Cod fishing: right or privilege?

Paul Smith
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That’s me cleaning a few cod.

I’m writing on the last day of the first leg of the 2013 recreational cod fishery.

It’s early Sunday morning and the rain is pouring down in buckets. There’s quite a breeze of wind blowing as well, a very sweet morning for relaxing or working under a tight roof with a steaming cup of strong black Costa Rican coffee.

There won’t be any boats cod fishing off Mad Rock this morning. But you never know, the last day and all, some silly soul might venture forth from a sheltered harbour and risk life and limb for a few fillets of cod. I’ve seen it before with my own eyes.

Arguments are being made for a longer summer cod fishery. In fact, 18 outdoor organizations in Newfoundland and Labrador have found common ground in expressing total dissatisfaction with the regulatory framework set for our recreational fishery.

I don’t always agree with all the policies of these organizations. Actually, I’ve written strongly worded objections to some stuff, particular on salmon and coyote issues. But on this issue I am in total agreement. The season for the so-called “food fishery” is much too short.

And you will notice I have so far avoided the term food fishery. I suppose it’s not a super big deal, but I think it degrades us just a little in the eyes of mainland Canada, or at least has the potential to do so.

There are those who might think that we poor souls here on “The Rock” need a few fish to survive the winter. We might even abuse our right to catch those life-sustaining cod if allowed too long at it by our benevolent and wise Ottawa-based administrators of coastal resources. Sorry for the sarcasm, but it rots me to the core of my soul that we Newfoundlanders and Labradorians do not manage and control our own fisheries.

It is deserving of tar and feather to have negotiated away that right in our union with Canada. And now, decades after the documents were signed, we find ourselves not able to decide for ourselves what is reasonable and just for a recreational harvest of cod in our own bays and off Newfoundland and Labrador’s rocky headlands. Our ancestors drowned and perished in dories and punts trying to settle and tame this land, and we signed away our birthright for the baby bonus.

Back to the reality that is Confederation, we must lobby Ottawa to change the regulations.

There are two glaring issues most commonly argued that are very persuasive. Although, before I get into those, I’d like to raise the historical-right issue.

Nobody seems to want to touch this one, but the fact is that we have lived here many centuries and have always been permitted to catch whatever cod we wished for our own use. It’s kind of like aboriginal rights, I think. As long as there is no conservation threat, which must always supersede traditional rights, we should be permitted to catch cod.

I’m not suggesting a free-for-all. There are so many of us now and we are equipped with far better gear to catch cod. Compare rowing and sculling a punt to the fishing grounds to hopping aboard a modern fiberglass vessel complete with ample horsepower and the best of navigation and fish-finding electronics. But we are capable of deciding for ourselves what is reasonable, and three weeks in a time frame dictated from Ottawa is clearly not.

Contrary to what many might think, most of us are working here. Three weeks translates into not a whole lot of time if you are busy with life, family and job. Besides that, fishing on the Atlantic Ocean is not like playing golf. The fish are biting some days and not feeding at all on others. It depends on winds, tides and what is going on in the local ecosystem.

For instance, here in my area, around Spaniard’s Bay and Bay Roberts, we had great fishing for the first week. Then the angling became very difficult. So, realistically, we had little opportunity to catch cod. In my opinion, based on my past experience commercial fishing on the same grounds, the fish were actively feeding and still chasing caplin during the early part of the season, and then they became glutted or simple full, and lay lethargically near the bottom, not at all interested in spoons and jigs. It’s a pattern I’ve seen before. In other bays and regions the cycle might vary. So, for all hands to have a fair shot at fishing, the season needs to be longer.

Two points

The two key arguments made by outdoor organizations in Newfoundland for an extended food fishery are safety and fairness.

They say that people are pressured into going on the sea in bad weather to fish when they should be drinking coffee, building a deck or trouting. This is likely quite true, especially during the second leg, the late September, one-week fishery, when cod are generally hungry, but the weather can be nasty. That’s a fatality waiting to happen.

