This is the second episode of our series on shifting baselines - exploring how changing perceptions of fish stocks helped to fuel the collapse of the cod fishery in Newfoundland. If you haven’t yet given the first one a listen, I highly recommend it, and you can find it here: https://www.submergeradio.com/shifting-baselines-series.html.
"It’s difficult to decipher how the natural world has changed, when the way you engage with it changes."
In the case of fishing, our human tendency to try and become super-predators manifested in the form of what Newfoundlanders call “draggers”, which are also commonly known as “bottom trawlers”. These draggers are these massive, industrial-scale fishing boats that operated by putting nets at the bottom of the ocean, and used heavy weights to drag them across the bottom, scooping literally everything up that was in its path and destroying habitat in its wake.
Overall, the draggers were a huge departure from the more traditional methods used by smaller-scale commercial fishermen like the ones I talked to, who used totally different methods, and had been using the same techniques for the past multiple decades. They used techniques like handlining and cod traps. The method of handling is personal: each fish that you pulled up had a unique feel, a special weight. It was nothing like the fishing mechanism of a dragger. On the dragger, machines do the pulling up, lowering down, and hauling of the fish. They do it much faster, and at a scale much larger. A loss of more traditional ways in favor of efficiency had created a destructive, industrial scale fishing boat.
Technology is partly responsible for shrouding how much had changed. Baselines for many of these fishermen had been set before modern technology was a part of their lives. Therefore, now that they have more advanced fishing gear, they may find it easier to catch fish even when there are less.
Most of the fishermen I talked to remarked about some sort of novel technological advancement. Technology in moderation has undoubtedly helped to make the lives of smaller scale commercial fishermen easier. However, when fishermen combine traditional fishing methods with more modern technology, such as advanced sounders, it becomes hard to tell if there’s been a change in the fish stocks. It’s difficult to decipher how the natural world has changed, when the way you engage with it changes.
Although technology may cloud perceptions of changing fish stocks, fisheries scientists and conservationists realized regardless that there was a huge decline occurring in the cod stocks. They began to think about imposing regulations for proper management and conservation. Of course, a huge issue was that we didn’t know where to put the reference point of what the stock was supposed to look like. The UN decided in 1958, that “scientific evidence of overfishing is necessary before” any regulations on fishing could be implemented. Notice how they said “scientific evidence” of overfishing is needed, because we have evidence of overfishing, but it was in anecdotal forms, which just weren’t ‘scientific’ enough to be taken seriously.
When the UN made this decision, it was in 1958. already over a decade after increased technology made it into the mainstream market after WWII. Therefore, the baseline off of which fisheries management could determine that a ‘significant change’ as they say had been made was a baseline in which significant change had ALREADY been made.
They didn’t realize their grave error because they discounted historical anecdotes. Anecdotes that would have told them that there was already overwhelming evidence that a significant reduction in fish stock had been made. No longer could you weigh a basket down with a stone and lift it up to have it overfilling with cod. No longer was the passage of ships impeded by fish.
Anecdotes are often cast aside because they’re difficult to incorporate into data, and inconvenient. But just because it is difficult to do so, doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing.
Ultimately, social scientists didn’t consider the anecdotes and testaments of inshore fishermen because they weren’t in a quantitative form the scientists could translate. By not taking anecdotes seriously, knowledge of our past is lost. Critical knowledge that can help us better plan for the future.
As technology takes us - for better or worse - farther from traditional practices, we shift how we engage with the natural world, it becomes increasingly difficult to identify a proper baseline. By taking historical anecdotes a little more seriously and understanding the role of technology in shaping perception, we can better acknowledge what the world used to look like if we are trying to manage for and really maintain those previous states.
Thank you for joining me on this two-part exploration of ‘shifting baselines’ and the Newfoundland cod moratorium. I hope this short series taught you to look differently at what you consider to be ‘normal’. An additional thank you to all the Newfoundlanders who let me interview them – Lee Tremblett, Dawn and Sam Dredge, Chris Brydle, Tony Oxford, Dr. Bavington, and also to Dr. Pauly. Music in this episode is by Gerry Strong, STB, and Blue dot sessions. Our theme music is by Peat Bogs. Additional thank you’s to Adventure Canada and the Explorer’s Club for funding this trip to Newfoundland. Please join me on the next episode of ‘Submerge’.