Fishing boats are shown in St.John’s, Friday, Apr.16, 2021. Since the 1992 moratorium on fishing cod in Newfoundland and Labrador, harvesters have focused on crab, shrimp and other shellfish, as evidenced by the many crab boats seen at St. John’s wharves each spring. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sarah Smellie

Fishing boats are shown in St.John’s, Friday, Apr.16, 2021. Since the 1992 moratorium on fishing cod in Newfoundland and Labrador, harvesters have focused on crab, shrimp and other shellfish, as evidenced by the many crab boats seen at St. John’s wharves each spring. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sarah Smellie

‘It’s more than just a fish:’ Scientists worry cod will never come back in Newfoundland

Atlantic cod in the waters off Newfoundland’s northeast coast have been in the critical zone since the early 1990s

The latest assessment of Atlantic cod stocks, whose collapse crushed the economy of Newfoundland and Labrador, has scientists worried the species will never recover without drastic change within the federal Fisheries Department.

The federal government report shows the stock continues to cling for life in what officials classify as the critical zone, meaning “serious harm is occurring to the stock.” Population growth has been stagnant since 2017, the document says.

“Next year will be 30 years since the original moratorium on this stock,” said Robert Rangeleya marine biologist and director of science with Oceana Canada, a non-profit group aimed at protecting the country’s oceans. “It’s time to do something different.”

Atlantic cod in the waters off Newfoundland’s northeast coast have been in the critical zone since the early 1990s, shortly before the federal government in 1992 announced a sweeping moratorium on fishing the species, instantly eliminating a traditional livelihood for about 30,000 people.

There’s now a small commercial cod fishery, known as the “stewardship” fishery, with catch limits set at a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of tonnes landed in the late 1980s. The Fisheries Department’s latest stock assessment, released this month, recommends a maximum catch of 12,999 tonnes in this summer’s fishery. That’s up from 12,350 tonnes in the two previous years. In 2018, it was 9,500 tonnes.

Oceana says that is too high and is calling for this year’s maximum removal to be set at 9,500 tonnes. A “more sustainable level” would be 5,000 tonnes, the level at which the species last showed significant growth, the group says.

Asking for less cod fishing in Newfoundland and Labrador is complicated, Rangeley acknowledged. “It’s social, it’s emotional, it’s cultural,” he said in a recent interview from Nova Scotia. “But we need to follow the best available science and stick to it for a few years and allow the stocks … a chance to rebuild.”

Scientists and fish harvesters are used to butting heads over the state of the cod stock, and this year is no exception. But both sides would like Ottawa to heavily revise the long-anticipated cod rebuilding plan it released quietly in late December. The plan’s harvest rules determined this year’s maximum removals.”It’s a plan for fishing,” Rangeley said. “And we can’t fish our way out of this debt.” He said the plan ignores the latest science, sets no timelines and lays out only interim goals for lifting the species out of the critical zone. There are always commercial pressures on fisheries management and it’s up to the Fisheries Department to plan for future generations by keeping removals low now, he said.

Keith Sullivan, president of the province’s Food Fish and Allied Workers Union, disagrees. He said the threshold for the critical zone is too high and the stock is in far better shape than the numbers let on. “Harvesters in most areas are seeing more cod now than they ever see seen in their entire lives,” he said in a recent interview, adding that he feels the rebuilding plan keeps removal levels extremely low.

“We want to rebuild our communities at the same time we rebuild the stock,” he said.

His sentiments are echoed in the town of New Perlican, known for its speckling of brightly coloured fishing sheds along the harbour, each with a dock in front of it.

Before the moratorium, there’d be a boat at every dock during cod season, said Shelley Burrage, the town clerk. Her father was a cod fisherman, until the moratorium, she said. When she was in high school, she’d get a part-time licence, too, just to help out.

When harvesters push back against catch limits, “they’re fighting for their heritage, for their right to do this,” she said. “It’s more than just a fish.”

Dalhousie University biologist Jeffrey Hutchings says he understands that very well. “But one also has to ask the question … do we want to rebuild, or do we just want a small piddling fishery?” he asked in a recent interview.

Hutchings points out that at its core, the Fisheries Department has to decide what its priorities are. The current iteration of the department was established in the late 1970s, before any major environmental disasters like the cod collapse, he said. “The department was really … an economic department,” he said in a recent interview. “It wasn’t there for conservation or long-term thinking.”

Canada’s oceans have changed since then, and it may be time for the department to change, too, he said.

The Fisheries Department declined a request for an interview to address criticism that it needs a greater focus on conservation. In an emailed statement, spokesperson Carole Saindon said the department’s management and conservation decisions are informed by a number of factors, “including science and socio-economic considerations that take into account the well-being of coastal and Indigenous communities.”

