TORONTO — CANADA is making a last-ditch diplomatic appeal to the world community to try to save what little remains of its once-rich Atlantic cod fishery.
A few years ago, large schools of northern cod were treated as an inexhaustible resource. Boats from St. John's, Newfoundland, and Halifax, Nova Scotia - as well as foreign trawlers sitting beyond the 200-mile territorial limit - routinely returned home stuffed with cod.
Those days are gone. A dramatic fall in the tonnage of fish caught since the late 1980s, a rise in the number of young fish being netted, and warnings from scientists, have finally brought action. Last July Canada banned all offshore cod fishing.
But that has not stopped foreign factory ships, which continue to scoop up what remains of the migratory cod when they swim into international waters.
Ross Reid, Canada's minister of fisheries and oceans, sternly warned a United Nations conference in New York Monday that overfishing by Canadian and international fleets, as well as natural environmental factors, had virtually destroyed cod stocks along Canada's Atlantic coast from Newfoundland to Nova Scotia.
Cod stocks on the Grand Banks have declined from 40,000 in 1988 to about 6,000 at present. Already 25,000 jobs have been lost in Newfoundland and Labrador, and another 25,000 are at risk, Canadian fisheries officials say.
"We always sought to set total allowable catches at safe levels and to control our fleets, but we now know we caught too many fish," Mr. Reid said, citing other threatened world fisheries, including the Sea of Okhotsk in the Bering Sea and coastal fisheries off South America.
The meeting is an outgrowth of last year's global environment conference in Rio de Janeiro. Canadians consider it a last-ditch bid to put the brakes on global overfishing and prevent what they say could be lasting destruction of their traditional cod fishery.
"No country has suffered more than Canada from the lack of an effective international regime for conservation and management on the high seas," said Reid, who blamed the continuing destruction on ineffective voluntary limits imposed by the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization. Reid's proposals include adding conservation, control and surveillance, and dispute-settling mechanisms to give NAFO teeth.
One reason the alarm is being sounded so loudly now is that studies done this spring strongly suggest that only a tiny fragment remains of what was once a vast concentration of hundreds of millions of fish.
George Rose, a research scientist with the Ministry of Fisheries and Oceans based in St. John's, says contrary to earlier expectations, the studies show that cod do not disperse widely once they mate, but school in "mega-schools." The fish swim together to more effectively hunt capelin, a tiny fish they eat.
Discovered in the spring of 1990, the first known "mega-school," composed of hundreds of millions of cod fish, was gauged at roughly 20-miles wide by 30-miles long by 80- to 160-feet thick, Dr. Rose said in a phone interview. "The size of the mega-school has been shrinking and the fish are younger," he says. "Every year it has changed its location, mostly in a direct line. This year was different ... because the school moved out of Canadian waters into international waters where they were exposed to the foreign fishery."
When Rose and his fellow scientists tracked down the mega-school this spring, they refused to disclose its location, which is a closely guarded secret due to concern that foreign trawlers will clean out the remnant. This year the mega-school was five-miles long by two-miles wide and maybe 25 meters [82 feet] deep, he says.
"I'm not sure I'd call it a mega-school anymore," Rose says. "We would consider this a remnant compared to 1990 - and 1990 wasn't that big compared to historic levels."