Twenty years after Ottawa shut down Newfoundland's once-thriving northern cod fishery, a growing number of scientists, fishermen and environmentalists say there are signs the fish are finally coming back.
George Rose, director of the Centre for Fisheries Ecosystems Research at Memorial University in St. John's, said recent research indicates the cod are living longer and getting bigger, thanks mainly to warmer water temperatures.
"In particular, this year we're seeing evidence that a lot of the real negative signs in the cod stocks that have been with us for 20 years are turning around," Rose said in an interview Friday.
"Biologically, ecologically we're seeing a major shift back to a system that will eventually become dominated by capelin (a staple of the cod diet) and cod. ... I think we are seeing the beginnings of a recovery now."
Monday marks the 20th anniversary of the federal government's decision to impose a moratorium on the 400-year-old fishery. At the time, the cod population off Newfoundland's north and east coasts had crashed after decades of overfishing, mismanagement and changing environmental conditions.
As processing plants closed and boats were tied up, many communities in rural Newfoundland lost their economic lifeline. Within a year, the entire $700-million enterprise — and way of life — was gone.
In all, more than 30,000 people lost their jobs as the moratorium was eventually extended to much of Atlantic Canada. It was the single-largest mass layoff in Canadian history.
The moratorium was supposed to last two years.
Two decades later, the fishing ban appears to be paying off.
"We're seeing that the fish are living beyond five or six years of age," said Rose, part of a team that earlier this month completed a six-week voyage aboard the research vessel Celtic Explorer, which the provincial government leased from the Marine Institute of Ireland.
Rose says ocean temperatures off the coast of Labrador were up to 2 C higher than normal in some places. "That's a huge difference in the ocean. It's quite astounding."
The professor, who has studied the fishery for almost 30 years, was careful to note his observations are preliminary and the recovery of the cod appears to be limited to certain areas.
"But in some areas we're seeing this rebound coming. That's the first time that we've seen this in decades."
However, the federal Fisheries Department is taking a cautious approach, though its scientists are aware of the latest evidence.
Don Power, the department's head of groundfish research in St. John's, said the northern cod stock remains 90 per cent below levels measured in the 1980s.
"There's a poor prognosis for the stock and recovery," he said in an interview. "We're still a good ways down into this critical zone."
Power confirmed there are some encouraging signs for the cod, with some improvement recorded between 2005 and 2009.
"Things seem to be turning to more favourable conditions for building to occur," he said. "But the ability for a stock to reproduce itself when it's at such a low level — it's going to still take some time to get back to where it was before the moratorium."
While it's true the cod appear to be living longer, he said, the fish don't appear to be reproducing at a faster rate.
Still, the province's largest fishermen's union says there is reason for optimism, particularly when it comes to the warmer ocean temperatures.
Earle McCurdy, president of the Fish, Food and Allied Workers union, said fishermen are seeing larger cod and more capelin, and he agrees that parts of the ocean are getting warmer.
"It's a changing regime, he said, noting that landings for shrimp and crab — species that crave cold water — have dropped in some places.
"I think it's possible that we'll have (a commercial cod fishery). But who will live to see it or what the time frame will be is another matter. I certainly wouldn't rule that out."
Robert Rangeley, Atlantic vice-president for the World Wildlife Fund, said the conservation group is encouraged by the prospects for a cod recovery.
"There's positive signs, but we're not ready for the reopening of a fishery any time soon," Rangeley said. "But from a biological point of view, it looks like a recovery might be possible. ... In the next five years or so it might be possible to start looking at a fishery."
Rangeley says the recovery has been held back by unusually cold ocean temperatures, overfishing by foreign trawlers outside Canada's 200-mile limit and lax enforcement of rules regarding bycatch — the fish that are caught unintentionally.
In Isle aux Morts on the south coast of Newfoundland, Elizabeth Harvey and her husband Doug have watched as their town has shrunk from 1,500 to 600 residents since the moratorium was imposed.
There are four cod fishermen left in the village.
Harvey said she's heard about a cod comeback, but she remains skeptical.
Federal and provincial government have not done enough to curb foreign overfishing, she said. As well, she said nothing is being done about the expanding population of harp seals, which many fisherman blame for eating too many cod.
"There is more cod now than what it was in 1992 ... but it's not back to the way it used to be," she said. "I don't think you're ever going to see it back to that. It's heartbreaking when you look back on 20 years."
Her two sons wanted to be fishermen, but both have moved away — one to Nova Scotia, where he works in a hardware store, the other to Port aux Basques, N.L., where he is looking for work.
"I only wish that something could happen to bring the people back home."