Saindon added that the federal government has made “tremendous advances” in ocean protection in recent years. “As of 2015, less than one per cent of our oceans were protected, compared to nearly 14 per cent today,” the statement said.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

fishing

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Ceramic artist Teresa Dorey with some of the pieces from her upcoming exhibition, ‘Einfühlung: Feeling Into,’ at Nanaimo Ceramic Arts Studio and Gallery. (Josef Jacobson/The News Bulletin)
Ceramic artist explores ideas around empathy and touch in Nanaimo exhibition

Montreal’s Teresa Dorey presents ‘Einfühlung: Feeling Into’ at Nanaimo Ceramic Arts

Eliot White-Hill, Kwulasultun is the recipient of this year’s City of Nanaimo Culture and Heritage Award for Emerging Cultural Leader. (Josef Jacobson/The News Bulletin)
Eliot White-Hill, Kwulasultun is the recipient of this year’s City of Nanaimo Culture and Heritage Award for Emerging Cultural Leader. (Josef Jacobson/News Bulletin)
Multi-disciplinary Snuneymuxw artist named ‘Emerging Cultural Leader’

Eliot White-Hill, Kwulasultun, receives City of Nanaimo Culture and Heritage Award

The Village on Third in Nanaimo won the Judges’ Choice award as top overall entry at the Vancouver Island Real Estate Board Commercial Building Awards. (Photo submitted)
Nanaimo mixed-use building wins top prize at commercial building awards

Village on Third was Judges’ Choice winner at VIREB Commercial Building Awards

Nanaimo RCMP had been seeking help finding a 50-year-old woman who hadn’t been seen for two days. She has since been found safe. (Submitted photo)
UPDATE: Nanaimo RCMP report that woman who had been missing has been found

50-year-old located and is ‘safe and sound,’ say police

Commercial Street and other areas of Nanaimo’s downtown are now part of a new business improvement area following a petition-against process this spring. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)
LETTER TO THE EDITOR: BIA process wasn’t fair to small business

Mom-and-pop shops will be challenged to pay the levy during hard times, says letter writer

The Village on Third in Nanaimo won the Judges’ Choice award as top overall entry at the Vancouver Island Real Estate Board Commercial Building Awards. (Photo submitted)
Nanaimo mixed-use building wins top prize at commercial building awards

Village on Third was Judges’ Choice winner at VIREB Commercial Building Awards

RCMP are looking for information on an alleged shooting attempt near an elementary school in Smithers March 10. (Phil McLachlan/Capital News/Stock)
UPDATE: Man killed in brazen daylight shooting at Vancouver airport

Details about the police incident are still unknown

Pieces of nephrite jade are shown at a mine site in northwestern B.C. in July 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Tahltan Central Government MANDATORY CREDIT
Indigenous nation opposes jade mining in northwestern B.C.

B.C.’s Mines Act requires operators to prepare a plan to protect cultural heritage resources

Nanaimo author Haley Healey recently launched her second book, ‘Flourishing and Free: More Stories of Trailblazing Women of Vancouver Island.’ (Photo courtesy Kristin Wenberg)
Nanaimo author pens second book on ‘trailblazing’ Vancouver Island women

Haley Healey’s ‘Flourishing and Free’ follows her 2020 debut ‘On Their Own Terms’

Nuns of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, carry some of her relics during a vigil of prayer in preparation for the canonization of Mother Teresa in the St. John in Latheran Basilica at the Vatican, Friday, Sept. 2, 2016. In which city did she do much of her charitable work? (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
QUIZ: How much do you know about these motherhood issues?

In honour of Mother’s Day, take this 10-question quiz

People pass the red hearts on the COVID-19 Memorial Wall mourning those who have died, opposite the Houses of Parliament on the Embankment in London, Wednesday, April 7, 2021. On May 3, the British government announced that only one person had died of COVID-19 in the previous 24 hours. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Kirsty Wigglesworth
For a view of a COVID-19 future, Canadians should look across the pond

Britain, like Canada, is one of the only countries in the world to delay second doses for several months

The body of Brenda Ware, 35, was found along Highway 93 in Kootenay National Park on Thursday, May 6, 2021. (RCMP handout)
RCMP ask for tips after woman’s body found in Kootenay National Park

Brenda Ware was found along Highway 93 in the park, 54 kilometres north of the town of Radium

Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid (97) celebrates his 100th point this season with Leon Draisaitl (29) against the Vancouver Canucks during second period NHL action in Edmonton on Saturday, May 8, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Edmonton superstar McDavid hits 100-point mark as Oilers edge Canucks 4-3

NHL scoring leader needs just 53 games to reach century mark

Most Read