More Bad News for Northern Cod Recovery Prospects

Those anticipating a return of a viable commercial Northern cod fishery in the waters off eastern Newfoundland may to have to wait a few more years yet.

At a recent technical briefing, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) reported that the 2J3KL cod stock, also known as Northern cod, has continued to decline from 2017 to 2018 and remains in the critical zone. The spawning stock biomass (SSB) has declined from 441,000 tonnes in 2017 to 315,000 tonnes in 2018. The low spawning stock biomass levels since the 1980s have produced poor recruitment, indicative of serious harm occurring to the stock.

DFO explained that the key measurement tool for cod stocks is the limit reference point (LRP), which is the boundary between the critical and cautious zones.

The current LRP was set in 2010 and measured a biomass of 851,000 tonnes of spawning Northern cod. The number was based on the average amount of spawning biomass during the 1980s. In 2017, the spawning biomass hit 52 per cent of the 851,000 number, but in 2018, it dipped to 37 per cent.

This report comes on the heels of the DFO 2018 science assessment for 2J3KL cod, that precited a 29 per cent single-year decline in the SSB.

At the time, DFO said the overall stock level was at 37 per cent of the level needed to open a commercial fishery.

However, the 2016 cod stock assessment had indicated the spawning biomass had increased to around 40 per cent of the precautionary threshold and was expected to grow each year.

But DFO did offer a glimmer of hope in the report, stating “Overall, no evidence that Northern cod is experiencing a prolonged period of low productivity that indicate historic levels of biomass cannot be reached in the future.”

But the union representing fish harvesters in the province takes exception to the findings in the report. In a press release, the Fish, Food and Allied Workers (FFAW) said “There were no changes to the LRP as a result of the meeting, however, DFO did not have a full analysis of available data completed in order to make a change. DFO Science’s LRP is based on the average of spawning stock biomass in the 1980s, which they argue is the last period of moderate recruitment. There are fundamental problems with this approach. DFO is continuing to ignore information from harvesters regarding the health of the Northern cod stock in the 1980s. Twenty-five years later, DFO’s assessment model shows Northern cod collapsed practically overnight, between January and May of 1992 when the fishery was closed — the biggest layoff in Canadian history.”

“Based on harvester observations on the water at that time, the decline began earlier than the department asserts and yet this information is still being ignored. If DFO Science doesn’t recognize these past mistakes, are we doomed to repeat the story of the 1990s?” questioned FFAW President Keith Sullivan.

The release went on to say that the stock has grown from a 10,000-tonne spawning stock biomass to over 300,000 tonnes today, noting that harvesters are certainly seeing more cod now than they did during the late 1980s.

“Although that knife-edge drop in 1992 is shown in the currently accepted assessment model for Northern cod, this interpretation remains controversial among both harvesters and scientists. It is time that we revisit how, when and how fast the Northern cod collapsed,” says Dr. Erin Carruthers, FFAW fisheries scientist.

“This work is too important and a complete analysis must be done quickly. We have to resolve our understanding of what happened during the collapse. That is the crux of our differences today. It is more important than ever to listen to harvesters. We have to learn from mistakes of the past, so they are not repeated in the future,” Sullivan added.

Kerry Hann

Managing Editor of The Navigator Magazine.

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