Cod Management Conundrum

There were very clear lessons to be learned from the Newfoundland and Labrador groundfish moratorium of the early 1990s, as well as the overfishing of cod in the North Sea during the same period.

For Atlantic cod stocks to be sustainable in the future, sensible management and harvesting practices must take place in order to avoid the need for drastic measures, such as the infamous 1992 moratorium. At the time, it seemed Newfoundland and Labrador’s harsh reality would be the only example needed for those managing similar fisheries, with the hope the same mistakes would not be made again. But some 23 years later, an eerily similar scenario is about to be played out — this time on the Eastern seaboard of the U.S.

Effective May 1, stricter cod quotas for the Gulf of Maine kicked in — a 75 per cent cut from the current year.

The New England Fishery Management Council voted last year to reduce the total allowable Gulf of Maine cod catch limit from 1,550 to 386 metric tonnes.

Conservationists say the rules are needed to save cod from commercial extinction. Federal regulators have said the quota cut is necessary because the level of cod spawning in the Gulf is just a tiny fraction — three to four per cent — of its target. Regulators say overfishing hit the stock hard, while some marine scientists add that warming oceans could be making it worse.

Sound familiar?

But the similarities continue. A committee is being considered to examine the option of buyouts for some of the fishermen impacted by the cuts — probably something that should have been implemented and in place prior to the quota reductions kicking in.

There has been federal money allocated to deal with this potentially disastrous scenario — but as always, stakeholders are split on how to organize it. Some want the money to be used to directly buy fishing permits, while others want aid to offset fees for an industry buyback that used government loans. What does this mean? It means the chances of a buyback program being organized this year for harvesters are in doubt.

Fishermen in the Gulf of Maine are not the only ones taking a cod quota hit this year. Harvesters in Nova Scotia are in a similar boat.

The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans recently cut Nova Scotia cod quotas in half.

DFO said the cod stock remains in poor shape on the Scotian shelf from Halifax to Digby, leading to the decision to spread the annual 1,600-tonne quota over two years instead of one. Scientists found this year’s catch brought in fewer younger fish.

These are extreme quota cuts and will have a detrimental impact on some fishermen that still depend on groundfish for a portion of their income. But did the cuts have to be so extreme? Should DFO and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) been more cognizant in managing the cod fishery? Should steps should have been taken earlier to lessen the impact of such cuts? They only had to look to Newfoundland and Labrador and the North Sea for proof of what early intervention might help avoid. Unfortunately, it appears too late for that at this stage of the game.

But all is not lost regarding Atlantic cod stocks. There are signs of hope for the once beleaguered groundfish.

Reports from the other side The Pond indicate that North Sea cod stocks are improving rapidly and could be certified as sustainable within five years.

Cod was heavily overfished in the North Sea in the 1980s and 1990s but since 2006, with stringent regulations imposed on the industry, it has shown a steady recovery and is approaching the level of maximum sustainable yield, the measurement widely accepted as the gold standard of responsible fishing.

As well, the prospects of a return to a commercial cod fishery appear to be improving on this side of the North Atlantic. In late 2014, DFO announced the development of a rebuilding plan for the southern Newfoundland cod stock in NAFO Sub-Division 3Ps. The rebuilding plan was designed to ensure the long-term sustainability of the stock and maximize economic opportunities for harvesters and processors and it supported a 15 per cent increase in the total allowable catch for this year’s fishery.

More recently, several fisheries improvement plans (FIPs) have been hatched involving Newfoundland and Labrador’s cod fishery.

In April, the Association of Seafood Producers (ASP) and the Groundfish Enterprise Allocation Council (GEAC) announced the creation of a FIP for northern cod (NAFO area 2J3KL).

This was followed shortly after by the Fish, Food and Allied Workers Union (FFAW-Unifor) and WWF-Canada teaming up on a 2J3KL FIP of their own.

The FFAW and WWF explained their FIP is a multi-step, multi-stakeholder initiative aiming to improve fishing practices and management to help the northern cod fishery rebuild and meet or exceed the Marine Stewardship Council certification for sustainable fisheries. The Seafood Producers of Newfoundland and Labrador (SPONL) and the Fogo Island Co-Op are also backing this project.

Let’s hope both projects will work in tandem with each other. There have been enough negative lessons that could and should have been learned from the cod fishery to date.

Kerry Hann

Managing Editor of The Navigator Magazine.

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