries and Oceans Canada scientist who literally wrote the book on how man destroyed one of the earth’s greatest wild protein sources. “Cod: The Ecological History of the North Atlantic Fisheries” reads like a Shakespearian tragedy, with man’s pride in his own power and knowledge leading him to destroy one of nature’s greatest gifts.

“Oh yes, they’re coming back on the northeast coast,” said Rose, who retired this year as director of fisheries ecosystem research at Memorial University’s Marine Institute.

“Farther south, they’re still in rough shape, but the northern cod was the big one.”

The southern Grand Banks, the Gulf of Maine, Scotian Shelf and Gulf of St. Lawrence are all home to their own cod stocks that have not shown significant signs of recovery since the overfishing of the late 20th century for reasons that are not fully understood.

But the biggest of all the stocks by a wide margin was the northern cod.

For the last decade the northern cod stock has been increasing at a rate of about 30 per cent per year. Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s 2016 stock assessment estimated its total biomass at around 300,000 tonnes.

That’s well short of the million tonnes Fisheries and Oceans has pegged as the size of a healthy resource. But it’s ten times as many fish as were there were on July 2, 1992, when former fisheries minister John Crosbie announced the cod moratorium that resulted in the biggest layoff in Canadian history – an estimated 45,000 jobs.

“If northern cod kept growing at the rate that it has been, we could see a healthy fishery in a few years,” said Rose.

“But there’s no guarantees that it will.”

Nobody knows how big the northern cod stock once was.

But fishing records tell us that back in 1968, when Rufus Genge made his first trip to Belle Isle, 800,000 tonnes of northern cod were caught. Another 400,000 tonnes were taken from the stocks on the southern Grand Banks. Eighty per cent of that catch was by foreign draggers from Spain, Portugal, the Soviet Union, Japan and France.

***

The cod stocks are the gift of plate tectonics.

When North America tore itself from Europe and Africa 200 million years ago, and started floating east, it took some of the Old World with it like a memento for its long voyage.

That keepsake is a shallow underwater plateau that stretches for up to 500 kilometres off of Newfoundland and Labrador’s east coast.

“It’s monstrous and there’s no other place like it on the planet,” said Rose of the Grand Banks.

Frigid arctic water is pumped south by the Labrador Current toward the Gulf Stream, which pulls up warm waters from the south. The churning of these two currents sends nutrients from the Atlantic’s dark floor up the precipitous underwater shoulders of the Grand Banks into the light column.

In a kind of underwater alchemy at 150 metres below sea level, trillions of microscopic plants called plankton harness the sun’s energy to convert the nutrients into biological matter. Tiny little animals called zooplankton feed upon the plants and bring life closer to a size that we can actually see.

There are two predominant directions that zooplankton can take to make their way up the food chain on the Grand Banks: through crustaceans like northern shrimp or through the small baitfish capelin.

“You can’t have both,” said Boris Worm, a marine biologist at Halifax’s Dalhousie University, who has studied the inverse relationship of cod and shrimp.

That is to say you can’t have both a capelin-cod dominated food web and a crustacean-dominated food web on the shelf that extends off Newfoundland and Labrador.

Cod do eat shrimp. But after going a month without food during the spring spawning season what they really need is the capelin that refills their livers with the fatty lipids to survive the winter to come.

We appear to be headed back to the traditional order of a capelin-cod dominated food chain.

Indeed, the MP’s fisheries committee is also urging closer monitoring of capelin stocks, as well as limits on seal populations, which prey on both cod and capelin.

***

Even that first summer at Belle Isle, Rufus Genge knew the world around him was changing.

For generations, the Genges had fished from Newfoundland’s Northern Peninsula with weighted hooks and cod traps — big net boxes placed near shore that the cod swim into. Life was getting expensive and so to support his wife and four children he’d need to catch more fish.

That meant going to where the fish were. He had Ralph O’Keefe in Port Saunders build him a 52-foot longliner that he took far up the Labrador Coast chasing the northern cod.

Yet the game was already up for the northern cod and the lifestyle they supported.

The immense landings of the late 1960s by the foreign draggers had dug deep into the northern cod’s biomass.

Fishery conservation theory can be compared with banking. The surplus productivity of a fish stock is like the interest generated by an investment.

You want to catch the interest.

While catches oscillated between 130,000 and 240,000 tonnes through the 1970s and 1980s, the original capital within the stock was already seriously depleted.

Then interest rates changed and fishing rates didn’t. The water got colder and the entire ecosystem became less productive.

