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

Just Posted

Stettler Mayor Sean Nolls and Stettler County Reeve Larry Clarke sign a proclamation for International Economic Development Week which runs May 9th to 15th.
photo submitted
Stettler celebrates International Economic Development Week May 9th to 15th

The week builds awareness of the positive work economic developers do to enhance local economic impact

ALERT seized drugs and a variety of guns from a home in Lacombe on May 5 after an investigation. (Photo courtesy of ALERT)
Guns and drugs seized in Lacombe

Lacombe Police Service and ALERT worked together in a joint investigation

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a press conference in Ottawa on Tuesday, May 11, 2021. Trudeau is rejecting accusations from Alberta’s justice minister that his federal government is part of a trio rooting for that province’s health system to collapse due to COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Trudeau rejects Alberta cabinet minister accusation PM wants COVID-19 health disaster

Alberta has recently had COVID-19 case rates that are the highest in North America

The RCMP logo is seen outside Royal Canadian Mounted Police "E" Division headquarters in Surrey, B.C., on Friday, April 13, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Jewish group extremely disturbed by reports of Hitler Youth flags in Alberta towns

RCMP spoke to the property owner, who refused to remove the flag

Alberta’s environment department has known for years that toxins from old coal mines are contaminating populations of the province’s official animal, the bighorn sheep. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Craig Bihrl
Alberta government knew bighorn sheep contaminated with coal mine selenium, scientist says

Jeff Kneteman says Alberta Environment has known about the problem in bighorn sheep for years

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau receives his COVID-19 AstraZeneca vaccination in Ottawa, Friday, April 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
75% of Canadians need 1st vaccine dose to have more normal summer: Trudeau

The country is on track to hit a major milestone on the road to COVID-19 herd immunity Tuesday, with 40% vaccinated with a 1st dose

A vial of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Carlos Osorio
Alberta to stop giving first doses of AstraZeneca COVID-19 shot as supply dwindles

There aren’t any confirmed shipments of AstraZeneca coming, and the province only has 8,400 doses of it left

Quentin Lee Strawberry was found not guilty of second-degree murder in connection with stabbing death of Joseph Gallant in March 2019. (Photo from RCMP)
Updated: O’Chiese man found not guilty of 2019 stabbing death of Red Deer man

Quentin Strawberry found guilty of assaulting murdered man’s common-law partner

Winnipeg Jets’ Andrew Copp (9) and Edmonton Oilers goaltender Mike Smith (41) watch an incoming shot during second period NHL action in Winnipeg, Monday, April 26, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Greenslade
‘Very jealous’: Canadian teams can’t take advantage of NHL’s relaxed COVID-19 rules

League eased some tight COVID-19 health and safety protocols over the weekend for fully vaccinated clubs

Most Read