This story appears in the May 2014 issue of National Geographic magazine.
The Gulf of St. Lawrence is the sum total of everything that rolls downhill. It gathers from rivers whose finger streams begin hundreds of miles away—in cities like Montreal and in old-growth forests in New York State. It sweeps up sediment, runoff, and the litter of leaves. It churns and roils in a constant state of metamorphosis. Underwater, bacteria and plankton mix sediment with light and animate the inanimate. The accounting adds up to a density of shimmering, biting, drifting life as rich as anywhere else on Earth.
Geologically speaking, the gulf is new to the world. Nineteen thousand years ago, the entire gulf was under ice more than a mile thick. The ice pressed down the land to such an extent that when it finally melted, the earth sprang back up in what one can describe only as relief. As the land rose and the ice melted, the gulf filled with water and life. Freshwater fish migrated down the St. Lawrence River; saltwater fish, sea urchins, sea stars, plankton, and whales arrived from the Atlantic.
The thumb of land known as Cape Breton Island separates the southern edge of the Gulf of St. Lawrence from the sea. On the cape’s east the waters are cold and can be terrifying. On its west the waters are, if not warm, warmer, and if not calm, calmer. The first gatherers on Cape Breton were the ancestors of the Mi‘kmaq (pronounced MIG-maw), one of the indigenous peoples of Canada’s Maritime Provinces. They arrived at the gulf at least 9,000 years ago, spreading through what is now Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and gathering the bounty according to their preferences and needs: seals, seabird eggs, salmon, sturgeons, shad, and even whales.
Beginning in the 1500s French, Basque, and Portuguese fishermen came and traded with the local people. Those who came later settled around the native people, for they too were dependent on the gulf’s life and subject to its cycles. Cod appeared, and boats would appear over them. Walruses appeared, and hunters would soon follow.
For Europeans used to the overfished waters of their homeland, where many species had already become scarce and large mammals even more so, life in the gulf seemed large. And it was. But the discovery of this life triggered a wave of exploitation, 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. Under such pressure, populations began to give way. What seemed infinite was finite, after all.
Just how badly the species of the gulf were affected 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 extinction. Every so often a fisherman puts out a line to check for them, but the line comes back empty, water hanging like hope on the hook.
Although numbers of cod and other predatory fish have plunged, lobsters are surging. Other species, many of them bottom-feeders, are fished too, but lobsters are now the fate to which the most lives here are tied, and the weather that draws out the boats or sends them home. The lobsters are not infinitely abundant either, but for now, at least, the crustaceans are thriving.
The gulf has changed and will continue to change. Even if fishing were to stop tomorrow, populations would wax and wane with climate change, which threatens to make the gulf warmer and less salty. So far we have chosen to make the gulf and its life-forms a little less useful to humans with each generation, and a little less lovely. Case in point: We eat the big cod, and so the remaining cod mature at an earlier age and a smaller size, so they can breed before getting big enough to be dinner worthy.
For thousands of years the gulf has been a place to gather from the generous waters, but times have changed. Gatherers are no longer just men and women in boats; they now include petroleum executives for whom fortune does not leap out of the water like a fish.
Plans are under way to drill the first big oil well in the gulf, in an area known as Old Harry. Environmentalists see the oil as a tragedy that’s different from the old tragedies of the gulf. Maybe. You could also see it as just one more story of our choices about what we gather. We gathered the cod, as food and for oil, which fueled the lamps of industry. We gathered the whale for the same. If we gather Old Harry’s oil, it will run out faster than whale or cod, but it will fuel our daily actions, our commutes and our enterprise, just the same. Of course, if it ever spills, it will also fuel oil-eating bacteria and other species that grow at our expense rather than to our benefit.
The good news is we get to choose—algal weeds or whales, oil-eating bacteria or seals. We get to choose because for now the gulf is still wild with life, with trillions of individual organisms, and a great many hopes and dreams.