In 1992 the Canadian Federal Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, John Crosbie, declared a moratorium on the Northern Cod fishery, which for the preceding 500 years had largely shaped the lives and communities of Canada's eastern coast. Fishing societies interplay with the resources which they depend on: fisheries transform the ecosystem, which pushes the fishery and society to adapt. In the summer of 1992, when the Northern Cod biomass fell to 1% of earlier levels, Canada's federal government saw that this relationship had been pushed to the breaking point, and declared a moratorium, ending the region's 500-year run with the Northern Cod.
Observations on the reduced number and size of cod, and concerns of fishermen and marine biologists was offered, but generally ignored in favour of the uncertain science and harmful federal policies of Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans until the undeniable complete collapse of the fishery. According to any reasonable analysis, the collapse was first due to massive overfishing. Second, the dependence for maintenance of the fishery itself on the nutrient cycle that was being disrupted by removal of megatons of biomass from a closed system resulted in the starvation of the residual fish. Academics have highlighted these following four contributing factors in the eventual collapse of the cod fishery.
A major factor that contributed to the depletion of the cod stocks off the shores of Newfoundland included the introduction and proliferation of equipment and technology that increased the volume of landed fish. For centuries local fishermen used technology that limited the volume of their catch, the area they fished, and let them target specific species and ages of fish. From the 1950s onwards, as was common in all industries at the time, new technology was introduced that allowed fishermen to trawl a larger area, fish to a deeper depth and for a longer time. By the 1960s, powerful trawlers equipped with radar, electronic navigation systems and sonar allowed crews to pursue fish with unparalleled success, and Canadian catches peaked in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The new technologies adversely affected the northern cod population in two important ways: by increasing the area and depth that was fished, the cod were being depleted until the surviving fish could not replenish the stock lost each year; and secondly, the trawlers caught enormous amounts of non-commercial fish, which were economically unimportant but very important ecologically: incidental catch undermines the whole ecosystem, depleting stocks of important predator and prey species. With the northern cod, significant amounts of capelin – an important prey species for the cod – were caught as bycatch, further undermining the survival of the remaining cod stock.
Another factor important to consider in understanding the fishery's collapse is uncertainty in assessing the cod as a resource. Management of a resource is an extremely complex task, with a multitude of interests, perspectives, and sources of information to take into account; when knowledge regarding the resource is limited, or clouded by imprecision, the task of managing it becomes even more difficult. The management of fisheries is associated with an especially high degree of uncertainty due to problems inherent in the nature of the resource. Newfoundland's cod fisheries were no exception: an imperfect understanding of the ocean ecosystem; technical and environmental challenges associated with observation techniques, which led to incomplete data on the resource (the cod); and the naturally high levels of variability in the population due to dynamic environmental factors (such as ocean temperature) combined to make it arduous to discern the effects of exploitation. Unfortunately, this led to predictions about the cod stock that were mired in uncertainty, making it more difficult for the government to choose the appropriate course of action.
In addition to ecological considerations, decisions regarding the future of the fisheries were also influenced by social and economic factors. Throughout Atlantic Canada, but especially in Newfoundland, the cod fishery was a source of social and cultural identity. For many families, it also represented their livelihood: most families were connected either directly or indirectly with the fishery as fishermen, fish plant workers, fish sellers, fish transporters, or as employees in related businesses. Additionally, many companies, both foreign and domestic, as well as individuals, had invested heavily in the boats, equipment and the infrastructure of the fishery, and therefore felt it was in their best interest to maintain an open-access policy to the ocean and its resources. This alludes to the unfortunate paradox that often accompanies open-access resources and is known by most as the Tragedy of the Commons: what is in the individual's best interest is not always in the best interest of a society at whole. In the case of Newfoundland and the northern cod fishery this meant that from the perspective of the individual participating in the fishing industry, maximizing their catch was in their best interest; however when the government failed to intervene – due largely to the highly sensitive nature of the political discourse created by the expansive group of stakeholders – the ecosystem was brought past its threshold and collapsed, leaving everyone worse off.
Newfoundland's fishery fell under the management of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in 1949, when Newfoundland joined Canada as a province. Unfortunately, the department mismanaged the resource and allowed overfishing. Even today, should international fishing and exploitation of the residual resource resume in force, Canada has no capacity at all to enforce or police any limits to the practices of foreign fishing activity. Canada also has no policy plan, nor naval capacity to guard its own territorial rights and resources.
