“I didn’t take the fish from the God damn water”

Memorable and anger-laced retort by one of Canada’s most colourful politicians, John Crosbie.

Cod has been fished for centuries off the coast of Newfoundland. But the cod stocks themselves aren’t infinite. And by the early 1990s, overfishing – often by internationally owned, industrial-sized ships – had dangerously depleted the cod stocks. Something had to be done. Besides, as they say, you can’t kiss the cod on the Rock if there aren’t any cod to kiss.

In the summer of 1992, the government of Brian Mulroney completely banned cod fishing for at least two years. It was the right decision from a fish ecology perspective. But try telling that to 20,000 inshore workers and countless fish-harvest families in Newfoundland who would suffer with their boats tied up. The moratorium resulted in the largest layoff in Canadian history.

Enter federal Fisheries Minister John Crosbie, member of a prominent Newfoundland business family. On July 1, 1992, surrounded by several fisherman on the pier of St. John’s harbour and with his back to the Atlantic, Crosbie faced their fury. He initially listened to their concerns. But then it happened – a magic rhetorical moment only possible with an animated politician like Crosbie.

Told he was responsible for their impending economic hardship, Crosbie uttered one of the most memorable quotes in Canadian political history: “I didn’t take the fish from the God damn water, so don’t go abusing me!” The media got one of the best sound bites in Canadian history, while the fishermen went away empty handed. The moratorium took hold the next day, lasting for years. The cod rejoiced.

Another fish-based drama played out three years later, featuring another highly animated, Newfoundland-born politician. In March 1995, Brian Tobin, Liberal cabinet minister and charter member of the Rat Pack, smelled a good photo-op as international tensions escalated over Spanish overfishing. The Turbot War was on. Orchestrating an elaborate, camera-friendly press conference on the docks of New York City – which Parli notes is in neither Newfoundland nor Spain – Tobin slammed Spain for scooping too many turbot out of Canadian waters.

Image source: CBC

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