Decades after the moratorium on cod fishing, the federal government has quietly released its vision to rebuild the northern cod stocks in Newfoundland and Labrador’s waters — a plan that hasn’t gone unnoticed and uncritiqued by the province’s fisheries union.
The rebuilding plan, made public with little fanfare on Dec. 21 after years in development, outlines the Department of Fisheries and Ocean’s objectives to boost fish numbers and the management techniques it intends to use to measure any progress starting in 2021.
Northern cod numbers have ticked upwards since the 1992 moratorium brought harvesting and processing to a screeching halt. A small stewardship fishery now exists, with 1,865 licence holders allotted a maximum harvest of around 12,000 tonnes of cod in 2020.
But 28 years later, stocks remain well below pre-moratorium levels, and — in DFO terminology — remain squarely in a “critical zone.”
To move stocks out of that zone hinges on the rebuilding plan’s “harvest decision rule.” That rule essentially tries to keep fishing efforts at the minimum, setting quotas based upon annual scientific assessments until cod numbers climb into the “cautious zone,” while at the same time attempting to give fish harvesters some predictability of how much they can expect to catch from year to year.
“We believe this is our best path forward at this time, in terms of promoting growth of the northern cod stock, where we can get it hopefully out of the critical zone, and we can eventually get to a point where we can have a more sustainable fishery,” said Julie Diamond, a resource manager with DFO for the Newfoundland and Labrador region.
The plan outlines short- and long-term objectives to boost cod stocks but acknowledges unpredictability means no timelines can be set for its goals.
I’d even suggest it should be a resettlement plan instead of a rebuilding plan, because … what’s released is so nonsensical.– Keith Sullivan
However, the plan is meant to provide openness and transparency with industry stakeholders, said Diamond, and “it formalizes our commitment to keep fishing efforts relatively low.”
That last plank does not sit well with the Fish, Food & Allied Workers (FFAW) union.
“We agree that the idea of goals, targets, transparency, a rebuilding plan makes sense. It’s just not this one,” said Keith Sullivan, president of the FFAW.
Hinging a return to commercial-level fishing on a hazy point in the future when cod numbers may rise above a certain threshold spells trouble for rural communities, he told CBC News.
“We have a rebuilding plan that says there is really not a future for harvesters and people in Newfoundland and Labrador, no matter how much cod there is. And that’s why it’s a problem,” Sullivan said.
“I’d even suggest it should be a resettlement plan instead of a rebuilding plan, because … what’s released is so nonsensical. And it just doesn’t give any opportunities for people to have a reasonable cod fishery in the future.”
Fishing not the biggest problem
The plan acknowledges that fishing is not the main reason cod numbers remain a shadow of its former teeming bounty.
“The primary threat limiting survival and recovery of 2J3KL cod today is high natural mortality,” states the plan. (The 2J3KL refers to the fishing management zone.)
That natural mortality includes everything from seal predation to temperature effects but more so than those factors, the plan highlights shortages of food that cod need, particularly capelin.
“High mortality rates may be related to cod dying of starvation.”
While the full annual cod numbers assessment didn’t go ahead in 2020 due to the pandemic, DFO science this past spring showed cod are resorting to cannibalism to survive, with a non-profit conservation group calling for the rebuilding plan to show leadership in the area.
The plan offers up no path toward tackling the food source problem. It emphasizes the uncertainty surrounding that mortality makes it impossible to predict where cod numbers will be three years from now, and leaves the capelin issue as one largely outside human control.
“One of the only factors that we have any influence on is fishing effort, and that’s what this plan focuses on,” Diamond told CBC Radio’s The Broadcast.
Sullivan disputed the starvation problem, saying there isn’t enough evidence at the moment to support it, but he would like to see more investigation as to what’s going on with the mortality rates.
“If the fish are not healthy, we’ve got to get to the bottom of it so we can understand it,” he said.
But Sullivan said sacrificing rebuilding a commercial fishery while such science continues is frustrating, particularly as harvesters are seeing abundance out at sea.
“I think fish harvesters have the same goal. They want this stock healthy. They want to see it rebuild and it to be a really meaningful part of their livelihoods going forward,” he said.
Sullivan said the FFAW was caught off guard by the rebuilding plan’s release and that harvesters had not been consulted in recent years.
“This really puts any clamp on hope for reasonable increases in cod, you know, so that’s why it’s so discouraging,” he said.
“That’s why we need to go back to the drawing board and really work and consult with harvesters who this means so much to.”
However, Diamond said DFO’s meetings with stakeholders about the plan have been ongoing since 2013.
“It’s been a long process,” she said.
Diamond said the department is trying to balance growing cod numbers with providing “reasonable fishing opportunities.”
The plan itself states nothing is set in stone, and Sullivan takes hope that there may be room to revise.
“I think the best thing we can do here is to go back and have a discussion on what will really work here, because I don’t think this rebuild, this particular part of the plan, has been thought through.”
The FFAW has contacted DFO, said Sullivan, but no plans for meetings have been made.