The number of fishing trawlers in the 1960s increased, and inshore fishermen complained to the government. This resulted in the government redefining the offshore fishery boundaries several times, and eventually extended its limits from 3 mi to 200 mi offshore, as part of its claim for an exclusive economic zone under the UNCLOS. In 1976, the government declared the right to manage the fisheries in an exclusive economic zone that extended to 200 mi offshore. The government wanted to reverse declining fish stocks by removing foreign fishing within the new inshore fishery boundaries. With the absence of foreign fishing many Canadian and U.S fishing trawlers took their place and the number of cod kept diminishing past a point of recovery.
Many local fishermen noticed the drastic decrease of cod and tried to inform local government officials. In 1986, scientists did a review of calculations and data after which they determined, in order to conserve cod fishing the total allowable catch rate had to be cut in half. However, even with these new statistics brought to light no changes were made in regards to the allotted yearly catch of cod.
With only a limited knowledge of cod biology, scientists predicted that the population of the species would rebound from its low point in 1975 and when Canada extended its fishing boundaries in 1976, fish mortality decreased immediately. This was not due to a rise in cod stocks, it was because foreign trawlers could no longer fish the waters. Therefore, when Fisheries and Oceans set quotas, they overestimated the total stock, and increased the total allowable catch.
In 1992, John Crosbie, the minister of Fisheries and Oceans at the time, set the quota for cod at 187,969 tonnes, even though only 129,033 tonnes had been caught the previous year. That same year, the government announced a moratorium on cod fishing.
When the government finally acted, it was too late. The 1992 moratorium was at first meant to last two years, hoping that the northern cod population would recover, and along with it the fishery. The damage done to Newfoundland's coastal ecosystem proved irreversible. Even after twenty years, the northern cod population has not rebounded and the cod fishery remains closed.
Approximately 35,000 fishermen and fish plant workers lost their jobs due to the collapse of the cod fisheries, many people had to find new jobs or further their education to be able to find jobs. It was devastating for many communities and certainly impacted Newfoundland in a profound way. Local fisherman noticed the decrease of fish, however, scientists reported otherwise. New technologies, such as trawlers, had made this possible and more fish were being caught than ever before, which was chalked up to the stock "growing".
The collapse of the northern cod fishery marked a profound change in the ecological, economic and socio-cultural structure of Atlantic Canada. The moratorium in 1992 marked the largest industrial closure in Canadian history, and it was expressed most acutely in Newfoundland, whose continental shelf lay under the region most heavily fished. Over 35,000 fishermen and plant workers from over 400 coastal communities became unemployed. In response to dire warnings of social and economic consequences, the federal government intervened, initially providing income assistance through the Northern Cod Adjustment and Recovery Program, and later through the Atlantic Groundfish Strategy, which included money specifically for the retraining of those workers displaced by the closing of the fishery. Newfoundland has since experienced a dramatic environmental, industrial, economic, and social restructuring, including considerable emigration, but also increased economic diversification, an increased emphasis on education, and the emergence of a thriving invertebrates fishing industry (as the predatory groundfish population declined, snow crab and northern shrimp proliferated, providing the basis for a new industry that is roughly equivalent in economic value to the cod fishery it replaced).
In November 2006, Fisheries and Oceans Canada released an article suggesting that the unexpectedly slow recovery of the cod stock was due to inadequate food supplies, cooling of the North Atlantic, and a poor genetic stock due to the overfishing of larger cod. During the summer of 2011, a study was announced that showed East Coast cod stocks around Nova Scotia showed promises of recovery, despite earlier thoughts of complete collapse. It was found that initial stages of recovery began around 2005, though more time and studies were needed to study the long-term stability of the stock increase. In addition, in 2010 a study by the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization found that stocks in the Grand Banks near Newfoundland and Labrador had recovered by 69% since 2007, though that number only equated to 10% of the original stock.
In a letter to Nature in 2011, a team of Canadian scientists reported that cod in the Scotian Shelf ecosystem off Canada were showing signs of recovery. Brian Petrie, a member of the team, said "Cod is about a third of the way to full recovery, and haddock is already back to historical biomass levels". Despite such positive reports, cod landings continued to decline since 2009 according to Fisheries and Oceans Canada statistics through 2012.
In 2015, two reports on cod fishery recovery offered hopeful and cautionary messages. A Canadian scientist reported that in particular areas, cod were increasing in numbers, health, normalising in maturity and behaviour, and offered a promising estimate of increased biomass. However, past assessments of "cod stock" had been greatly overestimated by generalisation beyond areas measured, which was a great part of the incompetent policymaking and mismanagement of the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans. A US report suggested that a failure to consider reduced resilience of cod populations due to increased mortality in warming surface water of the Gulf of Maine had led to overfishing despite regulation. Thus, overestimates of stock biomass due to generalisation of local estimates, and ignorance of environmental factors in growth or recovery potential of a cod fishery would lead to mismanagement and further collapse of stocks, through further unsustainable quotas, as in the past.