Cod still crit­i­cal: DFO

North­ern cod stock de­clined over last year; sci­en­tists urge min­i­mum fish­ing ef­fort

The Compass - - Editorial - BY GLEN WHIFFEN glen.whiffen@thetele­

Those in the prov­ince’s fish­ing in­dus­try hop­ing the north­ern cod would be ready for a com­mer­cial fish­ery in a few years’ time — a saviour to an in­dus­try suf­fer­ing re­peated blows from de­clin­ing crab and shrimp stocks — bet­ter hold on to their hooks and nets.

North­ern cod this year are in the same leaky boat, hav­ing de­clined sig­nif­i­cantly over the past year.

And that has come as a sur­prise to many be­cause the north­ern cod stocks off the prov­ince’s east and north­east coast showed promis­ing growth since 2012 — the first real glint of light since the dark and un­cer­tain days of the north­ern cod stock col­lapse of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

At a tech­ni­cal brief­ing March 23 in St. John’s, Karen Dwyer, De­part­ment of Fish­eries and Oceans (DFO) stock as­sess­ment bi­ol­o­gist for north­ern cod, said the north­ern cod spawn­ing stock biomass has de­clined about 30 per cent from 2017 to 2018. A one-year pro­jec­tion shows a high prob­a­bil­ity of con­tin­ued de­cline in the stock for 2019.

The over­all stock level is at 37 per cent of the level needed to open a com­mer­cial fish­ery, Dwyer said.

A key rea­son for the de­cline ap­pears to be nat­u­ral mor­tal­ity.

“It was un­ex­pected based on the fact that we had been see­ing a sus­tained in­crease, but there is al­ways the po­ten­tial to have these nat­u­ral mor­tal­ity events that can oc­cur on a stock and it just drives the stock down,” Dwyer said. “Both caplin and shrimp, which are im­por­tant food items for cod, are down and weights-at-age for cod are down, their bi­o­log­i­cal con­di­tion has been poorer in re­cent years.”

The sci­ence ad­vice to DFO re­source man­agers: “re­movals from all sources must be kept at the low­est pos­si­ble level un­til the stock clears the crit­i­cal zone.”

“We would have to be out­side the crit­i­cal zone be­fore we have a full-on com­mer­cial fish­ery, I think,” Dwyer said in re­sponse to ques­tions from the me­dia. “I re­ally don’t have a time­line to give you. We are still in a bet­ter place (than the early 1990s) and we have to be cau­tious.”

To­tal land­ings from stew­ard­ship and other cod fish­eries around the prov­ince in 2017 were 13,000 tonnes com­pared to 10,000 tonnes in 2016. It is not known how much cod is landed from the recre­ational food fish­ery.

Derek But­ler, head of the As­so­ci­a­tion of Seafood Pro­duc­ers (ASP) in the prov­ince, said it’s not the news the fish­ing in­dus­try had hoped for.

“Clearly, we are con­cerned,” But­ler said. “There are a lot of vari­ables here, a lot of fac­tors at play. But that does not change the re­al­ity, the stock is back to the 2015 level, if not lower. That’s not the re­sult we would have pre­ferred.”

But­ler noted that the last full DFO as­sess­ment for north­ern cod pro­jec­tions in­di­cated the stock had a good chance of be­ing at 60 per cent or more of the re­quired amount to open a full com­mer­cial fish­ery.

“We had growth, we saw some in­crease, but clearly things have changed,” he said.

But­ler said in­dus­try stake­hold­ers will have to as­sess the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of the sci­ence in re­la­tion to the up­com­ing fish­ing sea­son.

The Fish, Food and Al­lied Work­ers (FFAW-Uni­for) union has a more op­ti­mistic out­look.

The union noted the over­all stock tra­jec­tory has been pos­i­tive over the past 10 to 15 years, but there have been dips.

“While this news is not what fish har­vesters had hoped for, these types of fluc­tu­a­tions are to be ex­pected in any species that is re­cov­er­ing and is cer­tainly not a cause for panic,” FFAW-Uni­for pres­i­dent Keith Sul­li­van said. “Over­all, the stock has grown from 25,000 met­ric tonnes in 2005 to 315,000 met­ric tonnes in 2017.”

Sul­li­van said there needs to be more fo­cus on the im­pacts of pre­da­tion on north­ern cod within the ecosys­tem, par­tic­u­larly by grey and harp seals, and that the fed­eral gov­ern­ment im­ple­ment mea­sures to track re­movals dur­ing the recre­ational fish­ery.

