Northern Cod Recovery Stalls

DFO Reports 29 Per Cent Single-Year Decline in 2J3KL Cod Spawning Stock Biomass

The return of a viable commercial cod fishery in the waters off eastern Newfoundland appears to have suffered a setback.

At a recent technical assessment, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) released its 2018 science assessment for 2J3KL cod, also known as Northern cod and announced a 29 per cent single-year decline in spawning stock biomass. A one-year projection shows a high probability of continued decline in the stock for 2019.

DFO said the overall stock level is at 37 per cent of the level needed to open a commercial fishery. A key reason for the decline appears to be natural mortality.

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

As expected, reaction to the reduction in Northern cod was mixed.

The Groundfish Enterprise Allocation Council (GEAC), which represents some cod processors, said the single-year decline in spawning stock biomass (SSB) is extremely concerning for this fish stock that is deep within its critical zone.

“Unfortunately, this significant decline comes only two years after DFO projected that the spawning stock biomass would double by 2019. Despite relatively low levels of younger cod, a changing environment and declining food supply (capelin and shrimp) that could slow the cod recovery, DFO implemented significant increases in catch in response to some industry groups, notably the Fish, Food and Allied Workers (FFAW) and Groundfish Industry Development Council (GIDC),” explained Kris Vascotto, GEAC’s Executive Director.

“It is distressing that some harvesters and processors made significant financial investments based on the 2016 projected growth in the cod biomass and the advocacy of groups who called for even higher catches than were approved by DFO,” Vascotto added.

GEAC asserted that its members have been expressing concern that the Northern cod recovery was not assured and that catch increases authorized by DFO were too aggressive, an approach that seemed out of step with the conservation priority of the federal government.

“If there is a silver lining at this point, it’s that this might be a wake-up call that while we cannot control nature’s dynamics, we can control fishery removals. In 2015, reported landings of Northern cod by commercial seasonal harvesters was about 4,400 metric tonnes. By 2017, this number had jumped by almost 300 per cent to over 13,100 metric tonnes and clearly did not follow the trajectory of the resource. In order to realize sustainable benefits from a recovered Northern cod stock, there is a need to practice a more precautionary approach that constrains fishing until the resource increases above its critical zone,” GEAC explained in a press release.

“Given the spawning stock biomass is back to its 2014-15 level and continuing to decline, it would be prudent for Minister Leblanc to reduce the allowable catch accordingly,” observed Vascotto. “Furthermore, any future increase in the catch should be contemplated only after the spawning stock biomass has been verified to have reached 50 per cent of the limit reference point, and even then, only if projections show continued growth.”

Derek Butler, head of the Association of Seafood Producers (ASP), said it was not the news the industry had hoped for.

“There are a lot of variables here, a lot of factors at play. But that does not change the reality, the stock is back to the 2015 level, if not lower. That’s not the result we would have preferred.”

“We had growth, we saw some increase, but clearly, things have changed. And the projection is for continued decline next year. It’s not the story we had hoped for,” added Butler.

Several Newfoundland groundfish processors also echoed the same sentiments.

“There is a need to focus on the long-term, to be cautious and to go-slow in our approach towards a sustainable recovery,” said Alberto Wareham, President and CEO of Icewater Seafoods in Arnold’s Cove, N.L. Icewater’s plant and its 210 employees rely solely on cod, yet the company is still encouraging a conservative approach. “The sustainability of the resource has to be the top priority,” Wareham added.

“The world is watching how we manage the recovery of Northern cod,” cautioned Blaine Sullivan, Chief Operations Officer of Ocean Choice International.

“We need to avoid the cycle of past mistakes. We owe it to future generations to do the right thing, to slow down and allow the stock to rebuild to levels that allow a viable fishery for the future.”

However, the union representing Newfoundland harvesters and plant workers seemed to take a more conciliatory tone to news of the stock decrease.

“While this news is not what fish harvesters had hoped for, these types of fluctuations are to be expected in any species that is recovering and is certainly not a cause for panic,” said FFAW-Unifor President Keith Sullivan. “Overall, the stock has grown from 25,000 metric tonnes in 2005 to 315,000 in 2017,” he added.

