Newfoundland's Cod: Lesson on Environmental Choices

THE leaders at the Earth Summit can learn a lesson from the way Canada has dealt with Newfoundland's disappearing cod fishery. It's a lesson about misguided assumptions, shortsightedness, and trying to play politics with nature. It's a harsh lesson, but ignoring it may prove fatal.

In February, the Canadian federal government placed a moratorium on fishing cod. Last year, this fishery brought in $700 million and employed 30,000 people. This year, thousands of people will be unemployed and the cod stocks may be nearing a state of total collapse. How did this happen?

In 1497, explorer John Cabot wrote of the Atlantic seaboard as an ocean "swarming with fish" that could be scooped up in a basket. For nearly 500 years we harvested the fish without limit. If one species declined, we simply moved on to another. We believed nature's supply was infinite. By 1968, fishing fleets, outfitted with sophisticated technology, scooped up nearly 2 million tons of cod off Canada's Atlantic coast. But a year later the cod catch started to decline, and in 1973 the federal government s et the first cod quotas.

But quotas are difficult to set. It is hard to get an accurate view of the total cod population. In 1988, scientists suddenly realized their estimates were too high. That year they recommended a drastic 50 percent cut in the total allowable catch. This was bad news for the provincial government. Newfoundland, one of the poorest provinces in Canada, relies heavily on fishing to keep its economy going. The government appointed an independent panel to review the cod situation. In 1989, the panel confirmed t he scientists' findings and recommended similar cuts.

The government was faced with a tough choice: to act on the scientists' advice would mean causing Newfoundlanders even more economic hardship. If it didn't act, however, the cod fishery might collapse. The government chose to risk it. Instead of 50 percent, it cut the allowable catch by only 15 percent.

Three years later the cod stocks have become so depleted that the same government, in an effort to save the fishery, has imposed a moratorium on the Canadian fleet. But it may be too late. Fish populations have been known to crash instead of decline. Last year, even though the government set the allowable catch at 190,000 tons, the fishermen could find only 127,000 tons. Meanwhile, foreign fleets are still fishing just outside our waters.

Dr. Leslie Harris, chair of the independent committee that looked into the cod problem in 1989, has warned that "we are gambling with ultimate disaster." Disaster for the cod stock, disaster for the food chain of which the cod are an indispensable link, disaster for the people in the fishing communities on Canada's east cost. If there's a lesson in all this for the Earth Summit leaders, it's a lesson about choices. When the Canadian government was faced with a choice between saving the cod stocks or savi ng the economy, it chose the economy. Three years later the cod stocks are gone and so are the jobs.

THE summit leaders will be faced with a similar choice regarding carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuel. Scientists are predicting that, if these emissions go unchecked, the Earth's temperature will rise by as much as five degrees celsius in the next 50 years. The results would be devastating. The oceans would expand, flooding coastal cities, ruining crops, and drying out the North American heartland - the breadbasket of the world. Famine would be rampant, and not just in the third worl d, but right here in North America. To stop this warming trend, scientists are calling for a cut in carbon dioxide emissions by as much as 60 to 80 percent. Are we listening?

The Canadian government's position going into the talks is to limit emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000. Washington has refused even to negotiate limits or timetables. Neither of these positions will stop the warming trend. Meanwhile, we're pumping out more carbon dioxide than ever before.

In 1990, scientists told us that the next 10 years were critical if we want to save our planet. After that, the damage could be irreparable. So we have to act now. We can't keep trying to protect our economy at the expense of our planet. Like every other living creature we depend on air, water, and food to live. Until we are willing to make the necessary sacrifices to save our world, we really will be gambling with utter disaster. But this time it won't be a fishery off the coast of Newfoundland that's a t stake. This time it will be the entire planet.

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