Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) – commonly known simply as cod and also found in other maritime regions, including the Baltic Sea – was a popular staple food across much of northern Europe and the islands of the North Atlantic for a very long time. Cod stocks were abundant and the species was easy to catch. It was one of the main ingredients in Britain’s national dish, fish and chips, while in Norway, air-dried cod (stockfish) was a popular traditional food. Cod – which can reach up to 1.5 metres in length – is a demersal fish, which means that it lives on or near the bottom of the sea. Its habitats are located in the coastal regions of the Atlantic Ocean. Cod can be found near the coast as well as at depths of up to 600 metres. Cod is a difficult species to farm, however.
The great dependence of the fishing nations on their cod stocks was demonstrated in the “Cod Wars” from 1958 until 1975. During this period, a series of political confrontations erupted after Iceland – concerned about the future of its traditional fishing grounds and more intensive competition from foreign deep-sea trawlers – progressively expanded its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) (Chapter 10) from 3 to 200 nautical miles. In so doing, Iceland succeeded in protecting cod stocks in the Northeast Atlantic from overexploitation by other fishing nations. This is evident from the fact that around 1 million tonnes of cod are still being harvested annually in the Northeast Atlantic, whereas cod stocks in the Northwest Atlantic range off the east coast of North America are an outstanding example of failed fisheries management. Here, the once abundant cod stocks off Newfoundland, which in the past yielded some 600,000 tonnes of catch weight annually, have now collapsed after years of overfishing.
How could this have happened? After centuries of mainly coastal fishing using smaller fishing vessels, in 1950 the fishing industry switched to industrial bottom fishing using trawl nets and also began fishing in deeper waters. Catches increased considerably in the short term, leading to a decrease in population size. Attempts to regulate catches with international fishing quotas and Canada’s efforts to tackle the problem by expanding its Exclusive Economic Zone could not curb the dramatic drop in yield. After the population had completely collapsed at the end of the 1980s, there was no option but to close the commercial cod fishery in 1992, followed by a ban on artisanal fishery in the coastal communities of Newfoundland in 2003. The social and economic consequences of this move have been severe. Biologists now believe that due to the massive disruption of the marine ecosystem, it has passed a tipping point and that even with a total ban on fishing, cod stocks will not recover.
6.7 > Fighting over fish: the economic significance of the fishing industry for some nations became apparent during the “Cod Wars” in the Northeast Atlantic. The United Kingdom and Iceland even deployed warships in the conflict over control of the fishing grounds. On 7 January 1976, the Icelandic patrol boat Thor (above left, background) collided with the British frigate Andromeda (foreground) some 35 nautical miles off the Icelandic coast. According to the British version of events, the collision occurred after Thor attempted to cut the nets of the British trawler Portia (above right, centre). During the manoeuvre, Thor abruptly changed course and rammed the frigate. The dispute between the two countries was so intense that Iceland even broke off diplomatic relations with the UK for a time. Abb. 6.7: left: © dpa Picture-Alliance/PA, right: © dpa Picture-Alliance/UPI