The final days of this year’s recreational groundfish fishery are over. That’s even if “recreation” doesn’t cover the reasons we fish; as the groundfish we mostly hope to catch is cod; and while the fishing is generally reserved for those with the means to do so.
Many fish recreationally and they have the resources — the boat, the gear and the time off on weekends — to enjoy it.
But if we mainly fish recreationally, then why not practice catch and release?
The recreational fishery accounts for a modest portion of total Northern Cod harvest, but it’s a portion nonetheless of a slowly rebuilding species. Of the 13,500 tonnes harvested in Newfoundland and Labrador in 2016, for example, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) estimated the majority was harvested by the stewardship fishery (10,525 tonnes; 78 per cent) followed by the recreational fishery (2,000t; 15 per cent) followed by everything else — cod quality and science projects (750t; 5.5 per cent); by-catch (175t; 1.2 per cent); and by Indigenous communities for food, social and ceremonial purposes (50t; 0.3 per cent).
The thing is, many fish for the cultural and heritage experience.
Northern cod is the mighty fish that attracted people here more than 500 years ago — longer still for Indigenous people.
Fishing for a few cod helps communicate why our ancestors forged roots here, atop this rock, in the harshest of climates and geographies, overlooking the Atlantic. It also grants a set of skills that, one time, people could count on their parents or grandparents to relay.
Sadly, these days are gone for many, as our families have long-ago abandoned the fishing outports. Nowadays, to handline or jig a cod, or clean and prepare it for a traditional meal, we often depend on the service industry to fill the gaps our ancestors left behind.
Reputable tour outfitters exist across N.L. — they benefit from the recreational groundfish fishery as does tourism and our economy. But hiring an outfitter is for those with the ability to pay.
There is, however, one company providing this service as a social good, for those without the means. Island Rooms of Petty Harbour — home of Fishing for Success — offers youth and community programs (Girls Who Fish, Wild Family Nature Club and Youth Cod Fishery and Dory Club).
They teach “traditional fishing knowledge and skill of their ancestors” and, in doing so, impart “a sense of pride, of place, and a longing to protect and conserve their natural home,” They’re busting stereotypes too—for example, that men fish, while women tend home; and that fishing is an exclusive practice, while it’s a shared human heritage.
“Talk to people all over the world and they have fishing stories. Right away you can start connecting with people from anywhere,” Kimberly Orren of Fishing for Success recently told me.
A primary reason people fish, since the beginning of time, is for food. Sure, you can buy cod from Costco in St. John’s — frozen cod fillets from Russia ($8.48/lb) and Norway ($10.02/lb) or fresh cod fillets from Iceland ($10.43/lb). But it’s not local and not everyone lives near a grocer/wholesaler. Alternatively, you can buy local — either from a local restaurant selling local cod; or for about $3.50-4.00/lb, directly from a N.L. commercial fish harvester.
Surely, yes, the cost of catching the fish yourself is greater than these options, especially if you don’t have the means readily at your disposal. But in this farm-to-table world, many want to support locally harvested foods and many want the option of doing it themselves.
If we want to recognize the full breadth of why people fish — beyond the recreation to the time-honoured tradition and putting local food on the table—and if we want to make it more affordable and accessible to everyone, then we should reconsider its name. Last year, the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans called on DFO to rename this fishery the “public groundfish food and recreational fishery.” Kimberly Orren suggests the “heritage fishery.”
A name change can signal attention to the barriers and inequities that exist in this fishery. It can also redirect policy action to follow the renamed practice, for example, investing in programs that reach our communities.
Let’s consider how this small change can lead to a big impact.
Jennifer Thornhill Verma