Ghost Towns, Above and Below Water

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Newfoundlanders Abandon Villages, Cod Fisheries Gone

Child with Cod, circa 1895, from Greenpeace

After more than 400 years as the foundation of one of Earth’s great fisheries, cod are not coming back to Canada. The costs are more than environmental.

In the mid-20th century, cod supported more than 40,000 eastern Canadian fishermen. That’s when industrial catch techniques nearly tripled annual harvests. By the early 1970s, cod numbers plummeted.

Fishing stopped for a while. Cod came back. Fishing started again. Cod disappeared. In the early 1990s, the government halted fishing again, expecting the fish to return, just like before — but this time, they didn’t. They’ll likely vanish before mid-century.

Scientists can’t say for sure what’s going on under those cold gray waters, but they can speculate.

Newfoundland communities abandoned since 1960

There were likely too few cod to revive a population: individuals simply couldn’t find each other to reproduce. Some other species might have taken their spot in the web of life. The web itself has changed shape, and may no longer have room for them.

“You see this very rapid, drastic collapse of large predatory fishes that used to dominate, particularly cod,” said Boris Worm, a marine biologist at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. “You see a rapid collapse of those, and a shift of the ecosystem towards invertebrates and small pelagic fishes.”

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