FFAW-Unifor Fisheries Scientist, Dr. Erin Carruthers explained, “Overall the stock trajectory has been positive over the past 10 to 15 years, but there have been dips. DFO estimates show that Northern cod spawning stock biomass declined in 2010 and 2011 and then increased again between 2012 and 2016.”

The union also said it will be requesting more focus on the impacts of predation within the ecosystem, particularly by grey and harp seals and their contribution to the very high natural mortality rate. It is also crucial that the government implement measures to track removals from the recreational fishery, it added.

The FFAW did take a shot at the processors that control the majority of the offshore vessels.

“The offshore fleet will undoubtedly lobby to scale back the inshore’s modest, sustainable stewardship fishery under the veil of conservationism, but let’s not forget it is the offshore that continues to operate draggers over pre-spawning aggregations in the extremely vulnerable 3Ps area. To be clear, the offshore fleet’s agenda is to prevent the inshore fishery from building capacity,” Sullivan added.

The FFAW’s rival labour organization, The Federation of Independent Sea Harvesters of Newfoundland and Labrador (FISH-NL), also chimed in on the decline in Northern cod.

FISH-NL directed its frustration at the relatively new Newfoundland and Labrador Groundfish Industry Development Council (GIDC).

In 2016, the GIDC — which is made up of the FFAW-Unifor and 10 processing companies and is at least partially funded by the provincial government — projected the Northern cod stock would increase by 30 per cent a year over three years, FISH-NL stated in a press release.

“The GIDC proposed a Northern cod stewardship fishery (which included weekly limits) that was widely condemned by inshore harvesters around the province who complained they weren’t consulted. The proposal was adopted by Ottawa with little or no change but was only made public months later when FISH-NL obtained a copy. In 2017, a similar GIDC proposal to increase Northern cod landings with an extended season was accepted and implemented by DFO.”

In its reaction to the stock announcement, the GIDC said the decline during the past two years is disappointing, but fluctuations like this are not unusual for rebuilding stocks.

“The DFO assessment indicated that the fishing mortality rates in the most recent years is among the lowest levels observed in the 35-year time series for this resource and should not impede stock rebuilding. However, the mortality rates from natural causes are at a high level. This is concerning and the Groundfish Council encourages DFO to provide the necessary research to better understand the causes for this trend.”

“The Groundfish Council remains committed to rebuilding this valuable resource to support the groundfish industry as well as coastal communities in our province. We will use our 2018-2020 Strategic Plan to guide our approach for the management of the stewardship cod fishery in the coming years,” said Paul Grant, the Executive Vice President of Beothic Fish Processors Limited.

“The way forward for our province’s groundfish fishery is based on sustainability — sustainability of the resource, sustainability for the people and communities of our province, and economic sustainability through the sale of a world class product,” said NL-GIDC Chairperson, Jim Baird.

The Northern cod FIP presentation at Seafood Expo North America in Boston.

Ironically, the 2J3KL cod stock was the subject of a seminar at the recent Seafood Expo North America in Boston.

At the meeting of seafood industry players, an overview was provided on the Fisheries Improvement Project (FIP) for Northern cod. The FIP is being led by the World Wildlife Fund Canada and the FFAW.

In December 2016, the WWF-Canada and FFAW-Unifor) released their plan for rebuilding Northern cod in Newfoundland and Labrador. The FIP is aimed at implementing improvement measures that will ensure continued sustainability once the stock has grown to levels that support a full commercial fishery.

The FIP action plan included:

The development of a rebuilding plan with timelines, biologically-based reference points and harvest-control rules.

An estimate of the recreational cod fishery catch.

Analysis of the type and amount of bait needed for the 2J3KL fishery.

Regular monitoring of ecosystem impacts, including potential bycatch of endangered, threatened and protected species.

DFO also recently announced that the 2018 TAC for 3Ps cod would be decreasing by eight per cent to 5,980 tonnes, down from 6,500 tonnes in 2017. The 3Ps TAC has been hit hard in recent years — in 2015 the total allowable catch of cod was at the level of 13,490 tonnes.


Kerry Hann

Managing Editor of The Navigator Magazine.

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