Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the moratorium on northern cod.
In the heyday of the northern cod fishery, trawlers took more than 800,000 metric tonnes of fish annually to feed processing plants along the northeast coast and south coasts.
Another 100,000 tonnes each year provided income for hundreds of inshore fishing enterprises.
But in just 30 years, the spawning biomass dropped from 1.3 million tonnes in the 1970s to between 72,000 and 110,000 tonnes just prior to the moratorium.
Today, the commercial fishery is a shadow of its former self.
This year’s quota was set at 11,243 metric tones, taken mainly by small-boat, inshore fishermen, with 3,500 to 7,000 pounds per fishing enterprise, depending on the region.
And for four designated weeks each summer, recreational fishers are allowed to catch 15 fish a day.
Ever since the moratorium, which was supposed to be a short-term solution to save the cod stocks, fishers have been calling for a long-term solution for rebuilding the stocks.
Last year, then federal fisheries minister Gail Shea asked the Fisheries Resource Conservation Council (FRCC) — an entity created by former minister John Crosbie in 1992 to act as an advisory group to the minister — to develop a plan for long-term management of the groundfish fisheries, particularly cod.
In the spring and summer of 2010, the FRCC held 27 consultation sessions throughout the Atlantic provinces.
Last month, the council released its long-awaited report.
Towards Recovered and Sustainable Groundfish Fisheries in Eastern Canada contains several recommendations to help groundfish stocks recover based on on a variety of factors — from ecosystem considerations and seals, to precautionary approach, socio-economics and markets.
FRCC chairman Gerard Chidley said the committee is in favour of every recommendation.
“The council believes that all of the recommendations will assist DFO in its efforts to promote the recovery of groundfish stocks and the rebuilding of fisheries based on those stocks,” he said in a news release.
Oakley Johnson and Earl Johnson fish two cod quotas in zone 3Ps, Placentia Bay. The south coast was placed under moratorium in 1993, one year after the moratorium was declared on northern cod.
While DFO stock status reports suggest there has been some recovery in 3Ps, the Johnsons say small catches of even smaller fish are disproving that with every net they haul.
They haven’t had a chance to read the FRCC report, but they both appear to have little faith in government reports.
“It’s shagged up that bad out there, I don’t know if there’s anybody out there that can fix it, unless they’ve got the willpower,” Oakley said. “But as long as politicians get elected — federally and provincially — and get their cushy job, they aren’t going to do anything except a little study here and there and hope everyone is happy.”
Trawl hooks can’t determine the size of the fish they’re catching, which means there are often too many small fish being caught to fill the quota, Earl said.
The Johnsons have argued for years that the gear type used to fish, and government law preventing fishermen from releasing cod once it’s caught — even if the fish is too small — is having a negative effect on stocks.
Under DFO regulations, every fish landed must be brought ashore, even if it is alive and could be released without harm.
The Johnsons favour gillnets for more selective fishing. Gillnets have a preset measurement — any fish smaller than the size of the mesh can can pass through the net unharmed.
“A lot of people condemn gillnets, but you can have at least 50 per cent discard with them. But the trawls are catching whatever they can, no matter what the size,” Earl said.
He said larger fish caught with a gillnet have spawned, while the smaller ones passing through the nets still have the opportunity to grow, spawn and contribute to rebuilding the stock.
The Johnsons have also noticed differences in cod predators and prey.
Caplin were once abundant in Placentia Bay, so plentiful Oakley said, “to walk the shores when the caplin scull was on at one time, you would be up to your knees in spawn, but not anymore.”
He said when the caplin were strong, so were the cod. He thinks the dwindling number of caplin means less food for cod.
In order to rebuild cod stocks, Oakley said DFO has to rebuild these food sources for cod.
He knows it’s not the most popular suggestion but he recommends the caplin fishery be kept to a minimum to allow recovery.
“Even to shut it down for two years to allow that recovery, if they aren’t gone too far to come back, I think you would see a huge difference in the cod fishery,” he said.
While both men say caplin appear to be scarce, the same is not true of cod predators.
Earl said Placentia Bay hardly knew what a seal 10 to 15 years ago, but now they are out there in the thousands.
“You get one, cut it open, and there’s nothing but tom cods and small fish in their belly. How can a stock recover if it doesn’t get the chance to grow?”
George Feltham fishes on the northeast coast.
The Eastport fisherman sees good and bad in the report.
For one thing, he says, there wasn’t a lot of input from fishermen. The meetings were held during the early summer, when a lot of people were busy fishing crab and caplin.
“The last couple years, participation at FRCC meetings have been very minimal because fishers were disgusted because they weren’t seeing any results from what they have been seeing on the water,” Feltham said.
He said while the FRCC recommended an experimental cull of grey seals in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, it did not address the issue of the millions of harp seals on the north ast coast.
He said it’s a huge problem that got ignored.
“The lack of science is a major problem,” Feltham said. “It’s been years since there have been assessments on (different) stock numbers because there’s no funding to do it.”
Given that DFO has said it will be trimming $56.8 million from its budget over the next three years, Feltham wonders where the money will come from to continue scientific work on groundfish and cod stocks.
In fact, the report from the FRCC will likely be the last for the council. As part of the plan to trim the DFO budget, Ottawa has decided to disband the council.
with files from Barbara Dean-Simmons