Fishing boats are shown in St.John’s, Friday, Apr.16, 2021. Since the 1992 moratorium on fishing cod in Newfoundland and Labrador, harvesters have focused on crab, shrimp and other shellfish, as evidenced by the many crab boats seen at St. John’s wharves each spring. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sarah Smellie

Fishing boats are shown in St.John’s, Friday, Apr.16, 2021. Since the 1992 moratorium on fishing cod in Newfoundland and Labrador, harvesters have focused on crab, shrimp and other shellfish, as evidenced by the many crab boats seen at St. John’s wharves each spring. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sarah Smellie

‘It’s more than just a fish:’ Scientists worry cod will never come back in Newfoundland

Atlantic cod in the waters off Newfoundland’s northeast coast have been in the critical zone since the early 1990s

The latest assessment of Atlantic cod stocks, whose collapse crushed the economy of Newfoundland and Labrador, has scientists worried the species will never recover without drastic change within the federal Fisheries Department.

The federal government report shows the stock continues to cling for life in what officials classify as the critical zone, meaning “serious harm is occurring to the stock.” Population growth has been stagnant since 2017, the document says.

“Next year will be 30 years since the original moratorium on this stock,” said Robert Rangeleya marine biologist and director of science with Oceana Canada, a non-profit group aimed at protecting the country’s oceans. “It’s time to do something different.”

Atlantic cod in the waters off Newfoundland’s northeast coast have been in the critical zone since the early 1990s, shortly before the federal government in 1992 announced a sweeping moratorium on fishing the species, instantly eliminating a traditional livelihood for about 30,000 people.

There’s now a small commercial cod fishery, known as the “stewardship” fishery, with catch limits set at a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of tonnes landed in the late 1980s. The Fisheries Department’s latest stock assessment, released this month, recommends a maximum catch of 12,999 tonnes in this summer’s fishery. That’s up from 12,350 tonnes in the two previous years. In 2018, it was 9,500 tonnes.

Oceana says that is too high and is calling for this year’s maximum removal to be set at 9,500 tonnes. A “more sustainable level” would be 5,000 tonnes, the level at which the species last showed significant growth, the group says.

Asking for less cod fishing in Newfoundland and Labrador is complicated, Rangeley acknowledged. “It’s social, it’s emotional, it’s cultural,” he said in a recent interview from Nova Scotia. “But we need to follow the best available science and stick to it for a few years and allow the stocks … a chance to rebuild.”

Scientists and fish harvesters are used to butting heads over the state of the cod stock, and this year is no exception. But both sides would like Ottawa to heavily revise the long-anticipated cod rebuilding plan it released quietly in late December. The plan’s harvest rules determined this year’s maximum removals.”It’s a plan for fishing,” Rangeley said. “And we can’t fish our way out of this debt.” He said the plan ignores the latest science, sets no timelines and lays out only interim goals for lifting the species out of the critical zone. There are always commercial pressures on fisheries management and it’s up to the Fisheries Department to plan for future generations by keeping removals low now, he said.

Keith Sullivan, president of the province’s Food Fish and Allied Workers Union, disagrees. He said the threshold for the critical zone is too high and the stock is in far better shape than the numbers let on. “Harvesters in most areas are seeing more cod now than they ever see seen in their entire lives,” he said in a recent interview, adding that he feels the rebuilding plan keeps removal levels extremely low.

“We want to rebuild our communities at the same time we rebuild the stock,” he said.

His sentiments are echoed in the town of New Perlican, known for its speckling of brightly coloured fishing sheds along the harbour, each with a dock in front of it.

Before the moratorium, there’d be a boat at every dock during cod season, said Shelley Burrage, the town clerk. Her father was a cod fisherman, until the moratorium, she said. When she was in high school, she’d get a part-time licence, too, just to help out.

When harvesters push back against catch limits, “they’re fighting for their heritage, for their right to do this,” she said. “It’s more than just a fish.”

Dalhousie University biologist Jeffrey Hutchings says he understands that very well. “But one also has to ask the question … do we want to rebuild, or do we just want a small piddling fishery?” he asked in a recent interview.

