Empty seas lash Newfoundland: Cod 'pirates' and factory ships have robbed a Canadian community of its centuries-old way of life

FERRYLAND, a scattering of white dwellings around a wide bay on Newfoundland's southern shore, hopes to make 1997 a year of grand celebration, marking the 500th anniversary of this cold and craggy land's discovery by the merchant voyager from Bristol, John Cabot.

But it will be a party tinged by mourning: the single resource that drew Cabot and subsequent English and Irish settlers here - huge swarms of silvery cod - has, with dramatic suddenness, all but disappeared. Where once the waters were so alive with fish that, according to fable, it was hard to force a ship's prow through them, now there is empty ocean - and looming social disaster.

The predicament is not unique to Newfoundland. United Nations studies suggest that 60 per cent of the world's fishing resources are in decline, or on the verge of it.

Whether it is Indian Ocean shrimp, salmon in America's Pacific north-west or cod in the North Sea, one fact is emerging: stocks that once seemed inexhaustible are dwindling, in some cases almost to extinction levels. And it is a crisis that will force an international reassessment of how stocks should be managed and become better protected from what has amounted to high-seas rape.

In few places is the human tragedy likely to be more vividly displayed than here, a province of Canada since 1949. In the five centuries since Cabot's arrival, with interruptions only for war - notably between Britain and France in the 18th century - cod-fishing has been the economic and spiritual sustenance of the 'Newfie' people.

A Newfoundland deprived of cod would once have seemed unthinkable - like taking the sun from Florida or the mountains from Switzerland. But that is what has happened.

In July 1992, when the collapse of stocks on Newfoundland's Grand Banks, extending east and south into the Atlantic, was first becoming clear, the federal government imposed a two-year moratorium on cod fishing. But since then, stocks have fallen further.

Where in the late 1980s the spawning population in these waters was estimated at more than 1 million tonnes, the figure today is thought to be no more than 15,000 tonnes.

This spring, the government announced an indefinite extension of the fishing ban, as well as a broadening of its scope to new areas and species. Adding insult to injury, it even made it illegal for Newfoundlanders to take their small dinghies out in the summer to 'jig' for cod, with hook and line, for sport and their own tables.

'It's part of our history as Newfoundlanders to go out and jig for a few fish to put in our freezer, or salt and put in the shed for winter. We thought it was our right,' says Loyola Sullivan, member of the provincial parliament, whose constituency covers the jagged line of coves and promontories running south from the capital, St Johns.

On Thursday evening, he held a meeting of local fisherpeople and processing workers in the Ferryland parish hall, to discuss a new five-year, Cdollars 1.9bn ( pounds 900m) compensation package announced last week by Ottawa. The moratorium has ruined the livelihoods of 30,000 people in the province, and Mr Sullivan calculates that in his constituency the unemployment rate is as high as 80 per cent.

The Sullivan family lives at Calvert, a port named after another British adventurer who came here, George Calvert, Lord Baltimore. But today, the lineage all down this coast is Irish - as are the accent, idioms, even the hospitality - and the people's religion is overwhelmingly Catholic.

Laying on a dinner of two meats, boiled potatoes, four other vegetables and a pot of tea, Loyola's mother and father, Marie and Martin, 68 and 77, look wistfully from their window over the narrow neck of water that makes Calvert's harbour. They describe how it used to be: the majestic Bluenose coming in under sail, loaded with fish - and only two years ago, the constant chugging back and forth of the smaller, local vessels. But this evening, when the cod season should just be starting, the narrows are empty.

Later, in a packed Ferryland hall, the mood is one of despair and anger. Loyola warns that few of those present will remain eligible for support over the full five years of the programme. One by one, his constituents rise to urge revolt against a government which, they believe, wants to push the small-boat fishing community out of existence in favour of a few industrial concerns, whose factory ships and dragnets aim to exploit the cod when - if - they return.

'It's time to get off the backs of our hands and show the whites of our knuckles,' declares Mike Walsh, who at 50 has been idle at home since the moratorium began.

All present are in-shore fishermen who caught cod on lines and in traps from smaller boats, often open skiffs. None accepts that he is responsible for the stock's demise. They blame the dragnet boats. Most of all, they blame the foreign boats that still trawl the waters at the outer edges of the Grand Banks, just beyond the 200-mile limit of Canadian jurisdiction.

This weekend, 70 such vessels, all factory ships with dragnets, were reported just outside the boundary. Some are from nations not party to the North Atlantic Fisheries Organisation (Nafo), which prohibits trawling for cod in the area. But others are so-called 'pirate ships', operating under flags of convenience from non-Nafo countries such as Panama, but catching fish for European countries with European crews.

The Kristina Logos was on just such a mission when it was forced into St Johns by three Canadian cutters two weeks ago. Now, with its Portuguese master in jail and the crew returned to Portugal, it remains in harbour.

Green and rusting, it reveals the extent of its crime within. Down below, past squalid living quarters still strewn with the remnants of cramped ocean living - clothes, dirty overalls and empty wine bottles - the deep-frozen hold contains the ship's pathetic haul. The cod are mostly 10in long and less than half a pound in weight; if healthy and full- grown, they would have been more than 2ft long and up to 40lb. And the nets on deck are of a much finer mesh than is legal for trawling cod.

The authorities were able to bring in the Kristina only because it had remained in the Canadian registry while sailing under a Panamanian flag. 'The Europeans are perpetrating a colossal fraud,' complains Walter Carter, the Newfoundland Fisheries Minister. 'They talk about a moratorium, then get around it by allowing ships of convenience to catch the fish.'

There is no dispute about the damage these ships are causing, particularly by catching fish that have not even reached spawning age. Then there is the seal population, which has exploded since the traditional hunt was banned in the wake of international protest. 'The seals don't eat hamburgers or pork chops,' says Mr Carter. 'They eat the cod.'

Will the cod ever return? Most experts, humbled by past miscalculations, suggest tentatively that perhaps the stock will allow employment of about 6,000, but not before the end of the century.

In the meantime, other fishing nations should take heed, and reform.

(Photograph omitted)

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