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History of the Northwest Atlantic Fishery


Historical Overview of the Northwest Atlantic Fishery

In June 1497, the historical expedition from Great Britain led by John Cabot on the ship "Matthew" approached the waters of North America, off the Newfoundland coast, and discovered abundant resources of cod. As it is recalled in historical documents, the Europeans were so profoundly impressed about their discovery that they brought back to Europe an incredible story of an anchor which could not be sunk in the water because of resting on very dense shoals of cod. For a period of almost five full centuries, this fishery alone supplied the world's population with an enormous amount of fish which could be roughly estimated at 200 million tons or more.

The first fishing expeditions after the John Cabot discovery of North America were started in the 1490s. Historic records show England (the "West Country"), France, Portugal and Spain were fishing cod in 1502–03. The fishing industry developed around cod as it was one of the most abundant species extending over the vast area from northern Labrador to New England. This discovery led to a fundamental build-up of the fishery in this area.

The USA began to record area of capture by fishing ground for landings at major Atlantic coast ports in 1891. In contrast, when Canadian fisheries statistics first reflected area of capture in 1917 only catches from inshore and offshore areas were distinguished. The first steps to establish a common international system of collection of area of capture information were taken by the North American Council on Fishery Investigations (NACFI) at its first meeting in 1921. This Council (which underwent several name changes between 1921 and 1930) was established to consider the state of various fish stocks and fish statistics were designed to correspond as far as possible with natural division of the fish populations or with barriers to fish migrations. This subsequently developed into a recording system on the scale of individual fishing banks or fishing grounds. The data collection schemes continued after NACFI ceased to exist after 1939.

It was not until the middle of the twentieth century that fishing nations recognized major threats to the "inexhaustible" resources of the Northwest Atlantic. The concern and the spirit of cooperation among nations to preserve fish stocks resulted in the establishment of an international organization – the International Commission for the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries (ICNAF) in 1950, which aimed to protect and conserve the fish resources of the Northwest Atlantic area on the basis of modern fishery science.

After almost 30 years of activity, ICNAF and the International Convention for the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries was replaced by a new Convention. In 1979, following the extension of national fisheries jurisdiction by the Coastal States to 200 nautical miles, ICNAF was replaced by the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO), established under the new Convention on Future Multilateral Cooperation in the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries. The Northwest Atlantic fisheries have a rich history, and a great deal of research has been sponsored or encouraged by NAFO and its predecessor, ICNAF. 

Historical photos

old ship

Photo of the "Matthew" sailing near North America Ref: Cabot's Discovery of North America, by G. E. Weare, 1897. 

cod and child

Photo showing child with two cod taken 1910 in Battle Harbour, Labrador. Ref: National Archives of Canada; Neg. No.: C76178


NAFO Perspectives booklet (pdf 4.7 MB)

Contact us

Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization
Summit Place
1601 Lower Water Street 
Suite 401
Halifax, Nova Scotia
Canada B3J 3P6

Tel: +1 902 468-5590