The Buffalo, the Cod and the Whale: Going, Going …

Editor’s note: During our right whale calving season, this is one of a series of 10 articles that explore the connectivity of our marine and alluvial environments.

By Lauri deGaris

The Grand Banks are a portion of the North American continental shelf in the Atlantic Ocean. It is southeast of Newfoundland, Canada. These underwater submarine plateaus extend southwest from Georges Bank, east-southeast to Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

Cold water flows from the Arctic via the Labrador Current and mixes with the warm water from the Gulf Stream. Air masses passing over this conflicting region produce heavy fog. Icebergs have been known to float into Georges Bank. The varying temperature of this fusion of water produces favorable conditions for the growth of plankton, the base of the food chain. Cod, haddock, herring, flatfish and salmon were once so abundant in the Grand Banks, that a child could catch fish by simply dipping a basket into the ocean.

Today, fishermen and researchers are looking for cod in the Grand Banks, but they are not there anymore. What was one of the world’s richest fisheries is now gone. It is one of the biggest fisheries disasters of all time. The mistakes that led to the collapse of the cod fishery in the Grand Banks remain operational within the mismanagement of natural and cultural resources today.

Research scientists working to manage the cod fishery have collected data randomly throughout the entire Grand Banks region once or twice a year. Commercial cod fishermen knew where the fish congregated and collected their data almost daily. A big part of the problem was that neither side was willing to admit they might be wrong. By 1992, it was obvious the fishery was collapsing and everyone was wrong. How could advanced nations with armies of scientists and advanced technology allow one of the richest fisheries in the world to collapse?

“There is a strong inverse association between the growth of fisheries science … and the effectiveness with which it is applied. Scientists can avoid basing estimates on population models that rely on making assumptions about unmeasurable variables,” according to Ray Beverton, fisheries biologist.

This same theory applies to whales. Sidney Holt, who studies whaling for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said, “You might conclude that it is safe to catch 20 whales this year, and do the same next year and the next. But given the difficulty of counting whales, if that catch is too high, then by the time its cumulative effects show in stock assessments, the stock may have already been badly damaged.”

It was the discovery of petroleum in the 1800s that prevented the complete collapse of the whale fishery and not the “best management practices” offered up by scientists and industry. As petroleum replaced whale oil, whaling industry workers were forced to find a new way to make a living. Many headed west as they caught gold rush fever. And still, others were lured into killing buffalo to make a living.

For thousands of years, Indigenous cultures in North America maintained a sustainable relationship with the bison. There were once millions of bison that roamed freely across the continent and many cultures of people depended upon them for survival. Within 100 years of the introduction of colonization, bison were almost extinct. For a complete history of the buffalo in North America, watch Ken Burn’s documentary, “The American Buffalo,” on PBS. It is powerful and painful.

The cod fish, the whale and the buffalo shared similar fates. Each of these once extremely abundant resources has been exploited to near extinction at the hand of man. In the past, we lived sustainably as a part of the natural world around us. We fully understood and appreciated how all living creatures on Earth are connected. Today, we live disconnected from each other and the natural world.

Weh’naHa’mu Kwasset – Sherri Mitchell – is from the Penobscot Nation. She is an Indigenous attorney, activist and author. She lives on traditional Penobscot land near Bangor, Maine. Sherri entered my life during the coronavirus pandemic when we were all on lockdown.

Sherri Mitchell is one of the founding members of the Land Peace Foundation. They are a multi-generational group of Indigenous leaders, community organizers, culture and language-keepers, educators and scholars, scientists, activists, artists, social services providers, attorneys, judges, and traditional spiritual elders. They come from all environments including reservations, urban, and rural settings, and offer diverse perspectives, experiences, and skills. Core values include being caretakers of our relationship with the land, caring for our elders and youth, as well as preserving our rich cultural traditions.

Sherri Mitchell offered an online six-week class about the role of Indigenous women and the sacred instructions we have carried throughout time. I enrolled in her class and was introduced to her book, “Sacred Instructions; Indigenous Wisdom for Living Spirit-Based Change.”

