[1992:] Archie Fisher said he wrote this song after seeing a couple of perfectly good steel trawlers rusting away on the ledges (skerries) outside a harbor in northern Scotland, and was told by fishermen that they had been drove there by their owners because, even with the government subsidy to help the fishermen, the fishing was so poor they still couldn't make a living, and the men didn't want to see them cut into scrap by the ship-breakers. (Gordon Bok, notes Bok Muir & Trickett, 'The First 15 Years Volume I')
[1998:] From Newfoundland to Hull, the trawlerman's tale is the same - what happened to all the fish? [...] 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 [...]. [It's a familiar] story of recklessness, mismanagement and human folly that have devastated fisheries here and elsewhere. [...] If you understand what happened to the codfish, you'll more or less know what happened to the redfish and the swordfish and the bluefin tuna and the orange roughy, a list that grows longer and longer after each fishing season. But the cod will do. For that story, I visit Richard Haedrich, a fish biologist at Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland's capital. 'For about 300 years after [the discovery of Newfoundland by John] Cabot, fishermen took between 100,000 and 200,000 tons of cod a year, caught by hook and line from small dories,' Haedrich begins. 'Then, in the 1870s, the cod trap was invented - a piece of fixed net that was very effective. There were big debates in Newfoundland - would this wipe out the cod? For two years it was banned.'
But the net slowly became the backbone of the industry. And the catch stayed about the same, slowly increasing to 200,000 tons a year. [...] When the cod weren't in season, something else was; the fishermen hunted seals, cut firewood, tended small gardens. It was a rugged, poor, rich life, but it was kept alive by the prodigious cod. Then, in the sixties, the distant-water fleet appeared - the draggers that could hunt the cod down out at sea and fish year round. The catch quadrupled, to 800,000 tons, most of it going to European boats that didn't even have to dock in Newfoundland before the voyage home. Canada, along with many other nations, declared a 200-mile limit, pushing the foreigners off the richest shelves and banks. [...] Ottawa started subsidising boatbuilders, erecting fish-processing plants, establishing a huge fishery. Quasi-public companies built fleets of trawlers, and for a few years jobs were easy to find and life was cushy. 'But as a result of all the capital investment, the fishing couldn't be seasonal anymore,' Haedrich tells me. 'And there were new advances in fish-finding technology.' Once the dragger captains were able to locate the nurseries where the cod mated, they discovered that the fish were in prime condition just before they spawned - so that's when they started taking them, tearing up the ocean floor in the process.
Government biologists had been assigned to regulate the catch, but bad news never gained credence. [...] Enforcement was lax. As [...] a former crew member on one of the draggers put it: 'The last two years before the ban, all we did was steal fish, just to make a living. You'd get a piece of paper telling you where to fish; but there weren't no fish there. So you fished where there were fish.' Until 1992. That's when the boats went out and came back empty. No fish. At all. What had happened, apparently, was that the success of the new technologies had disguised the decline of the cod. As the electronics got better and better, the fleet had managed to search out the fish wherever they were, so the catch had remained steady year after year even though the fleets were beginning to scrape the bottom of the barrel. [...] The most prudent course of action would be to bar any kind of fishing entirely for a few decades, argues Haedrich, but by then, of course, a way of life would be destroyed.
The same story, in different accents, is told on every sea coast on earth. (Bill McKibben, Observer, 14 June)
[2002:] British deep sea fishing is in crisis. It's not a labour or territorial dispute; it's the simple lack of fish. Fish have been landed, sorted and sold around Britain's coastal towns for generations. But now, trawlers, nets and fishermen are increasingly lying idle. Fish merchants keep watch over empty markets[,] the former king of the fish supper - the cod - is now an endangered species. The fishing industry is not blameless. Trawlermen [...] have extensively used small mesh nets that catch young fish, leaving poor breeding stock. Combined with nature striking an added blow, with sea temperatures being unsuitable for breeding, the end result has seen the steep demise of the cod.
After the lapse in fishing during the World War II, fish stocks became plentiful. The UK fishing industry enjoyed prosperity. But in the early 70's, Ted Heath's government took British fishing into stormy waters with membership of the Common Market. At the last minute, the existing six EEC members established their new Common Fisheries Policy, which, in essence, allowed open fishing around all coastal waters [outside a six-mile exclusion zone]. Norway was negotiating their entry to the EEC at the same time. But they decided to withdraw in order to protect their fish stocks. This was additional bad news for Britain. Worse was to follow. Iceland decided to establish a 200-mile exclusion zone to protect its fish stocks. A vicious stand off with Britain became a repeat of the previous two "Cod Wars". British Trawlers were forced to fish even closer to home. Faced with dwindling stocks and increased trawler numbers from EEC members, there was a collective blaming of the Soviet "factory ships" for dwindling numbers of fish. But this proved to be a "Red Herring".
The EEC's fishing policy was flawed. It portrayed fishing in the same way as making steel or growing potatoes - the higher the production or total catch, the better. There was little or no planning for the future. Fish stocks were treated as limitless. Whilst scientists' warnings of diminishing stocks were largely ignored, their expertise on improving fishing techniques was eagerly grasped. Politicians were lobbied by fishing communities to keep quotas high and everyone seemed blind to the fact of impending doom for the fishing industry.
Ironically, when catch quotas and net mesh restrictions were eventually imposed, trawler-men reacted with contempt. It was common practice when trawlers had landed their quota, further catches would be made and sold through a fish "black market". This illegal practice was almost impossible to police.
One of the last nails in the fishing boat coffin was Britain's blinkered eating habit. Chips would not be quite right with any other fish other than cod. The stocks have rapidly plunged even further. ( BBC Online, 24 May)
[2002:] After thousands of years of relentless consumption, Britain's love affair with traditional fish dishes is over. As the true devastation of our fish stocks is revealed, [...] Ministers are desperate to prevent the total collapse of fishing stocks after decades of overfishing that has wiped out huge shoals of once common species. Last week the European Commission predicted a total ban on fishing for cod, haddock and whiting in UK coastal waters next year. Some experts believe even that may be too little too late and say stocks will never recover. (Mark Townsend, Observer, 3 Nov)