The Tragedy of the Commons

Salted dried cod was found everywhere in Europe in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and was mainly supplied by Basque fishermen and merchants.  People wondered where they found such a plentiful supply.  It is now assumed that the Basques were fishing off Newfoundland long before the Italian John Cabot “discovered” it for the English Crown, and before Columbus bumped into the Caribbean.  The existence of Basque words in Newfoundland First Nations’ languages (including the word for cod) is a clue.  Shortly after Cabot claimed it for England, there is written record of 2,000 Basques living there, so the connection was probably already strong.  The probable reason that there is little documented proof of this is that the Basques kept the amazingly bountiful Grand Banks fishing grounds a secret.  They didn’t want anyone else getting in on the act and spoiling it.

Newfoundland became an English then British colony, and later became a dominion of the British Empire in 1907. Its great wealth was the fishery with almost the entire population involved in that industry.  In 1949, Newfoundland merged with Canada whilst quaintly preserving its own time-zone, half an hour ahead of the rest of Eastern Canada.

The fishery now came under the Canadian government which allowed unrestricted fishing for several decades; but in 1992, with the cod fishery below 1% of what it had been, and the by-catch (fishing the calepin on which cod feed and just throwing it away) having destroyed the ability for it to recover, the government closed the fishery down, putting 35,000 people out of work.  It has not re-opened.

The British economist William Forster Lloyd introduced the concept of “the Commons” in the 1830s as any shared resource which is open for anyone to participate in.  It refers to the old English custom whereby villages held common land on which anyone could graze their cows.  In 1968, the American ecologist Garrett Hardin wrote of the “Tragedy of the Commons” where everyone has access to a resource, but by each one maximising their own advantage, they actually end up destroying the resource itself.

Where there is a risk that is not owned by anyone, then no-one will probably bother to understand it, and certainly no-one will manage it.  Sooner or later, that risk will crystallise. The Newfoundland population now consists of those who live on government benefits or those that have been forced to emigrate to other parts of Canada and who only return for holidays.  But the cod have not returned.

 Source: “The Basque History of the World” – Mark Kurlansky; Wikipedia.


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