The Grand Banks have historically been one of the world's richest fishing grounds. Portuguese and Basque fishers worked the Grand Banks as early as the 1400s. The area has since been fished by fleets from England, France, Spain, Portugal and later Newfoundland, Canada, Russia, and the United States, among many others.
When Canada followed the international trend and declared an offshore Exclusive Economic Zone of 200 nautical miles (370.4 kilometres) in 1977, about one-third of the fishable area of the Atlantic Continental Shelf fell outside this expanded jurisdiction. Included in this area are the Nose and the Tail of the Grand Banks, and the Flemish Cap, another fish-rich region east of the Nose. Non-Canadian vessels therefore fish the Nose and Tail and the Flemish Cap. The Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO), a regional fisheries management organization, has responsibility for management and conservation efforts of groundfish and shrimp in these NAFO Divisions referred to as 3LMNO.
The Grand Banks are actually a series of raised submarine plateaus extending for 730 kilometres off the south and east coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador (NL). The cold Labrador Current and the warm Gulf Stream are the dominant oceanographic features. The relatively shallow water depth of between 36 and 185 metres over much of the Grand Banks allows extensive marine life to flourish on or near the bottom as well as in the water column. Its 280,000 square kilometres are important spawning, nursery and feeding areas to a large number of fish and shellfish species including Atlantic cod, haddock, capelin, Atlantic halibut, redfish (ocean perch), Greenland halibut (turbot), yellowtail and witch flounder, American plaice, crab, shrimp and scallop. The natural range of most groundfish species on the Grand Banks covers both sides of the 200-mile limit and makes these straddling stocks an important part of the Canadian and the high seas fisheries.
By 1995, all major cod and flounder fisheries on the Grand Banks were closed, and many other fish species such as Greenland halibut and redfish had their catch levels sharply restricted. The recovery of almost all these stocks in NAFO Divisions 3L, 3N and 3O (Grand Banks) has been very slow or non-existent. A notable exception has been yellowtail flounder, which was not depleted to the same extent as other stocks and which has rebounded to historical levels. At the same time, an increased abundance of some shellfish species such as crab and shrimp has led to the recent development or increase of these fisheries in Canadian waters on the Grand Banks. There has also been the development of an international shrimp fishery outside 200 miles on the Nose.
A similar pattern has been observed on the Flemish Cap, another shelf of relatively shallow water centred 120 nautical miles east of Canada's 200-mile limit completely within international waters (NAFO Division 3M). The minimum water depth is deeper than the Grand Banks at about 140 metres and the average water temperature is generally higher than on the northern Grand Banks. The 58,000-square-kilometre area may have served as an important refuge for marine species during the last ice age.
Major changes in the ecosystem of the Flemish Cap took place during the 1990s and have continued until present. Abundance of cod and American plaice has declined, as has their distributional range, while Greenland halibut have spread into the shallower depths of the Cap and there has been an increase in the abundance of shrimp. There is currently no directed fishery for American plaice or cod in Division 3M, with little improvement expected in these stocks in the foreseeable future. The decline in redfish stocks seems to have halted, but it is unclear whether the stock will be able to rebound. There are significant international fisheries for Greenland halibut and shrimp in the Flemish Cap area.
Even though there is a moratorium on fishing many species on the Nose and Tail of the Grand Banks and the Flemish Cap, these stocks can be taken legally as bycatch in the directed fishing of other species. The allowable bycatch, however, is only five per cent and there are significant concerns that these limits are routinely exceeded. NAFO has expressed grave concern over the increase in catches of cod in Division 3NO and American plaice in Division 3LNO, currently at levels which will not allow these stocks to recover. The Government of Canada increased its monitoring activity in the NAFO Regulatory Area and its diplomacy efforts internationally and has seen better compliance as a result.