ST. JOHN'S, Newfoundland -- Decades before Christopher Columbus set eyes upon the New World, Basque fishermen were hauling cod from the immensely fertile waters of the Grand Banks.
In 1497, explorer John Cabot was dazzled by fishing grounds so abundant that flapping masses of cod, haddock, halibut, plaice and yellowfish could be scooped from the sea with a basket.
Even in 1979, when Doug Howlett of the fishing hamlet of Petty Harbour followed generations of forebears down to the sea after cod, the bounty of the banks seemed endless.
"You weren't ever going to get rich, but if you worked hard and long you'd make a good living most years," said Mr. Howlett, now 31 and unemployed by government edict.
In what is looming as one of the worst environmental disasters of the century, the vast fishing grounds off Atlantic Canada -- once the richest on earth -- have been transformed into something approaching an underwater desert.
The reasons are not fully understood. Overfishing by high-tech, deep-sea draggers and trawlers deserves the major portion of the blame. But subtle changes in the water environment of the Grand Banks also have contributed to what Ross Reid, former minister of fisheries, described as an "unprecedented ecological crisis."
In 1966, scientific surveys found that northern cod alone numbered more than 3.3 billion in the Grand Banks; by 1992, the numbers stood at barely 340 million and falling fast. Faced with dangerously diminishing stocks of groundfish, the government has shut down much of its Atlantic fishing grounds, imposing an indefinite moratorium on commercial harvests.
"The cod are gone," Mr. Howlett said. "And cod is 90 percent of what we make our living from."
The moratorium is expected to last well into the next century. Newfoundlanders, Nova Scotians and other Atlantic Canadians have weathered tough times before. But nothing like this.
"When prices are down, you can always live off the fish," said Reg Best, 41, a director of Petty Harbour's inshore fisherman's cooperative. "When the fish are gone, you have to figure we are done for, too."
Many fear that a unique way of life followed for hundreds of years by Newfoundlanders, Nova Scotians and other inhabitants of tiny fishing hamlets -- called outports -- across Atlantic Canada may vanish with the fish.
"The fishery is decimated, the cod and other groundfish have mostly disappeared and the stocks remaining are not in good shape," said Scott Campbell, of the federal Department of Fisheries. "In both human and environmental terms, it is a catastrophe. Even with a total ban on fishing, the stocks are unlikely to revive any time soon -- if they revive at all."
The disappearance of the fish remains something of a mystery; the underlying reasons are debated fiercely by fishermen, environmentalists and fisheries scientists.
Some blame the scores of foreign factory ships that still hover just beyond the edge of Canada's maritime limit, plundering unprotected stocks of cod, plaice, haddock, halibut, yellowtail and other dwindling species from the Grand Banks.
But a far greater burden of blame seems to rest on misguided government fisheries policies, which encouraged the buildup of the nation's own fleet of offshore trawlers and draggers. A
domestic fleet that in the past 15 years has cut through the Grand Banks with all the reckless rapacity of bulldozers clear-cutting a tropical rain forest.
Additionally, fisheries scientists believe that complex changes in the marine environment -- a steady drop in average water temperature, shifts in water currents, changes in salinity -- may have either killed off or driven away substantial numbers of groundfish, or inhibited the fishes' ability to spawn.
Inshore fishermen take fish by hooked lines or hand nets called cod traps in waters close to their home ports. This form of fishing is seasonal, beginning in the spring when the cod come close to shore and typically ending in the fall.
Offshore fishermen, often employees of big Canadian or
multinational fishery companies, haul in huge quantities of fish in draggers and trawlers that ply the far waters of the Grand Banks for most of the year.
Fish stocks have plunged so precipitously that last year the Canadian government banned all commercial fishing in a vast swath of the North Atlantic from the eastern coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador to the 200-mile limit.
After a year, the original moratorium has shown no sign of success.
Desperate, Canada recently shut down five more fishing grounds off southern Newfoundland and parts of Nova Scotia. Next month, the government is expected to ban the commercial harvest of all groundfish and most flatfish in nearly all its Atlantic waters.
"Inshore fishermen have been warning about the decline in stocks since at least the early 1980s," said Jack Noseworthy, 59, whose family has fished Trinity Bay for at least five generations. "No one listened."
Already, more than 50,000 people have been thrown out of work or seen their incomes drastically diminished in Newfoundland, Labrador, Nova Scotia and Quebec's Gaspe Peninsula. This represents the largest single layoff of workers in Canada's history.
"This is the biggest economic, social and environmental disaster to hit this country since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s," said Earle McCurdy, president of the Fishermen, Food and Allied Workers, a union of fisherfolk and fisheries workers. "Fishing and fish processing plants are vital to all the maritime provinces and are the absolute lifeblood of Newfoundland."