Ocean Solitaire: The Story of Declining Fish Populations

Fish are disappearing by the millions. So how do you explain the cheap salmon at your local market?


| May-June 1998



Exactly 500 years ago, the Italian mariner Giovanni Caboto (more commonly known as John Cabot) stood on the tip of Cape Bonavista in Newfoundland and looked out over a teeming new world. Like his countryman Columbus, who had reached Hispaniola five years earlier, Cabot was looking for a route to Asia. Instead he rediscovered North America and perhaps the richest fishery on earth—a place where cod were so plenteous that by some accounts you needed only to dip a basket into the water to haul up a catch. There were cod five and six feet long, cod that weighed 150 and 200 pounds. Half a century later, 60 percent of all the fish eaten in Europe was cod. Cabot had found a new world of sheer abundance, a world of the passenger pigeon and the buffalo and an inexhaustible profusion of fish.

If you stand on the tip of Cape Bonavista today, up on the pedestal with your arm around the statue of John Cabot, you can look out on the remnants of that world. Few fishing boats head out from Bonavista anymore, and none that fish for cod—there has been a near-total ban on cod fishing in Newfoundland since 1992, when stocks finally collapsed completely. Before the ban, virtually every family in this town of 4,500 souls made its living from the cod fishery, either directly or indirectly, but when a researcher recently interviewed 84 parents in Bonavista, none of them thought their children would find jobs catching fish.You've heard this story before, of course—the story of recklessness, mismanagement, and human folly that have devastated fisheries here and elsewhere. You've read about pitched battles over declining catches: Canadians have seized Spanish vessels and blockaded American ferries. Icelandic boats have rammed British trawlers. Tunisians have traded shots with Italians, as have Thais with Vietnamese. A wave of books spelling out tales of fishy doom and a steady drumbeat of newspaper coverage have raised gloomy prospects of an unfolding crisis. Last year, for example, a Pulitzer Prize went to the New Orleans Times-Picayune for its 50,000-word series on the Gulf of Mexico's wrecked fishing grounds and the wrecked lives that go with them.

But like the now-familiar sagas of tropical rainforests, global warming, and the earth's fragmenting wilderness habitats, these tales of depleted fisheries and disappearing wild salmon somehow manage to seem both dire and irrelevant. No matter how often we hear about limits, they never really seem to impinge on our lives. And fish are no different: Our supermarkets and restaurants are still full of seafood; a cornucopian avalanche of fast-food lobster and shrimp cascades across our TV screens; Alaskan fishermen catch so many salmon that low prices make it nearly impossible for them to make a profit. The fisheries in crisis seem to exist on another planet, even while the suspicion persists that the sum of these isolated tragedies and feuds—the salmon, the cod, the whales, the redfish—should add up to something more than a sense of vague guilt and disquiet.

The tip of Cape Bonavista is a good place to start unraveling this mystery—to start figuring out how the world can be so damaged and our lives so little changed. But the view from that rocky headland, I warn you now, is sobering. At the very least, it looks out on a world far more daunting than the one in which the cod swam by the tens of millions.

Just as the sun comes up, a little wind ruffles the swells. "The old guys call that wind 'the pride of the morning,' " says Bill Donovan, who grew up fishing the North Atlantic with his dad. "It's just to let you know not to get too cocky."

We're aboard Donovan's boat, the Danni J., a few miles down the Newfoundland coast from Bonavista, plying the water off the tiny town of Melrose. Donovan is using his handheld Global Positioning System unit to steer toward the spot where he has a line of crab pots. "I like this gadget because those satellites cost somebody $26 billion," he tells me, "but I can use it for free." Soon the winch is hauling up 150 fathoms of line, starting to strain as the first of the pots nears the surface. Donovan grins at the squeal it makes—"sounds like a few bucks to me"—and indeed, when the crew of three pulls the first pot aboard and opens the bottom, 30 or 40 long-legged snow crabs spill out across the deck. Perhaps half are both big enough and hard enough to keep; the small ones and those that are molting get tossed back overboard. When we return to Donovan's hand-built wharf to unload, he's got 2,600 pounds of crab, which will fetch about 80 cents a pound, or more than $2,000.