Hutchings points out that at its core, the Fisheries Department has to decide what its priorities are. The current iteration of the department was established in the late 1970s, before any major environmental disasters like the cod collapse, he said. “The department was really … an economic department,” he said in a recent interview. “It wasn’t there for conservation or long-term thinking.”

Canada’s oceans have changed since then, and it may be time for the department to change, too, he said.

The Fisheries Department declined a request for an interview to address criticism that it needs a greater focus on conservation. In an emailed statement, spokesperson Carole Saindon said the department’s management and conservation decisions are informed by a number of factors, “including science and socio-economic considerations that take into account the well-being of coastal and Indigenous communities.”

Saindon added that the federal government has made “tremendous advances” in ocean protection in recent years. “As of 2015, less than one per cent of our oceans were protected, compared to nearly 14 per cent today,” the statement said.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

fishing

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The Cowichan Valley Arts Council is offering courses in drawing May through August 2021. (Submitted)
A&E column: Art is everywhere in the Cowichan Valley

What’s going in the Cowichan Valley arts and entertainment community

The CVRD introduces new app to contact residents during emergencies, a tool that chairman Aaron Stone says will improve communications. (File photo)
CVRD launches new app to spread information during emergencies

Cowichan Alert is a free app that can be downloaded onto smartphones, computers

A B.C. Centre for Disease Control map showing new COVID-19 cases by local health area for the week of April 25-May 1. (BCCDC image)
Vancouver Island’s COVID-19 case counts continue to trend down

Fewer than 200 active cases on the Island, down from highs of 500-plus earlier this spring

The Malahat SkyWalk will open to visitors in July 2021. (Malahat SkyWalk photo)
Malahat SkyWalk will open to visitors this July

Highly anticipated attraction will take guests 250m above sea level

FILE PHOTO
Editorial: Time to roll up our sleeves and pitch in

They’re just not quite sure they want to get a vaccine — yet

Protesters attempt to stop clear-cutting of old-growth trees in Fairy Creek near Port Renfrew. (Will O’Connell photo)
VIDEO: Workers, activists clash at site of Vancouver Island logging operation

Forest license holders asking for independent investigation into incident

Starting Tuesday, May 11, B.C. adults born in 1981 and earlier will be able to register for a vaccine dose. (Haley Ritchie/Black Press Media)
BC adults 40+ eligible to book COVID-19 vaccinations next week

Starting Tuesday, people born in 1981 and earlier will be able to schedule their inoculation against the virus

Parks Canada and Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Parks dig the washed up Princess M out from sand along the south shore of the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. (Nora O’Malley photo)
Rescue attempt costs man his boat off Pacific Rim National Park Reserve

Coast Guard response questioned after volunteer responder’s speedboat capsizes in heavy swells

Al Kowalko shows off the province’s first electric school bus, running kids to three elementary and two secondary schools on the West Shore. (Zoe Ducklow/News Staff)
B.C.’s first electric school bus making the rounds in Victoria suburbs

No emissions, no fuel costs and less maintenance will offset the $750K upfront expense

Road sign on Highway 1 west of Hope warns drivers of COVID-19 essential travel road checks on the highways into the B.C. Interior. (Jessica Peters/Chilliwack Progress)
B.C. residents want travel checks at Alberta border, MLA says

Police road checks in place at highways out of Vancouver area

Victoria police say the photo they circulated of an alleged cat thief was actually a woman taking her own cat to the vet. (Black Press Media File Photo)
Photo of suspected cat thief released by Victoria police actually just woman with her pet

Police learned the she didn’t steal Penelope the cat, and was actually taking her cat to the vet

The Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent sails past a iceberg in Lancaster Sound, Friday, July 11, 2008. The federal government is expected to end nearly two years of mystery today and reveal its plan to build a new, long overdue heavy icebreaker for the Canadian Coast Guard. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Vancouver, Quebec shipyards to each get new heavy icebreaker, cost remains a mystery

Vancouver’s Seaspan Shipyards and Quebec-based Chantier Davie will each build an icebreaker for the coast guard

Findings indicate a culture of racism, misogyny and bullying has gripped the game with 64 per cent of people involved saying players bully others outside of the rink. (Pixabay)
Misogyny, racism and bullying prevalent across Canadian youth hockey, survey finds

56% of youth hockey players and coaches say disrespect to women is a problem in Canada’s sport

Most Read