National Geographic : 2014 May
Gulf of St. Lawrence 103 life in the gulf seemed large. And it was. But the discovery of this life triggered a wave of exploi- tation, the first industrial-scale gathering in the New World. Thousands of fish were harvested, then tens of thousands, and soon millions. By the 17th century tons of cod, whales, and other creatures had been harvested from the gulf and shipped to Europe, exceeding the value of gold and silver shipped from the Gulf of Mexico. Un- der such pressure, populations began to give way. What seemed infinite was finite, after all. Just how badly the species of the gulf were af- fected by the Europeans’ (and, with time, North Americans’) harvest depended on the size of the catch and on the tempo of those species’ lives. Whales with their ponderous babies, walruses with their bulbous accumulation of body mass, and sturgeons all grow slowly, mate rarely, and die old. They were affected first. Recently, some whale populations have begun to recover, but slowly. Walruses remain missing from the gulf, except for the odd straggler from Arctic waters. The sturgeons persist as they have for tens of millions of years, by hanging on. Many fish mature faster, breed more often, and recover faster than the big mammals, but even they are vulnerable. They multiply, from two to many, but not quickly enough to feed the multitudes who came to depend on them. The cod are now rare, on the verge, in some places, of John Taylor, second from right, and crew haul in a trap pulsing with herring in the Strait of Belle Isle. “I’m the last of my breed,” says Taylor, whose children aren’t interested in the rigors of fishing life.