July 2, 2017 will mark the 25th Anniversary of the cod moratorium in Newfoundland, which halted fishing on what used to be the largest single cod stock in the world.
The collapse of Newfoundland’s Northern cod, which at one time provided harvests of over 800,000 tonnes per year, has been the poster child for the seafood sustainability movement.
The moratorium was a dramatic shutdown of a major industry that had defined Newfoundland for over 500 years. The cod fishery was lost due to a combination of factors that included poor science, poor management decisions, overfishing and environmental changes.
It devastated rural Newfoundland and totally changed the seafood industry. From an industry that had been dependent on groundfish, fishing regenerated based on shellfish, especially crab and shrimp. The result was fewer fishermen, higher pay for those who remained and a slow death for the groundfish processing plants which once were in almost every rural town in Newfoundland.
For the past few years Newfoundland’s shellfish industries have been more valuable than cod ever was. Unfortunately, that is not going to last.
The collapse was the single biggest factor that galvanized the movement to require governments to manage fish sustainably. It led directly to the creation of the Marine Stewardship Council and the idea that if governments failed to preserve fish stocks, public market pressure would supplant them.
Now the Northern cod stock is coming back. Surveys have shown the spawning biomass has grown from a few tens of thousands of tonnes to over 200,000 tonnes and further growth is anticipated. A full-scale regime shift is underway in Newfoundland from waters that are favorable to shellfish to ones that are more favorable to cod.
Also the management and regulatory landscape has shifted as well. For well-managed fisheries in the rich countries, meeting the Marine Stewardship Council’s certification has become a defacto requirement for market access.
Today, all major cod, haddock, pollock, hake and most flatfish fisheries are MSC certified. Retailers mostly will not buy groundfish that is not certified as meeting FAO responsible standards either through the MSC or another rigorous certification program, like Alaska and Iceland’s RFM program.
So as Northern cod comes back, there is a scramble to set up the certification scheme.
But in Newfoundland, bitter disunity has frequently characterized the seafood industry. There were two certifications on Northern shrimp for example, because the processors would not work together.
There has been a long history of distrust and even enmity between the harvesters, represented by the FFAW and the major fish processors. The distrust goes back generations to when outport fishermen and their families were treated as serfs by the merchant princes in St. John’s.
The union has fought to secure the economic position of harvesters through legislation that prohibits processor ownership of inshore fish quota; that requires price negotiations be settled by a fish price board that has the power to establish a minimum price and by limiting consolidation and permit stacking among harvesters so as to keep the maximum number of vessels on the water.
Processors frequently fight among themselves and the lack of trust among the major fishing family businesses in Newfoundland is legendary.
So it is no surprise that two separate groups are working on Northern cod.
The first group, called the Groundfish Industry Development Council, is made up of the FFAW, The Barry Group, Beothic Fish Processors Ltd. and Codroy Seafoods Inc. It has a broad mandate that includes not only the environmental certification of Northern cod, but also a fair and economically sound transition from shellfish to cod that will preserve and maximize the value of the fishery to Newfoundland, and especially rural Newfoundland.
As in Alaska, members of the Council are committed to the principle that local fish stocks should support their adjacent communities and be structured in a way to provide jobs and income for rural residents.
The second group, which met in Brussels recently, is called the Northern Cod Fishery Improvement Project.
This group, in collaboration with Jim Cannon and the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, also includes Ocean Choice International and Icewater Seafoods, two companies that have extensive quota rights for a rebuilt northern cod stock, and both Newfoundland processors associations, along with government officials, scientists from Memorial University, and customers, including Icelandic Seachill and High Liner Foods.
This group is focused on getting the stock approved in the marketplace and getting to where it can meet MSC requirements.
“We are very excited about this development, and it is clear that the work of this FIP is grounded in science. That’s crucial to the fishery’s prospects in the years ahead,” emphasized Jim Cannon of Sustainable Fisheries Partnership (SFP).
At its Brussels meeting, the Working Group discussed activities undertaken by the FIP during 2015 and a major scientific research program planned for the next four to five years, at which point the commercial fishery could potentially re-open.
“This is an historic and iconic fishery,” said Alberto Wareham, CEO of Icewater Seafoods. “It’s not only vitally important to the industry, from harvesters to customers, it is vital to all who care about the sustainability of this resource and its recovery.”
“We are on the right path here and that makes it an exciting time for the industry. OCI is pleased to support this process,” added Blaine Sullivan, COO of Ocean Choice International.
Back in Newfoundland, the WWF and the Groundfish Council released the pre-assessment on the Northern cod stock, done by SAI Global. This transparency is more than normally done by the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership.
SAI Global said that the Northern cod stock was able to meet MSC criteria for principles 2 and 3, but could not meet principle 1 at this time.
Principle 2 deals with the ecological impact of the fishery, and whether it can be fished in a manner that maintains the structure and integrity of the ecosystem.
Principle 3 deals with management and regulatory oversight: if there are credible and enforceable management laws, and the science to apply them.
Principle 1 is whether the stock can be fished at a sustainable level. The MSC defines this as “fishing activity must be at a level which ensures it can continue indefinitely.”
Here the Northern cod stock has ground to make up.
