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  • Cod: The Ecological History of the North Atlantic Fisheries
  • Jennifer Hubbard (bio)
Cod: The Ecological History of the North Atlantic Fisheries. By George Rose. Saint John’s, Newfoundland: Breakwater Books, 2007. Pp. 591. $74.95.

Arguably the twentieth century’s most catastrophic environmental disasters related not to industrial and coal-generated air pollution, chemical spills, or other headline grabbers, but to the technologically driven collapses of North Atlantic and other fish stocks. Fish do not make sexy eco-pinups. Their loss, however, through massive and uncontrolled harvests facilitated by trawlers, factory ships, and sonar, has almost certainly destroyed ancient ecosystems that sustained human users and seabirds, whales, and other wildlife. Many scientists argue the North Atlantic will never again teem with huge aggregations of large valuable fish such as were common until the 1970s. With Cod: The Ecological History of the North Atlantic Fisheries, George Rose, a senior fisheries biologist in Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans, has penned a valuable ecological history of the world’s most important lost fishery, the once-prolific Grand Banks cod fisheries. Rose explains, for general readers, how people’s interactions with these fisheries over five centuries have deeply altered the supporting ecosystems.

At 591 pages, this book appears daunting, but it is packed with pictures, charts, and tables, and detailed explanatory endnotes. Somewhat disconcertingly, the layout is that of a textbook. It sometimes reads as such, especially the introductory 500-million-year geological history and Rose’s illustrated descriptions, under separate subheadings, of the evolution and life histories of major species from copepods to whales. This latter information, however, equips readers to understand how overfishing massively altered the Grand Banks ecosystems.

Four chapters describe different historical phases of Newfoundland’s Portuguese, Spanish, French, English, and later settler “export” fisheries; show readers how fishing technology evolved; and explain why fixed nets, long lines, and trawling technologies are still important. Subheaded sections, occasionally awkward and repetitious, describe relevant political, diplomatic, and economic issues, the resulting “ecology” of Newfoundland fishing communities, and the environmental effects on different marine species. Rose passionately recounts how national governments, local politicians, and businesspeople mismanaged both the fisheries and Newfoundlanders. [End Page 249] The northeastern shore remained under French control until 1904; for Newfoundland’s English rulers, international diplomatic considerations took precedence over native concerns. Both Britain’s and Canada’s national governments neglected the fisheries, misunderstood technological developments, and failed Newfoundland’s economy and environment.

Rose uses few historical narratives, but many scientific sources, and clings to the Canadian experience, leaving the false impression that fisheries cannot generate a wealthy economy. He sometimes gives one-sided arguments without adequate backing, as when he states that the merchant “truck” system was not responsible for Newfoundland’s failed fishing economy. His narrative is painted in broad brushstrokes, with important and telling details sometimes omitted or ignored, although the general picture is excellently depicted.

In the final two chapters, Rose tells how trawlers, factory ships, and echo-sounding technology enabled an international fishery to sweep up the groundfish stocks. His main focus is on failed international and national fisheries management strategies. The Law of the Sea conference of 1973–82, extending exclusive economic zones to 200 miles, gave Canadians the illusion of national control, while in fact the North Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO) managed the Atlantic fisheries within this zone, allocating “underutilized” and “surplus” fish that Canada could not exploit to other nations. Quotas based on previous catch histories gave higher allocations to the worst overfishing offenders: Soviet bloc countries and Japan.

Thus NAFO’s system rewarded the guilty and hurt the innocent. Rose oversaw key assessment cruises to set fishing quotas even as the stocks were crashing around 1990. Many factors led to the disaster, he argues, including cold water oscillations, low prey populations, overfishing, and global warming. None was precisely foreseeable; under normal conditions, the cod should have rebounded, as scientists predicted. While Rose discusses the predictive failures of virtual population analysis, he avoids indicting the Department of Fisheries and Oceans for inadequately monitoring fish stocks and ignoring how sonar skewed assessments. These arguments are not entirely persuasive, but will be of enormous interest to historians of fisheries...


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pp. 249-250
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