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Lament for an Ocean: The Collapse of the Atlantic Cod Fishery: A True Crime Story

by Michael Harris

Journalist Michael Harris’s investigation of the crisis in Canada’s Atlantic fishery is a keen indictment of government bureaucracy, bunglings, and hidebound ideas. It’s also extremely timely with the just released report of the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife. Still, the debate continues in the media. Is Canada’s cod endangered or merely “vulnerable”? Why aren’t the stocks replenishing themselves?

For anyone interested in conservation issues, or who wants to understand how we got into this mess, Harris’s book would be a good place to begin. Drawing parallels to the clear-cutting of forests, Harris gives a brief history of the fishery and tracks all the major imbroglios over the past few decades, writing clearly, objectively, and with exhaustive research. Such issues as illegal fishing, under-reporting of catches, overfishing by the Spanish and Canadians, the effects of such technology as factory-freezer trawlers, and government reluctance to act and protect this most important resource are covered well. The dismal failure of TAGS (The Atlantic Groundfish Strategy) is daunting, as is the proof of political expediency underlying the program. TAGS has become an income supplement for the unemployed, rather than a retraining program, as originally planned. Equally gloomy is the government’s attempt to blame everyone under the sun for the catastrophe, while turning a blind eye to fishing in illegal areas.

Harris makes some viable suggestions at the end; for example, concentrating on the more upscale end of the industry like lobster and shrimp; establishing small-scale fisheries as Japan has; encouraging Newfoundland fishermen to face reality and plan for self-sufficiency, rather than looking blindly to the past; banning discarding at sea as Norway has; and, increasing penalties for overfishing or fishing spawning stocks.

It’s annoying that the book has no index and Harris’s endorsement of aquaculture is one-sided and doesn’t mention the risk of pollution. As well, the research, while thorough, has a way of impinging on the narrative: too many statistics make for a dry read.