Generally, we now have boaters with far less experience than in yesteryear, going on the water in boats that are sometimes far less capable than the old motorboats and rowing skiffs. I’ve seen some very tiny boats — pond boats, really — piloted by some pretty rotund-looking men in choppy seas. They are living on the edge, I think, maybe not appreciating their environment.

The fairness issue is valid, I suppose, but, as I said above, we should decide for ourselves based on conservation, end of story. Apparently, other Atlantic Canadians are allowed more fish over a much longer season.

There’s another argument, as well — an economic one.

Maybe our provincial government, which can always find some use for a few fresh tax dollars, will help us out if we play the dollar sign card. They have been kind of silent so far. People would buy a lot more boats and associated gear if we were allowed to fish longer. I know I would upgrade to a bigger craft, one with a head and galley, if I could fish for most of the summer. I think there are many Newfoundlanders of the same mind. Some folk enjoy boating just for the sake of boating, but I need to wet a line to complete the picture. I think there might be revenue in an extended fishery.

Finally, there is a substantial commercial fishery for cod. In most of the world, subsistence and recreational harvest takes priority over commercial. Imagine moose being killed for sale in supermarkets, and Newfoundlanders not permitted to hunt. It is the same thing. There are many who argue for a commercial fishery with no recreational allotment at all. This is ridiculous, and luckily was overruled by more rational minds.

We must make our voices heard and pressure our leaders or all our traditional rights will be washed away in the groundswell of modern times and the Canadian federation.  After all, is cod fishing a right or a privilege?

 Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard’s Bay,

fishes and wanders the outdoors at every opportunity. He can be contacted at

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Ottawa, Canada Atlantic Ocean Bay Roberts

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Recent comments

  • Cashin Delaney
    August 22, 2013 - 21:28

    "we signed away our birthright for the baby bonus" is a trope that is commonly associated with anti-confederation attitudes. I do not believe that keeping control of the fishery, and declining Federal social benefits, was ever an option presented, or pursued by Newfoundland in joining Canada. I think you may not even know what you are saying, just repeating slogans from the late'40s. I do not think Newfoundland was ever independant enough from London, or later, Ottawa, to ever grow a set, and challenge the maritime predation that was the international Atlantic fishery. Iceland was an independant country and fought, and won. We would have been compromised by London, like we were by Ottawa. Under each one, our fishery was seen as an international concession. Not a priority worth damaging other international businesses, like wheat and timber.

  • Paul Smith
    August 18, 2013 - 22:31

    yes bye --- I need time to digest many big words and colourful prose. But I believe you missed something in my writing. I did not say Newfoundland should not have entered into confederation with Canada. I said we should have retained control and management rights to our fishery. Do you not think we could manage our own fishery as well as Ottawa -- even with the present government? Canada certainly didn't do a great job with managing our cod stocks.

  • Cashin Delaney
    August 17, 2013 - 09:48

    If the term food fishery is degrading to you, that is you projecting your feeling and attitude on others. I find sport/recreational fishery to be a poor terminology. So, hungry pregnant women should have been unpolitically stoic in the late 40s, and just rode out the continuing graft of a NEWFOUNDLAND tradition of a racist, mismanaged, amoral government, and shunned the baby bonus because inshore fishermen drowned generations before? Give us a break with this bankrupt brand of blind, legless Raving Newfoundlander Buffoon nationalism being mainstreamed by Ryan Cleary, Greg Malone and other local clowns who seem to speak somehow for dead Baymen and preach about flats and punts as if all our heritage was tied to a flavor of inshore conveyance and we would have surely sailed off to glory in a golden dory as a sovereign state, or of the US, had the Canadian Wolf not latched on our king-corn,ad nauseam. You have traditional rights, research the gilds of England, wherever your people came from, establish your rights as a set of privileges over here. Read the book Cod and Wine, get some bearing of history beyond the little dingy you are hunkered down into with the rest of the secret nation refugees. The Canadian federation may be daunting, but a sovereign NL under present leadership is downright frightening. I agree with the libertarian ideals but please don't cod yourself into a victim mentality that serves our aboriginal natives no better than it would serve 18 groups of diverse Settler native descendants.