Sherri’s class taught us ways to help heal ourselves and Mother Earth. In this book, Sherri discusses the importance of biodiversity in nature and culture. During one class, Sherri shared the story of the Sleeping Cannibal Giant. It is a traditional Penobscot myth rooted deep in truth. And, it is a good lesson for everyone to learn.

For thousands of years, no one knows how long, the giant cannibal slept, undisturbed by anyone. Then, one day he awoke to find himself very hungry. He began to devour everything on the planet. Soon, the giant cannibal will run out of food. If this occurs, there will be much suffering for all who live on Mother Earth. It is time for us to come together as a collective group and put the giant cannibal back to sleep. To do this, we must change the way we live in relationship with all who share life on Mother Earth.

The past two centuries have been dominated by industrialization. During this time, we produced numerous scientific thinkers. However, during this time, to push advance civilization we alienated the mystical and intimate relationship we share with the natural world. This has allowed for the destruction of natural and cultural resources we all depend upon to live a balanced way of life.

Consider that for thousands of years, Indigenous people lived sustainably, in balance with Mother Earth. Then, colonization arrived and like a swarm of locusts began to devour everything in sight. It is during this time that we lost Indigenous sacred knowledge. Colonization brought the killing of knowledge-based systems in traditional Indigenous societies.

Thank you, Sherri Mitchell, for reminding us to value diversity in nature and in culture. Diversity, when sung like a lullaby, can gently sway the giant cannibal back to sleep. To learn the lyrics of this lullaby listen to Sherri Mitchell speak about “Sacred Instructions; Indigenous Wisdom for Living Spirit-Based Change.”


National Park Service – Lesson Plans for the Northern Atlantic cod fishery.

The Land Peace Foundation – Who We Are. Land Peace

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Trusted Member
3 months ago

Diversity is life. Sustainability is life. Humanity is life. Open minds promote all.

Noble Member
3 months ago

Part of the problem with our oceans is that other countries use them. They do not share the same values as Americans and other like minded nations with regard to protecting its resources. Instead, they only are concerned with what they can reap from it NOW with no regard to what it does to the health of its future. China is terrible with their offshore fishing and Japan continues their dolphin round ups for slaughter and the occasional selling to marine parks ALL of this is barbaric and destructive to our ocean’s ecosystem. Until this is STOPPED, they will continue to rape and pillage until nothing is left in international waters.

Mark Tomes
Noble Member
Mark Tomes(@mtomes)
3 months ago

Thanks for these important reminders about thinking about long-term consequences of our actions. Your remark about industrialization dominating over the past two centuries is only partially correct. The true culprit is free market capitalism, the political and economic policies that allow businesses and wealthy individuals to do whatever they want with no regulations. We need to find the balance between allowing businesses to thrive, but not at the expense of our environment, our wages and healthcare, and other things we need in a society.

Trusted Member
2 months ago

Wonderful perspective of how we, as a people, must cherish our planet and it’s resources every day. Thank you for awakening in me the importance of preserving our earth and what God has provided.

Bill Fold
Noble Member
Bill Fold(@bill-fold)
2 months ago

“How could advanced nations with armies of scientists and advanced technology allow one of the richest fisheries in the
world to collapse?”

Beware the power of stupid people in large groups.

Noble Member
2 months ago

Thanks for sharing your wisdom. May we learn from it.

George Miller
George Miller(@george-miller)
2 months ago

Cod “near extinct? Strange- we can buy them right here in Publix, etc. But they have gotten more expensive. U.S. and Canada should start by better enforcing their exclusive economic zones. At this point, about half of all fish sold are farmed, by necessity. A lot of hungry mouths out there.

I fished for striped bass in New England this summer. They seemed amazingly more abundant than ever. There are stringent catch restrictions, though.

Last edited 2 months ago by George Miller
Noble Member
2 months ago
Reply to  George Miller

Apparently catfish population is not an issue around here.