Bracing lessons for Northwest fisheries ... from the Northeast

Newfoundland went centuries believing it could never exhaust its abundance of cod. Until it did. A reflection from the waters of Vashon Island and Mistaken Point.
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A Chinook salmon. (U.S. Geological Survey)

Newfoundland went centuries believing it could never exhaust its abundance of cod. Until it did. A reflection from the waters of Vashon Island and Mistaken Point.

I stand on the rocky shore of Jensen Point near a beached snag, the cold salt water of Quartermaster Harbor lapping at my ankles. The point, which divides inner and outer Qurtermaster Harbor, is the site of a Vashon Island park. People launch kayaks, rowing shells, canoes, motorboats here. Swimmers start the Heart of the Sound Triathlon here, too. Swimming out into the deeper water of the channel, virtually all of us wear wetsuits. I once ran into a young woman wearing a Heart of the Sound Triathlon T-shirt and made a casual comment about the race. I'm never doing that again, she said. That water is so cold!

Be that as it may, people have been coming to Jensen Point for centuries. In 1996, archaeologist Julie Stein, now director of the University of Washington's Burke Museum, led a dig here into a shell midden that has been carbon dated at up to 1,000 years old. Across the harbor, to the south, you can see sailboat masts at another park and marina; it's all very bucolic, but a century ago you might have seen masts clustered there around a big floating dry dock, Puget Sound's first, which opened in 1892. There was already a shipway on the site when the dock arrived, and a big mill nearby. People built and repaired boats along that curve of shore into the 1920s. Right after World War I, the Martinolich yard launched a vessel 250 feet long. In 1929, the yard launched the fishing vessel Janet G., from which a local family seined Alaska salmon for generations. That's all gone now, although you still see old pilings in the water, and the place is still called 'ꀜDockton.'ꀝ

I got an even more expansive — and eerier — sense of time a few months ago, when I stood on a gray stone slab at Mistaken Point. The cold sea broke on the rocks below. Black guillemots flew offshore. The windswept point is named in the vein of such Northwestern reminders of shattered illusion as Cape Disappointment, Deception Pass, Point No Point, Disappointment Cleaver. But it's not Northwest. It's Northeast, about as far Northeast as you can go on this continent, at the southern tip of Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula. The sea battering the rocks is the North Atlantic. A couple hours' drive up the coast lies Cape Spear, the easternmost point in North America. Just beyond that stands the city of St. John's, so far out in the Atlantic that Marconi chose it as the place to receive the first trans-Atlantic radio signal from England in 1901. Eleven years later, when the Titanic hit an iceberg 400 miles off Newfoundland, the wireless station at Cape Race, a few kilometers down the coast from Mistaken Point, was the first and perhaps only recipient of its SOS.

Newfoundland's proximity to Europe ensured its place in history. The Bonavista Peninsula, northwest of St. John's, may be the spot at which in 1497 John Cabot, a Venetian sailing for England, became the first European to land on North America — the first, that is, since the Vikings abandoned a short-lived settlement on a different Newfoundland cape, a site now known as l'Anse aux Meadows, some 500 years before.

Being in the far Northwest hasn't had the same kind of historical significance — except, of course, that this region's distance from Europe and the East Coast enabled some of the original forest and some of the iconic critters to survive, that Puget Sound's proximity to Alaska made it the logical staging place for the Klondike gold rush, and that Alaska's proximity to Asia probably made it the place at which human beings first entered this hemisphere.

After Cabot — and possibly before Cabot — Europeans sailed across the Atlantic into Newfoundland's offshore waters to catch cod along the nearby Grand Banks. Cod became the island's economic mainstay, and remained virtually its only resource from the 16th century to the late 20th century. Colonial New England depended on the cod fishery, too — a carved wooden cod has famously hung in the Massachusetts statehouse since 1784 — but New England developed other options. Newfoundland did not.

Some people got rich from the cod fishery, but they were mostly merchants far away. Little 'ꀜoutport'ꀝ communities were never wealthy. Common people survived on the cod fishery, but they didn't exactly prosper. Even in the late 20th century, their existence was pretty Third World. I stayed in an outport this spring with someone not yet 60 who grew up there carrying buckets of water home from the town well.

Modern historical fantasies notwithstanding, salmon fishing was never so significant to non-native society in the Northwest. Salmon were indeed central to the native cultures, but after non-natives came to stay, timber made most of the fortunes and paid most of the bills. (The concentrated wealth of the canning companies gave them a lot of political power in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but that's a different story.)

Still, the cod fishery of Newfoundland offers a cautionary tale that applies here as well as anywhere else. The cod are mostly gone. Old 'ꀜflakes,'ꀝ pole platforms for drying split and salted cod, still stand in the outports, but they're relics now. Newfoundland's inshore fishery tanked in the 1960s, its offshore fishery in the 1970s. The outport populations have grayed and shrunk. You can still find cod on restaurant menus, but the island's main industry is offshore oil; its main fishery is shrimp. A nearly 500-year-old culture built on cod fishing has receded to the level of history and folkways.

'ꀜThe Atlantic cod, New England's founding fish, the currency of northern Atlantic nations, once swam in great schools of six-foot monsters, its members so thick that John Cabot in 1497 bragged about landing them with a bucket lowered into the sea,'ꀝ writes William Stolzenberg in Where the Wild Things Were. 'ꀜA big cod now, in the few places where they are still numerous enough to be fished, averages a little more than a foot long.'ꀝ The destruction of the Atlantic cod fishery represents perhaps the world's most dramatic proof that with enough avarice and the right tools, not even the fish of the sea are inexhaustible.

