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Northern cod still in critical zone; fishing not the biggest factor for slow growth

The latest assessment of the northern cod stock in DFO zone 2J3KL shows some improvement in the spawning stock biomass, but the stock is still at a critical level.
The latest assessment of the northern cod stock in DFO zone 2J3KL shows some improvement in the spawning stock biomass but the stock is still at a critical level. - Contributed

Even if all the fishing boats were tied up today, the northern cod stock would only grow by four per cent this year.

The estimate comes from Karen Dwyer, cod biologist with Fisheries and Oceans in St. John’s and may go some way to allaying fears of a quota reduction or closure that would be all pain and no gain.

“The stock is not going to grow very much because of natural mortality and fishing levels don’t have a lot to do with that.”

Most cod die of starvation, old age or are eaten by other marine animals.

In a media briefing on April 1 to unveil the latest stock status assessment for northern cod, Dwyer said there are factors outside of fishing that are impacting the cod, she said, and they include ocean conditions, plankton levels and no capelin available for cod to eat.

“We think the stock is being driven by factors other than fishing, such as capelin levels and availability and, to some extent, predation but more so the capelin levels,” she said.

The latest stock assessment shows the cod population off the northeast coast of Newfoundland and Labrador is about 411,000 metric tonnes.

According to the latest science assessment of northern cod, the spawning biomass of mature females is still in the critical zone. Graph supplied by Fisheries and Oceans, St. John's. - Contributed
According to the latest science assessment of northern cod, the spawning biomass of mature females is still in the critical zone. Graph supplied by Fisheries and Oceans, St. John's. - Contributed

That’s 52 percent of the size of the stock during the 1983 to 1989 period, when the mature spawning biomass—the total weight of mature female cod— was over 800,000 tonnes. That number is used as the Limit Reference Point, the number by which annual assessments are measured, and the boundary between critical and cautious zone.

That puts northern cod in the critical zone, meaning fishing should be kept to the lowest possible level, said Dwyer.

To move to the cautious zone, and the possibility of higher fishing quotas, the cod population would have to grow to its mid-1980s level of 800,000 tonnes, said Dwyer.

In the mid-1980s, she said, the population of mature females in the system was at the level where it was able to produce moderate levels of recruitment. In simple terms, more mature females equal better chances of more baby fish.

“But now the spawning stock has been reduced to the point where it just can’t produce enough small fish to grow. We’re getting better, we’re at 52 percent, but it still needs to grow further in order to reach that bar (cautious zone),” said Dwyer.

So what does that all this for the fishing industry?

For 2021, DFO science is advising that fishing quotas should not exceed 12,999 metric tonnes.

This graph supplied during the DFO technical briefing on Northern Cod, shows annual catches of cod over the past four decades. Souce Fisheries and Oceans, St. John's. - Contributed
This graph supplied during the DFO technical briefing on Northern Cod, shows annual catches of cod over the past four decades. Souce Fisheries and Oceans, St. John's. - Contributed

That’s actually a little higher quota than last year.

It also follows the guidelines of the Harvest Decision Rule, a management tool introduced in DFO’s Cod Rebuilding Plan unveiled last year thanks to a revamped Fisheries Act that compels the department to adopt rebuilding plans for fish stocks listed as critical.

Reaction

The Fish Food and Allied Workers (FFAW-Unifor) union welcomed the news of a suggestion for a slight increase in the overall northern cod quota for 2021.

However, the union is critical of some of the content of the assessment.

In a union-issued press release, Trinity Bay fisher Keith Smith said the impact of seals was downplayed.

Smith said instead of talking about seals, DFO focused on the connection between a healthy cod stock and a healthy capelin stock.

FFAW president Keith Sullivan also pointed to seals, saying the animals are “likely” one of the main causes of natural mortality of cod.

“In the late 1970s, we had a balanced ecosystem with a controlled seal population. This allowed for a sustainable capelin stock and regrowth of the cod stock even as fishing remained at high levels.”

The union also takes issue with the Limit Reference Point being used in the mathematical equation.

Sullivan said LRP for Northern cod is based on the health of the stock for a five-year period in the late 1980s and early 1990s, ignoring other points in time, particularly the mid to late 1970s when the stock was lower than it currently is, and fishing activity was more intense.

“Even under those conditions, the stock rebounded,” said Sullivan, adding, “The LRP is not realistic. If it was based on a proper historical perspective, the current stock should be in the cautious zone. Instead, we are only halfway to that point.”

The Atlantic Groundfish Council (ACG), the group that represents offshore fishing companies and some processors, expressed optimism over the latest assessment that shows the cod stock has been “holding steady” since 2017 and appears to be growing.

The numbers prove the need for patience, said AGC Executive Director Kris Vascotto.

Dr. Kris Vascotto is executive director of the Atlantic Groundfish Council. - Contributed
Dr. Kris Vascotto is executive director of the Atlantic Groundfish Council. - Contributed

“We’d all like to see drastic improvements today but we know it won’t recover overnight or over a single year. Collectively, that’s why we continue to exercise restraint and focus our efforts on contributing to its future recovery. While being better informed by projections, we should not actually increase the catch until such projections have been realized.”

At Arnold’s Cove, where Icewater Seafoods and its 220 workers depend on cod, full recover of the northern cod stock would mean a more secure future.

And that doesn’t mean setting higher quotas in the short term, said Icewater owner Alberto Wareham.

“At Icewater Seafoods, we’re all-in on cod. We have a world class plant in Arnold’s Cove that runs nearly year-round based solely on cod,” said Wareham.

They have the capacity at the plant to process twice the amount of cod they currently produce.

But capacity shouldn’t trump sustainability, Wareham said in a press release.

“We continue to advocate for setting conservative, sustainable catch limits that follows the best available science. . . .We need to have a long-term view, and we do,” Wareham added.

Fishers in the 2J3KL zone usually catch northern cod from July to September.

Following the science assessment, DFO managers will meet with members of the industry to review the data and gather comments before deciding fishing quotas or any other management actions for 2021.


Industry aiding science with acoustic tracking technology

The quest to better understand northern cod has become a collaboration between industry, academics and DFO science.

Last year members of the Atlantic Groundfish Council invested in a cod tracking program, using the latest in acoustic technology, to try to learn more about where cod swim.

“Our commitment to the recovery of this resource runs deep,” said AGC member Blaine Sullivan, president of Choice Limited, in a press release. “We are focusing our efforts on robust initiatives that will promote sustainable management of Northern Cod.”

That acoustic tracking project aims to show migration patterns of Northern cod between the slope of the continental shelf and inshore areas near Newfoundland and Labrador.

In 2020, 260 cod were tagged and 75 acoustic receivers deployed though the 2J3KL zone. Another 960 acoustic tags will be deployed in offshore areas where cod congregate.

DFO scientists and the Ocean Tracking Network (OTN) are also collaborating with the AGC on this project.

Data from the acoustic array will be collected by a solar powered wave glider, controlled remotely by experts at OTN. Each receiver station will be visited by a glider, which will upload its data, including a record of each time each tagged cod swam nearby.

Once collected, this information will inform future stock assessments and fisheries managers by showing when cod arrive and depart from the offshore and potentially what path they travel; resulting in a better understanding of their interactions with the fishery and the environment.

It’s an ambitious project but an important one for the future of cod in the province, said Kris Vascotto, executive director of the AGC.


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