By the 1980s a lot of people thought they knew what was going on below the water on the Grand Banks.

Just 12 years before the stock’s complete collapse, the federal government released a report in 1980 titled, “Northern Cod: A Fisheries Success Story.” It touted Canada’s modern fisheries management.

There had been some rebuilding of stock during the late 1970s after Canada extended its maritime claims from 12 nautical miles to 200 miles offshore, leaving just the nose and tail of the Grand Banks available to foreign draggers.

But the truth was that the cod stock wasn’t rebuilding. Humanity was getting better at catching them.

As the water cooled during the late 1980s, capelin stocks plummeted for reasons that still aren’t understood. They were not heavily fished.

Cod, losing its traditional food source, began gathering in tighter schools of fish and migrating farther south toward the warmer nose and tail of the Grand Banks where they could find more food.

Meanwhile, sounders allowed trawlers to peer into the depths and scoop up the tightly packed fish in bag-shaped nets dragged hundreds of metres below the water’s surface.

In 1990, Rose was chief science officer aboard the Fisheries and Oceans research vessel Gadus Atlantica. The boat was playing a cat-and-mouse game with the trawler fleet.

Everyone was looking for the cod.

The Gadus found and followed a tightly packed formation of some 450,000 tonnes of cod as it migrated south toward the trawlers.

Rose estimates the school contained 80 per cent of the remaining stock.

That winter the large offshore trawlers, both Canadian and foreign, reported their best catch rates ever — scooping up 300,000 tonnes of fish.

***

Shrimp and snow crab like cold water. They don’t like getting eaten by cod.

As cod were driven out of their habitat by cooling water and fishing during the late 1980s, shrimp and snow crab populations bloomed.

A group of Nova Scotia fishing companies started sending draggers north to find the shrimp. From January to April, the trawlers worked in hard weather with limited communication back home pioneering a new fishery.

At the beginning, it was highly profitable.

The inshore fishermen left with nothing to catch by the cod moratorium wanted in.

In 1997, Fisheries and Oceans granted licenses to 360 inshore fishermen.

The companies that pioneered the fishery agreed to the new entrants on the condition that if the quota were ever reduced, it would be done on a policy of “first in, last out.”

A new future for rural Newfoundland and Labrador was created around crustaceans. There were fewer fishermen and plant workers, but it was a higher value industry.

It also required bigger, more expensive boats, travelling farther from shore.

The KMKA Voyager, named for Theodore’s grandchildren, and skippered by his son, Rodney Genge, can travel 400 nautical miles to catch shrimp. Powered by a 914-horsepower diesel engine, the 70-foot boat can haul two trawls.

As the last finishes were being put on the interior of the wheelhouse in late spring, Theodore was already worried he’d have to sell it.

Northern shrimp stocks are collapsing and everyone in the over-capitalized industry is fighting over what’s left.

To cries of betrayal from industry, Fisheries and Oceans scrapped the first in, last out policy last summer and made the heaviest cuts to the offshore trawler fleet.

Despite retaining 70 per cent of the quota, it’s a much smaller pie and even the inshore boats have taken big cuts.

Coming down to visit Theodore aboard the boat that would have dwarfed the small wooden craft he took to Belle Isle 55 years ago, the elder Rufus said, “everyone’s talking about ‘last in first out,’ but I think it’s going to be everyone out.”

***

Ern Simms’ phone was ringing off the hook. A polar bear had been spotted on the outskirts of St. Anthony and everyone thought the mayor should know.

“Look, I’m glad to talk but you can’t take my picture because I haven’t got a chance yet to get proper dressed,” said Simms.

The mayor of the town of 2,200 souls at the tip of Newfoundland’s Northern Peninsula is waiting on a response by his council to the federal and provincial fisheries ministers that they come to St. Anthony.

The town, which boasts the only Tim Hortons for 450 km, has built a moderately prosperous economy around shrimp.

“Everything now depends on the cod,” said Simms, a retired teacher who works unloading boats through the summer.

But the cod won’t come back quick enough to replace the shrimp, and the rural economies don’t know where to turn in the meantime.

No one even knows what the northern cod stock could be if it does return.

Norway is adjacent to a cod stock that historically was thought to be about the same size as Canada’s northern cod.

Recent warming trends have led that stock to grow and according to Norwegian government figures, in 2016, its fishermen caught 400,000 pounds of cod worth $970 million.

“But our system is more complex than Norway’s, which just relies on one warm current,” said Rose. “… One thing is certain, there will be winners and there will be losers.”

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