He said the union is tak­ing steps to en­sure the north­ern cod fish­ery is sus­tain­able and re­spon­si­bly man­aged, and is co-lead­ing a Fish­eries Im­prove­ment Project (FIP) for north­ern cod in di­vi­sion 2JK3L.

“The off­shore fleet will un­doubt­edly lobby to scale back the in­shore’s modest, sus­tain­able stew­ard­ship fish­ery un­der the veil of con­ser­va­tion­ism, but let’s not for­get it is the off­shore that con­tin­ues to op­er­ate drag­gers over pre-spawn­ing ag­gre­ga­tions in the ex­tremely vul­ner­a­ble 3Ps area,” Sul­li­van said.

The group chal­leng­ing the FFAW-Uni­for to rep­re­sent the prov­ince’s in­shore fish har­vesters, how­ever, has a more ag­gres­sive take on the north­ern cod sci­ence news.

The Fed­er­a­tion of In­de­pen­dent Sea Har­vesters of New­found­land and Labrador (FISH-NL) says the dra­matic de­cline in north­ern cod re­flects “epic mis­man­age­ment.”

FISH-NL pres­i­dent Ryan Cleary rec­om­mends Ot­tawa ini­ti­ate an in­de­pen­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tion of DFO man­age­ment in the New­found­land and Labrador re­gion and the de­part­ment’s re­la­tion­ship with the FFAW-Uni­for.

“Twenty-six years af­ter the north­ern cod mora­to­rium and the iconic north­ern cod stock is in worse shape, with no re­build­ing plan or re­build­ing tar­gets, and in­shore har­vesters who can’t tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween union and man­ager,” Cleary said.

“Most all com­mer­cial stocks off New­found­land and Labrador to­day — in­clud­ing cod, caplin, shrimp and crab — are on the de­cline, and the com­mon thread is man­age­ment or lack thereof. No other com­mer­cial fish­eries in Cana­dian his­tory have suf­fered like those in New­found­land and Labrador wa­ters, and the rea­sons for it must be in­ves­ti­gated.”

The New­found­land and Labrador Ground­fish In­dus­try De­vel­op­ment Coun­cil (GIDC) stated March 24 that, ac­cord­ing to DFO, the mor­tal­ity rates from nat­u­ral causes are at a high level and it en­cour­ages DFO to pro­vide the nec­es­sary re­search to bet­ter un­der­stand the causes for that trend.

“The ground­fish coun­cil re­mains com­mit­ted to re­build­ing this valu­able re­source to sup­port the ground­fish in­dus­try as well as coastal com­mu­ni­ties in our prov­ince,” said Paul Grant, ex­ec­u­tive vice-pres­i­dent of Beothic Fish Pro­ces­sors Ltd.

The Ground­fish En­ter­prise Al­lo­ca­tion Coun­cil (GEAC) and its mem­bers say they have been ex­press­ing con­cern since 2015 that the north­ern cod re­cov­ery was not as­sured, and that catch in­creases au­tho­rized by DFO were too ag­gres­sive and out of line with the de­part­ment’s pre­cau­tion­ary ap­proach.

“Un­for­tu­nately, this sig­nif­i­cant de­cline comes only two years af­ter DFO pro­jected that the spawn­ing stock biomass would dou­ble by 2019,” said Kris Vas­cotto, GEAC’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor. “De­spite rel­a­tively low lev­els of younger cod, a chang­ing en­vi­ron­ment and de­clin­ing food sup­ply (caplin and shrimp) that could slow the cod re­cov­ery, DFO im­ple­mented sig­nif­i­cant in­creases in catch in re­sponse to some in­dus­try groups, notably the FFAW and GIDC. It is dis­tress­ing that some har­vesters and pro­ces­sors made sig­nif­i­cant fi­nan­cial in­vest­ments based on the 2016 pro­jected growth in the cod biomass and the ad­vo­cacy of groups who called for even higher catches than were ap­proved by DFO.”

Al­berto Ware­ham, pres­i­dent and CEO of Ice­wa­ter Seafoods in Arnold’s Cove, says his plant and its 210 em­ploy­ees rely solely on cod, yet the com­pany still en­cour­ages a con­ser­va­tive ap­proach.

“There is a need to fo­cus on the long-term, to be cau­tious and to go slow in our ap­proach to­wards a sus­tain­able re­cov­ery,” Ware­ham said. “The sus­tain­abil­ity of the re­source has to be the top pri­or­ity.”

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