Decline found in Canada’s cod stocks no surprise to scientists

Published on
April 6, 2018

Newspaper headlines in Eastern Canada are reporting northern cod stocks have suffered a significant and surprising decline.

A recent Department of Fisheries, Oceans and Coast Guard (DFO) report revealed cod stocks in the Labrador to Avalon Peninsula dropped 30 percent in 2017 over estimates on the 2015 population.

The decline is significant, scientists studying the fishery agree, but they find fault with reports calling the situation a surprise. It was pretty much predicted by experts, according to Sherrylynn Rowe, a research scientist with the Centre for Fisheries Ecosystems Research at Memorial University in St. John’s.

“Last year, when it became evident that the recent burst of cod productivity had started to slow, my colleague George Rose and I wrote a paper in the journal Nature where we urged the Canadian government not to act on proposals for increased fishery access because we were of the opinion that ramping up the fishery in the face of declining productivity stood to derail the come back that we have seen of late,” Rowe said. “Unfortunately, shortly after that article was published, policymakers opted for a management plan that essentially ignored our pleas, and those by DFO’s own scientists which encouraged keeping removals to the lowest possible levels. Instead, they went ahead and changed the management plan in such a way that allowed removals in 2017 to amount to about three times what they were in 2015.”

This increased the reported catch to 13,000 metric tons in 2017. 

“That’s a big jump and I’ve been of the opinion that ramping up the fishery at that rate was too much too soon,” Rowe said. “The stock, although it has made this remarkable comeback, it’s still below what we call the limit reference point. It’s well below historical normal levels of abundance. Even below what we would have seen in the 1980s. When a stock is at that stage, we really need to put conservation front and center and do everything in our ability to help encourage continued stock growth. But with pressure from the industry, who have seen declines in crab and shrimp fisheries in the last few years, and with these encouraging signs around cod, I think there was a lot of pressure to start rebuilding a groundfish fishery in the province that I think might have been premature.”

The overall decline in cod numbers was made more severe by the condition of the fish that were caught. The size of the cod landed was smaller, Rowe said, and fishermen said the cod they caught were of poorer condition, with low weight for their length, and empty stomachs, which points to a deteriorating ecosystem. The condition issues and declines in multiple fisheries suggest a bigger problem on the Newfoundland-Labrador Shelf than overfishing, Rowe said.

“My position is that status quo fisheries management or continued fishery increases really stand to jeopardize long-term stock recovery as well as the possibility of having a fully rebuilt fishery moving forward,” Rowe said. “So I’d like to see something more cautious than what we’ve had in the last couple of years.”

On the commercial front, Alberto Wareham, the president and CEO of the Icewater Group in Clarenville – Newfoundland’s only cod processor, with buying agreements with 2,000 to 3,000 regional fishermen – acknowledged the cod his company saw last season had problems.

“At certain times in the season in area J3KL, or as we call it the Northern Cod area, we did see signs that the fish were not as healthy as they should be,” Wareham said. “It wasn’t all though the season – it was spotty and was more in the beginning of the season than the end of the season – but we did see it.”

Taken aback by the size of the decline in cod stocks, Wareham said Canadian fisheries authorities should listen to the scientists and decrease the 2018 quota. 

“It should probably be scaled back at least 30 percent to be on par with last year,” e said.

The industry is expecting an announcement regarding the 2018 quota in the coming days.

As it sets this year’s quotas, Wareham would like Ottawa to ask, “What can that ecosystem support today?”

“Maybe it can only support 400,000 pounds of cod, 100,000 tons of shrimp and 100,000 tons of crab. We’re only starting in the last couple of years to talk about an ecosystem approach. We continue to manage individual fisheries individually,” he said. 

Canada “probably should be managing it as multiple stocks all together,” Wareham said, as opposed to individual species simply occupying the same space in the ocean.

Photo courtesy of George Rose

Reporting from Eastern Canada

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