In its pre-assessment document, SAI global said, “The results show that the 2J3KL cod stock has been rebuilding with the Spawning Stock Biomass (SSB) increasing regularly during the past 6 years. However the SSB is still well below the established Limit Reference Point for this stock. The SSB for this stock will need to be increased above the point where recruitment would be impaired and a rebuilding timeframe shall be specified for the stock for this fishery to be a candidate for MSC full assessment.”
Some other deficiencies that have been identified for this fishery in Principle 1 are:
- There has not been a rebuilding timeframe determined for this stock;
- There is only a single reference point identified (LRP-limit reference point, i.e. around 600,000-tonne biomass). No other reference points (e.g. upper stock, target or fishing mortality reference points) have yet to be determined;
- While there is a single generally understood harvest control rule, there are no explicit harvest control rules based on various levels of SSB;
- There are currently no estimates of the recreational cod catch. This fishery uses a type of handline gear that is different from the stewardship hanline fishery. In the meantime scientists conclude that the current exploitations levels are low and removals from various fisheries have very little impact on stock population dynamics.
The summary concluded, “A rebuilding strategy for 2J3KL cod with a rebuilding timeframe that is the shorter of 20 years or 2 times its generation time, along with continued monitoring, will be required for this fishery to proceed to full MSC assessment. In addition, a full suite of precautionary approach reference points, the development of a series of well-defined Harvest Control rules and a process to determine estimates for the recreational catch will also be required for this fishery.”
The current limit reference point for Northern cod is that no fishery can take place until the spawning stock is over 600,000 tonnes. Under current growth patterns, this is likely to be achieved within a few years, perhaps five years.
But as SAI points out, there is no current science that establishes the suite of reference points that are generally used to determine overfishing.
For example, what is the target biomass?
How long will it take the fishery to rebuild to that target?
What steps must be taken to ensure the rebuilding happens within a specific time frame?
What is the lower limit on the biomass for fishing? Is it below 600,000 tonnes which was an arbitrary figure set years ago and not based on current science.
These are not just science questions, they are political questions. The Government of Canada has decimated its DFO science staff and with ministerial discretion, does not have the protections needed to require that harvest decisions be based on sound science. A 2005 Parliamentary committee said that DFO had simply stopped studying Northern cod, with the attitude that “since they were gone, why spend money to study them.”
In fact, the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador has had to step in and support Northern cod research because it just could not get funded by the federal government.
The first 100,000 tonnes of allowable catch for Northern cod are currently reserved for the inshore fleet. If quotas rise to several hundred thousand tons, catches will be allocated between the inshore and offshore fleet.
Some members of the groundfish working group argue that it is economically crazy to set such a high threshold that the fishery goes from nearly zero to 100,000 tonnes overnight. The marketing, processing and harvesting infrastructure simply does not exist, and such a strategy would simply turn the fish into garbage.
This is why these two groups in Newfoundland have to work together. Far more than the run-of-the-mill MSC certification, the future success of Northern cod depends on social and government policies in Newfoundland, which have to be supported and developed by all industry stakeholders.
The fact that the approach to the FIP and the MSC certification has already spawned two separate groups is not a good sign, because this is far more than simply a ‘scientific’ issue.
Surprisingly, the NGO partners — including Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, the WWF and the Marine Stewardship Council — might actually be in a position to help bring about the needed unity.
It will depend on whether they are willing to stand up to those that pay them, and insist on a process for Northern cod that addresses all of the social and economic issues, and not simply the science behind the fishery quotas.
Sustainable Fisheries Partnership has certainly dealt with social implications of fisheries in other parts of the world.
Bringing these groups together requires first, massive transparency. By releasing the pre-assessment and documenting SAI Global’s view of the problems that have to be overcome, the Groundfish Council has done a huge public service. It is incumbent on the SFP working group to comment and make their opinion of the assessment document known as well. Do they agree on the principal obstacles?
Secondly, the MSC, whose standard will ultimately be used by the fishery and its customers, cannot maintain a hands-off bureaucratic approach. Although chain of custody only applies to companies who sell fish beyond the dock, in relation to Northern cod the MSC has to find a way to engage the harvest sector directly, so that issues around timing of the fishery, handling, and fishing methods, can be addressed. These are not problems that can be solved with a top-down approach of the customers or markets dictating to harvesters. A solution that works for all the stakeholders must be found.
Finally, both groups have to recognize there is a huge social and political component to the success of Northern cod. The Canadian government had a massive failure, and in many quarters has not fully come to terms with it.
It takes outside pressure in Canada to make science the foundation of fisheries management, as too often in the past, as also happened in Europe with a ministerial system, politicians can trade away fish quotas for short term gain and long-term pain — that comes long after that particular politician has left office.
Northern cod could become a marker for a new system of Canadian fisheries management that would make a definitive break with the past, possibly with new legislation curbing ministerial discretion. This is the route that the European commission took to improve the common fisheries policy.
In short, as someone who feels cod is the iconic fish, is ‘fish’ as they say in Newfoundland, the stakes with Northern cod are too great to allow the normal rivalries and one-upmanship to play out. Let’s get everyone on the same page as quickly as possible.
This article was republished with permission of John Sackton and seafood.com.