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

Joan Septembre went for a weekend hike at Lindeman Lake, parking next to a vehicle that had two windows smashed in. (submitted photo)
Thieves active at Lindeman Lake and other parking spots along Chilliwack Lake Road

The hiking community is lamenting an uptick in car theft and vandalism as the weather gets nicer

Coho smolts. (Tanis Grower photo)
OPINION: A giant, invisible problem for Fraser salmon and how to fix it

‘Successful examples of salmon-friendly flood control can already be found throughout the Lower Mainland’

Members of the Miami River Streamkeepers Society released 5,000 chum salmon fry into the Miami River on April 28. This is part of an ongoing effort to preserve and support local aquatic wildlife. (Photo/Janne Perrin)
Students and streamkeepers release salmon fry into local waterways

Agassiz Christian students have been raising salmon since January as part of class program

Chilliwack volunteer drivers are needed to help get cancer patients back and forth to Abbotsford (shown here), Surrey and Vancouver cancer clinics. (Abbotsford News file photo)
Volunteer drivers needed to expand cancer driver program to Chilliwack

Drivers will need to commit to one full day of driving, or two half days each week

The District of Kent Community Recreation and Cultural Centre. (Photo/District of Kent)
District fitness instructors welcomed into CUPE

More than 500 government employees across the Fraser Valley are part of the union

A bullet hole is seen in the windshield of an RCMP vehicle approximately 4 km from Vancouver International Airport after a one person was killed during a shooting outside the international departures terminal at the airport, in Richmond, B.C., Sunday, May 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Homicide team IDs man in fatal YVR shooting as police grapple with spate of gang violence

Man, 20, charged in separate fatal shooting Burnaby over the weekend

The Canadian Forces Snowbirds are in the Comox Valley for their annual spring training. Photo by Erin Haluschak
Suspected bird strike on Snowbirds plane during training in B.C.

Pilot followed protocols and landed the aircraft on the ground without any problems

BCIT. (Wikimedia Commons)
BCIT apologizes after employee’s ‘offensive and hurtful’ email leaked to Métis Nation

BCIT says employee’s conduct has been investigated and addressed

An adult male yellow-breasted chat is shown in this undatd photograph on lands protected in collaboration between the En’owkin Centre and Penticton Indian Band with support through ECCC. The rescue from near extinction for a little yellow bird hinges on the wild rose in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, a researcher says. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, A. Michael Bezener/ En’owkin Centre 2020 *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Rare yellow birds need wild roses to survive in British Columbia: researcher

The importance of local wild roses emerged over a nearly 20-year experiment

RCMP officers search around rows of luggage carts as screens block off an area of the sidewalk after a shooting outside the international departures terminal at Vancouver International Airport, in Richmond, B.C., Sunday, May 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Police say gang conflict in Metro Vancouver may be behind shooting death at airport

Police said this generation of gangsters is taking things to new level and have no regard for community safety

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

RCMP are looking for information on an alleged shooting attempt near an elementary school in Smithers March 10. (Phil McLachlan/Capital News/Stock)
UPDATE: Man killed in brazen daylight shooting at Vancouver airport

Details about the police incident are still unknown

Pieces of nephrite jade are shown at a mine site in northwestern B.C. in July 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Tahltan Central Government MANDATORY CREDIT
Indigenous nation opposes jade mining in northwestern B.C.

B.C.’s Mines Act requires operators to prepare a plan to protect cultural heritage resources

Most Read