Return to the Wild - Evolving perspectives on Canadian wildlife
North American Atlantic cod populations are found from North Carolina all the way north to Baffin Island.

Did you know?

One of the largest recorded Atlantic cod was 96 kilograms and 180 centimetres long.

Scientific name: Gadus morhua
Average weight: 2 – 3 kg
Average length: 60 – 100 cm long
Average lifespan: 20 years or more (but wide variation)
An Atlantic cod clearly displaying its barbel.

Canadian Geographic articles

Almighty cod!

By Silver David Cameron
June/July 1988

Atlantic cod, long a source of fascination and wealth, comes under scrutiny in this article from the June/July 1988 issue of Canadian Geographic.

Once found in abundance around the Grand Banks off the coast of Newfoundland, the Atlantic cod is a large fish. These fish, like so many in the Grand Banks, are bottom feeders, consuming just about anything in their path as they grow from small fry to large adults.            

After giving a short life history of these valuable fish, Silver David Cameron writes mostly about the Atlantic cod fishing industry itself. There has been cod fishing happening for a great many years along the coasts of maritime Canada, beginning with the good old hook and line technique. Large boats would drop off two fishermen in a dory, where they would spend the day reeling in the large fish.

This method was followed by a number of others, including saltfishing, where the fish were covered with salt to preserve them at sea and long-lining, where a number of small lines are cast from a main one, each with a baited hook. Presently, there are a great number of ways that cod are caught in the Atlantic Ocean, but all with the aim of netting thousands of the fish at the same time.

Fishing in the Grand Banks was largely unregulated at first, and any number of countries pursued cod there. After a steep decline in the tonnage of cod caught in the 1970s, Canada began to introduce measures to preserve the cod. This was followed by restrictions on fishing boats, as well as an economic crash, meaning hard times for the fishermen. At the time this article was written, fisheries were just beginning to recover.

Net losses

By Silver David Cameron
April/May 1990

Written in 1990, two years after “Almighty cod!”, Silver David Cameron’s follow-up article on the cod fishing industry doesn’t paint a rosy picture.

In the late 1980s, after experiencing another boom in the cod harvest, the fish stocks began to drop, and the annual tonnage caught decreased with each successive year. Why, might you ask, was this happening, even with government regulations, limitations on catches and new emphasis on replenishing the cod in the Atlantic?

It happened for a number of reasons, but chief among them were the growing use of new fishing technology and a scientific miscalculation. With the advent of boats called draggers - that use a type of netting that scrapes the seabed, scooping up anything that happens to be down there, cod and all – and new sensing devices that detected the location of large schools of fish, trawlers could target the bottom-feeders more effectively. This resulted in larger harvests, but increasingly smaller cod, both in population and in size.

Scientists calculated that there would be growing stocks of Atlantic cod after the Canadian government limited international fishing off the East Coast, and only allowed a certain quota to be filled by each fishery. However, this estimation was based on cod catches, which, by nature, would inflate the approximated number of fish. And curiously enough – or maybe not – it was inshore fishermen who sounded the alarm on the falling numbers of cod.

Cabot, cod and the colonists

By Heather Pringle
July/August 1997

Delving deep into the history of Newfoundland, writer Heather Pringle discovers that the early colonization of Canada can be attributed to the hunt for cod.

As early as the 10th century, explorers and early entrepreneurs began to sail the Atlantic Ocean between Greenland and Newfoundland, starting with the Norse. As many people have learned in elementary school, there is some proof that the earliest settlements were made by Vikings, but it was not until the Europeans took notice of the rich bounty of North America that the cod fisheries really began to take off. Early captains left few records of their voyages from Spain, Portugal, England and France to the rich waters off of Newfoundland, but archeological digs in Greenland have discovered distinctly English artifacts that point to the possibility of the British using the large island as a port of call on their journey to and from Newfoundland.

While Spain and Portugal had enough salt available to them to be able to preserve fish at sea, England did not, and this resulted in the first European settlements on Newfoundland’s shores. The earliest of these settlements is Cupper’s Cove, located underneath the present-day village of Cupids. Founded in 1610, the English used it as a base for their fishermen.

Something interesting to note is that there are records of fish populations decreasing even at this time, and though it is unclear whether it was the result of overfishing or a natural part of the population cycle, present-day fisheries find themselves in the same situation today.

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