North American East Coast cod stocks facing “very dire situation"

An Atlantic cod
An Atlantic cod | Photo courtesy of Miroslav Halama/Shutterstock
4 Min

Recent assessments of Atlantic cod stocks in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and the Gulf of Maine present a dire portrait of their commercial future.

In the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, which touches the Canadian provinces of Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador, an assessment conducted in February 2023 by Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) has found much higher levels of mortality than what is needed for the population to recover from the collapse in the stock's population that has occurred driven by overfishing in the 1990s.

The gulf’s spawning population of cod has declined from 13,900 metric tons (MT) in 2019 to 12,000 MT in 2023. The number is down drastically from its high of 320,000 MT in the 1950s.

Between 60 and 70 percent of cod in the southern gulf are not surviving beyond five years, with most being eaten by the booming population of grey seals in the region, according to Fisheries and Oceans Canada Biologist Daniel Ricard.

“It’s a very dire situation,” Ricard told the CBC. “The most likely cause of the increase in natural mortality is increased predation of gray seals.”

"The region’s cod population could withstand seal predation in the past, but even though recent surveys detected increased numbers of young cod, the stock is being prevented from recovering because cod totals are so depleted,” Ricard said. "We are seeing influxes of new fish that essentially die off before they reach their teenage or adult years. The cod population is at a low level, and seal predation is at a high level; they're unable to get out of that situation. We are not seeing any recovery of the spawning stock biomass of that stock. It is still experiencing really high levels of natural mortality, especially at the adult stage of life."

DFO issued a similar warning five years ago, theorizing the species' extinction in the gulf was probable. In its most recent assessment, it said the longer-term trajectory for cod in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence remained unchanged.

“Pulling out of this spiral would require phenomenal recruitment – young fish surviving to reproduce – to overwhelm the system, or seals would have to switch to another prey," Ricard said. "Neither situation is likely. It's not a rosy outlook for this stock."

The DFO is considering a further reduction of bycatch allowance in the gulf’s halibut, redfish, and turbot fisheries from the current level of 300 MT of cod, but it acknowledged doing so would cause significant disruption of those fisheries and relatively minimal benefit to the cod population. A cull of the grey seal population would have a bigger impact but is not popular amongst Canadians.

"One lever is clearly there. The other one is much more contentious," Ricard said.

The situation looks slightly better for Canada’s northern cod stock, which has emerged from a critical population zone through a fishing moratorium put in place under the management of a fishery improvement project. A research vessel failure resulted in the annual quota being rolled over into 2024 with no changes.

But, in the Gulf of Maine, where U.S. and Canadian vessels both fish, a recent study shows Atlantic cod stocks as severely depleted, having declined 80 percent from 2005 to 2017. Long-term projections indicate that cod in this area are on their way to commercial extinction. In 2021, the catch dropped to about 1.3 million pounds harvested, with a total value of USD 2.9 million (EUR 2.6 million), the lowest haul in the fishery’s history. 

However, fisheries scientist George Rose said he is “not ready to throw in the towel” on the stock. Using data from a cod-tracking program started in 2015, which has given scientists studying both fisheries more data to help them better understand the situations facing the stocks, a boom in the capelin population could stimulate an expansion of cod stocks. Capelin, a staple food for cod, can influence the timing of when cod arrive and remain in inshore waters, potentially helping them spawn in greater numbers.

Additionally, Rose said he’s becoming more convinced the species can rebound and reestablish their spatial patterns, which he said is essential to their recovery.

“The migration patterns have been reestablished almost exactly how they were historically,” Rose told the CBC. “The people who were more on the doomsayer side said that this stock is incapable of coming back to anything like it was. That’s just been proven wrong.”

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