Cod: An Eerily Ironic Situation

Overall, 2015, at least for now, is turning out to be a profitable year for the majority of harvesters in Atlantic Canada.

Catch rates for lobster, snow crab and shrimp have been good or even great, some are reporting and more importantly, the prices fishermen have been receiving for their catches have been better than recent years.

But any seasoned fishermen will tell you they take nothing for granted in this line of work and have any number of personal experiences they can list off highlighting the volatility of the fishing industry. Things can be going along swimmingly with the finances of an enterprise, but knee-jerk reactions from regulators, leading to quota cuts or changes in the total allowable catch of a species can quickly turn a fisherman’s prospects upside down.

While the fishing industry continues to enjoy relative success in this region, the same cannot be said for some fishermen plying their trade south of the border.

The State of Massachusetts recently announced it will be distributing about $3 million in federal fishery disaster aid to 525 eligible Massachusetts-based crew members, dock workers and owner/operators.

These measures follow the quick and drastic Gulf of Maine cod quota cuts rolled out earlier this year — a reduction of 75 per cent.

The payments for the eligible fisheries-related workers ranged from $1,209 per year to $10,080 per year, with 68 successful applicants to receive $8,064 per eligible year, while 120 successful applicants maxed out at $10,080 per eligible year.

The $3 million earmarked for those impacted by the groundfish quota cuts is part of the $8.3 million initially contained in the second phase of the $75 million-federal fishing disaster funding approved by Congress in January 2014.

The four coastal New England states, as well as New York and New Jersey, received about $33 million of the total $75 million, with Massachusetts’ share amounting to about $14.8 million.

The first phase of compensation funding funneled $6.5 million to more than 200 eligible federal limited permit holders in the form of payments of $32,500 per eligible groundfish license.

The second phase also included $3.8 million for an expanded pool of state and federal permit holders; $750,000 to shore-side businesses adversely impacted by the federally declared fishing disaster and about $800,000 for charter and for-hire boat operators.

The New England Fishery Management Council voted to reduce the total allowable cod catch limit from 1,550 to 386 metric tonnes. Regulators have said the level of cod spawning in the Gulf is at an all-time low — three to four per cent of its target level, a steep decline from three years ago.

Cod catches off the New England states have plummeted — similar to what was witnessed off Atlantic Canada in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Massachusetts’ catches fell from 6,810 metric tonnes in 2011 to 1,881 in 2013, while Maine’s numbers fell from more than 560 metric tonnes in 2009 to less than 130 metric tonnes last year, state and federal data show.

For the many veteran Atlantic Canadian fishermen that lived through and endured the heartache and upheaval of the 1992 groundfish moratorium in this part of the world, the scenario being played out along the eastern seaboard must seem eerily familiar.

One, of course, could question how the regulators of the New England states’ fishery, namely the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) could let the stocks dwindle to such dangerous levels, especially give the real-life example that was played out more than 20 years ago, just 1,100 nautical miles to the northeast. But it is far too late for second guessing now.

But Mother Nature is a cruel and cynical master. Just as hundreds of displaced U.S. fisheries workers are pondering their future due to the lack of cod, fishermen in this region are coming face-to-face with the opposite scenario — a return of an abundant groundfish stock.

A short while ago, there was still much debate and speculation about whether groundfish were in fact making a recovery off the shores of Atlantic Canada — particularly the once plentiful northern cod stock. But any question about the return of this once valuable species can be finally put to rest — the cod are back and everyone from seasoned fishermen, to world-renowned scientists, to weekend warrior recreational fishers are in agreement.

The worry for the last two decades was will the cod ever recover — similar to the conversations taking place right now on wharves and in sheds on the coasts of Maine and Massachusetts. But that worry here has now been replaced with a simple question — the cod are finally back, now what?

I am sure the harvesters to the south would much rather face that question than the uncertainty looming over them right now. But for harvesters in this region, the return of cod stocks is indeed raising concerns.

In this issue of The Navigator, you will read about a veteran Newfoundland fisherman that says the cod are undoubtedly back, but any return to a viable fishery is completely up in the air and is mired by uncertainty and a lack of planning and markets.

The various cod scenarios playing out right now in both regions are on extreme, opposite ends of the spectrum, with one disturbing commonality — a high level of uncertainty about what the future holds for each of them.

Kerry Hann

Managing Editor of The Navigator Magazine.

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