By now, the global depletion of high-value fisheries is old news. The New York Times has just reported the decline of the hoki, a skinny, goggle-eyed fish caught in the deep waters off New Zealand and served widely in fast food restaurants. The U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization reported last year that "in 2007, about 28 percent of stocks were either overexploited (19 percent), depleted (8 percent) or recovering from depletion (1 percent) and thus yielding less than their maximum potential owing to excess fishing pressure. A further 52 percent of stocks were fully exploited and, therefore, producing catches that were at or close to their maximum sustainable limits with no room for further expansion. ... Overall, 80 percent of the world fish stocks for which assessment information is available are reported as fully exploited or overexploited and, thus, requiring effective and precautionary management.'ꀝ

For most of the past 500 years, no one thought human beings could wipe out all those cod. In the Pacific Northwest, it has been harder to confuse abundant with inexhaustible. While some people believed or pretended that salmon truly were inexhaustible, others realized well before the end of the 19th century that they could be, and in fact were being, wiped out — hence more than 150 years of poorly enforced and often poorly-conceived fishery regulation. Hence also the will to believe that hatcheries could atone for our many sins of habitat degradation and over-fishing. 'ꀜSalmon protection has been part of [the Northwest's political landscape] since the first territorial legislature of 1848,'ꀝ fisheries biologist Jim Lichatowich, the author of Salmon Without Rivers, told me some years ago. 'ꀜWe knew since 1875 ... what was going to cause the collapse.'ꀝ

In Newfoundland, the problem was overfishing, pure and simple — albeit not overfishing from the little boats in which Newfoundlanders themselves traditionally worked and died. Here, the problems have been more complex, but fishing has played more of a part than we tend to acknowledge. One always sees 'ꀜharvest'ꀝ (along with hatcheries, hydro and habitat loss) included in the 'ꀜfour H's'ꀝ that threaten wild salmon, but one seldom sees it in environmental groups' critiques or legal briefs or calls for action. Most concentrate on the other H's, thus preserving good relationships with commercial fishers and tribes, who are naturally eager to place the burden of restoring wild fish runs on anyone but themselves.

It's true that without habitat, there won't be any wild salmon to overfish. Ditto if the dams keep salmon from reaching that habitat, or traditional hatcheries flood the spawning streams with McFish. It's also true that although some of those fish are listed under the Endangered Species Act, governments let people catch them "incidentally," which leaves them incidentally dead. (State and federal agencies insist they have everything under control. New Zealand fishery managers insist the hoki is being harvested sustainably, too.) Fishery managers treat the incidental catch of all-but-extinct wild fish 'ꀜas though it's a harvestable surplus,'ꀝ Lichatowich said. 'ꀜThat's dumbfounding to me. When you're down to the last 5 percent, to talk as if there's a harvestable surplus is just mind-boggling.'ꀝ Kurt Beardslee of Wild Fish Conservancy, one of the few green groups that has treated harvest as a problem, wonders how so many people can ignore 'ꀜthe size of the elephant in the room.'ꀝ

Somehow, harvest "is never a problem," Beardslee says. "I bet that's what they said about the passenger pigeon and the buffalo, the Atlantic salmon and the Atlantic cod."

Newfoundland's nearly half-millennium of European cod fishing was a pretty long run. At Mistaken Point, though, that half-millennium isn't even a drop in the bucket. The rock beneath my feet was covered with raised fossils of what looked like ferns and leaves. It's visually striking; you seem to be walking over the floor of an ancient forest or wetland; but you don't get the full effect unless you know that this was never a forest floor. It was the bed of the deep ocean. These fossils evidently aren't plants, but critters that lived on the bottom of the sea.

Some of the fossils look like small fern fronds, others like elongated leaves. A third type resembles little two-dimensional cabbages. At the base of a fourth lies the circular form of what seems to have been a 'ꀜholdfast'ꀝ that anchored it to the sea floor, like the holdfasts that anchor modern kelp. Some of the leaf-like structures may have been like modern sea pens (which are actually colonies of polyps and are found in Puget Sound). Some look like leaves with rather simple, symmetrical arrangements of veins. In others, the veining is denser and more complex; these, found nowhere else, have been named for the aboriginal Newfoundlanders, the Beothuks, the last of whom died in 1829.

This rock once formed a seabed off the coast of Africa. It was, obviously, covered with living organisms. Ash, presumably from an undersea volcano, buried it and everything that lived on it, preserving imprints of the critters' soft tissue.

The slow movement of tectonic plates shoved this chunk of old seabed west, along witih the rest of Newfoundland, to ultimately form part of what is now North America, and pushed it up with the other tilted slabs along this coast. The ash preserved the fossils through the ages, but by now much of it has worn away, exposing them. They haven't lain there long enough for the rains and the Atlantic winds to erase them. More recently, the fossils were covered by the rock and gravel left by a receding glacier. As the edge of the rock pile wore away, they were unveiled. The glacial rock pile extends far inland; beneath it, the fossil beds may extend for acres.

Zircons in the hardened ash enable scientists to date the fossils pretty precisely. They're some of the oldest multi-celled fossils found anywhere on Earth. They date to the very start of the Cambrian. They're 565 million years old.

Half a billion years! How should we view our current concerns about extinctions and climate change in the context of that much time? I don't think the idea of all those years changes much. In the long run — the very long run — wild salmon runs disappearing and the earth getting a few degrees warmer probably 'ꀜdon't amount to a hill of beans,'ꀝ as Humphrey Bogart tells Ingrid Bergman toward the end of Casablanca.

But then, in the very long run, we probably don't, either. In the short run — especially if we have kids, or just enjoy standing ankle-deep in the water off Vashon Island — we may still want to keep from screwing things up. The edge of Puget Sound wouldn't be a bad place to start.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.