The Canadian Experience
For centuries the Canadian Grand Banks, off the coast of Newfoundland, were prime fishing grounds. The region's abundance of Atlantic Cod supported entire communities. The factory trawlers that subsequently moved on to the banks exacted a fateful toll. Stocks collapsed, and in 1992 Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans closed the fishery. In November 2002, the Canadian Fisheries Minister Robert Thibault announced that in all probability the few remaining cod fisheries in the four Atlantic provinces and Quebec would have to be closed in 2003, as the stocks showed no sign of recovery.
A severe employment and revenue crisis followed in the immediate aftermath of the moratorium. Fortunately it proved possible to diversify the fisheries. By the end of the 1990s a booming shell-fish industry had increased the total value of fish landings from a cod-based fishery high of C$1 billion in 1988 to C$1.2 billion in 1998. (This is an option largely not available in the UK where diversification has already occurred). While revenue of the fisheries has recovered, it has been achieved with a much smaller workforce and at considerable expense to the Canadian taxpayer.
At the peak of the ground fish boom in 1988, the Atlantic fishery supported 59,000 fishermen working in 27,000 vessels. In addition, this primary resource supported the activity of 780 fish plants and 30,000 processing workers. In total, close to 90,000 Atlantic Canadians made a living off the ground fish fishery.
The capital-intensive shellfish industry, which came to replace the ground fish as the main employment in the region, was unable to absorb all of the excess labour capacity. The Canadian government estimates that some 30,000 people lost their jobs in the harvesting and processing sector as a result of the cod crisis. Others argue that 30,000 is a rather conservative estimate.
Cost to the Canadian Government
In 1992, the shellfish industry was marginal, or as in the case of shrimp, non-existent. It took several years to diversify the industry, during which the Canadian taxpayers footed the bill. The total federal government assistance to fisheries, already generous, grew from c C$150m in the mid-1980s to c C$700m per annum in the mid-1990s. The bulk of the increased expenditure was due to the Atlantic crisis. Assuming that the most pessimistic assumption of a net of 30,000 lost jobs among fishers and the processing industry is correct, this amounts to an annual peak expenditure of c C$9,000 (£4,500) per individual. With the optimistic assumption that all of these job losses were absorbed by the booming shellfish landings, and by importing fish for processing, it still amounts to C$6,500 (£3,250) per person, a year.
Diversifying the Atlantic fishery has staved off the worst socio-economic effects of the cod moratorium. In the short-term the shellfish industry is achieving positive results. Long-term questions remain about the sustainability of the ever larger quotas for shellfish: will shrimp, crab, and lobster stocks eventually go the way of the cod fishery?