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An oceans advocacy group says the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has been “irresponsible” in its management plan for 2020 for northern cod.
Oceana Canada says despite advice from its own scientists to keep catches of cod in the fishing zones 2J, 3K and 3L at the lowest possible level, the department decided to increase the quota for 2019 by 30 percent, and maintain that quota for 2020.
The quota for 2018 was 9,500 metric tonnes. The 2019 quota, which was rolled over for 2020, is 12,350 tonnes.
Oceana Canada is advocating for the quota for 2020 to remain at 9,500 tonnes.
Dr. Robert Rangeley, Director of Science, Oceana Canada, said in an interview with SaltWire that it’s been over two decades since the moratorium was declared for northern cod in 1990, and DFO has still not completed a rebuilding plan for the stock.
“Keeping the quota at this unsustainably high level allows us to continue irresponsible fishing pressure on a population that is deep in the critical zone,” he said.
Dr. Rangeley also cites other factors that are affecting the cod stock and alleges information is missing from the equation, thanks to the recreational cod fishery.
No one knows exactly how many tonnes of cod are being taken in that weekend fishery, he said.
“It’s a wonderful thing to do, to land your own cod. But it’s DFO’s responsibility to manage that fishery and account for what’s being killed,” he said.
The other factor that worries Oceana is the capelin fishery.
Rangeley said the capelin stocks, the food fish of the cod, are also at low levels, and there’s evidence of cannibalism among cod — larger cod eating younger cod.
“That’s not a good sign,” he said. “It’s a sign the cod are not in good quality condition.”
When they are eating their own young, he said, it signals they don’t have sufficient food sources.
That’s why Oceana disagrees with the DFO decision to allow a capelin fishery.
He said scientific evidence shows the capelin stocks are also depleted, yet the department is allowing 20,000 tonnes to of capelin to be fished.
Ocean’s director of science said the group is not against a commercial fishery of northern cod, but is opposed to the amount fished.
While there appeared to be some growth of the stock a few years back, he said, scientific research shows there’s been no growth of the biomass since 2018.
And if the stock is not growing, the catch quotas shouldn’t, he said.
“It makes no sense that DFO increased the TAC (total allowable catch) when the growth of cod has stalled and growth has declined in capelin. You’re not going to rebuild if you keep increasing the TAC.”
Current estimates for the northern cod spawning stock biomass (SSB) is at 398,000 metric tonnes.
By comparison, the highest SSB estimated for northern cod was around 800,000 tonnes, just before the stock started to show signs of decline.
Karen Dwyer is the lead scientist for northern for DFO in the Newfoundland region.
“The stock has improved since the mid-2000s and had been showing a year over year increase since 2006,” she told Saltwire, “but our models indicate the stock has leveled off since then.”
Earlier this week the 2020 cod management plan also drew criticism from Keith Sullivan, president of the Fish Food and Allied Workers (FFAW-unifor) union.
The FFAW called for an increase of the quota to about 18,000 tonnes, based on their theory that the SSB could sustain a catch rate of three percent.
The FFAW also alleged the decision-making process was incomplete this year because of COVID-19.
There was no follow-up meeting with industry representatives following the analysis of data from the bottom trawl survey carried out last autumn, and the spring bottom trawl survey did not go ahead.
Dwyer told SaltWire in addition to their offshore surveys in the fall, a process that sees scientists conduct random samplings of fish to determine species and abundance, they also relied on data from the sentinel fishing surveys in the inshore and information recorded in fish harvesters' logbooks.
She added they also have a tagging program that provides some information on commercial fisheries, as well as the recreational fishery.
They also ran comparisons from previous data.
“We also took the model that we ran last year and compared it with the survey that we carried out in the fall to make sure we were seeing what we expected to see.”
Meanwhile, Dwyer said, the research continues.
A large acoustic survey is planned for this year, she said, and an electronic tagging program continues to monitor fish migration patterns. Through that tagging program, scientists insert battery operated transmitters into the bellies of cod fish. Electronic receivers are placed at various locations around the coast to collect and record the electronic transmissions from the tagged fish.
This work has been going on for several years and is giving science a clearer picture of how northern cod move around the northeast coast.
“And I’m still hopeful the fall (bottom trawl) survey will be carried out and will give us some very important information,” said Dwyer.
When it comes to northern cod, Oceana says the leadership of DFO has to step up as well.
Dr. Langeley notes the department made a commitment in 2017 to execute a cod rebuilding plan by 2019.
Following the moratorium, he said, “There was supposed to be a roadmap for rebuilding. Cod has been on the books for years and they still can’t get it done.”