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Nearly 30 years into the moratorium, conservationists and industry are at odds over Ottawa’s latest plan to bring devastated fish stocks back to health – and some are rediscovering traditional methods they think might be the answer

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Kimberly Orren of Petty Harbour Maddox Cove, N.L., is co-founder of Fishing for Success, which teaches traditional fishing methods such as hook and line fishing, which were mainstays of Newfoundland and Labrador's cod fisheries before industrial methods badly depleted stocks.Greg Locke/The Globe and Mail

The line passes over her open hand as the steel weight sinks the hook. Curled around the hook, pierced eye to tailfin, is capelin, a small oily foraging fish that’s the meal of choice for seabirds such as puffins, whales such as humpbacks and groundfish such as cod.

A tug on the 250-pound test line signals to fisherman Kimberly Orren that the line is ready to be hauled in. Pulling hand over hand while holding the line taut against the boat’s rails, Ms. Orren awaits a glimmer from below. In the time it takes to realize many lines hauled many times have etched the rails of this 22-footer, she is holding her catch.

Atlantic cod, the species better known by its population name, Northern cod, is the fish of choice for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.

On a day spent handlining cod on the North Atlantic off of Petty Harbour-Maddox Cove, a centuries-old fishing community just outside of St. John’s, it can be easy to forget cod has a storied history – and a still uncertain future.

Northern cod survived near-decimation from overfishing three decades ago, leading the federal department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) to shutter the commercial cod fishery in 1992.

Meant to last two years, the cod moratorium remains in effect, although DFO reopened an inshore commercial fishery, called the “stewardship fishery,” in 2006.

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A tub of baited, handline-caught northern cod.Jenn Thornhill Verma/The Globe and Mail

At the end of December, DFO tabled its first Rebuilding Plan for Atlantic Cod to bring cod back from the brink. The rebuilding plan will help guide decision-making on allowable catch in the stewardship fishery, specifically in an area of the North Atlantic ocean two times the size of Newfoundland and Labrador.

First and foremost, the plan is intended to uphold provisions introduced last year to the federal Fisheries Act under Bill C-68, requiring DFO to rebuild and protect habitat for commercial fishing stocks in the critical zone. Atlantic cod is among more than a dozen major stocks slated for the first batch of rebuilding efforts.

Reaction to the plan has predominantly focused on the usual Goldilocks arguments: Conservationists argue the plan keeps fishing limits on the stock too high, while the provincial fishermen’s union calls it too low, and few others consider it just right.

But with the stock critically depleted, the East Coast commercial cod fishery has already been moving away from a fish-stick model (based on quantity) to a fillet one (based on quality). On top of this, stock-management decisions in Canada notoriously place politics and commercial interests ahead of science and conservation efforts.

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Petty Harbour Maddox Cove, just outside of St. John’s, has been a base for the island's fisheries for centuries.Greg Locke/The Globe and Mail

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Ms. Orren looks out over the North Atlantic about three kilometres offshore.Jenn Thornhill Verma/The Globe and Mail

Back out in the boat, Ms. Orren, a fisherman and captain working toward her commercial cod-fishing license, believes she’s holding part of the answer to the commercial versus conservation conundrum in the palm of her hands.

Baited handlining encourages a natural equilibrium between fishermen and fish, with fish only biting when hungry. Along with husband Leo Hearn, a retired commercial fisherman, Ms. Orren is co-founder of Fishing for Success, a non-profit teaching traditional fishing knowledge and skills, including hook-and-line fishing.

“It leaves no gear in the water,” Ms. Orren says. “When you go home, you roll up your line and take it with you. There’s less chance of leaving something behind that could cause entanglements with marine mammals. It’s not going to contribute to microplastic waste. It’s not going to break free and contribute to ghost fishing.” (Ghost fishing is when lost or abandoned gear continues to fish on its own.)

Gillnets, the most extensively used gear in the province’s commercial cod fishery, also have the highest ecological impact of any fishing equipment. Between 2017 and 2019, DFO reported gillnets caught an average of 85 per cent of inshore cod landings. That’s double the proportion DFO reported in the years pre-dating the 1992 moratorium, when gillnets comprised about 40 per cent of inshore landings between 1980 and 1989.

Of all authorized gear, gillnets rank most severe in terms of habitat damage and discarded unintended catch, followed by longline, cod pot and handline. That finding is based on the results of a 2008 study analyzing the severity of ecological impacts of major commercial fishing gears used in Canada.

For context, gillnets hang in the water, while longline (a main line with baited hooks set on branching lines) is hauled – both reach the ocean floor. Cod pots lure fish into doorways in box-shaped, bottom-sitting nets, keeping the fish alive until the pot is harvested. Compared with handline and cod pot, nets and longline catch considerably more fish, but are also far more likely to disturb fish and damage the bottom of the ocean.

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Ms. Orren holds the single-hook handline gear she uses to fish in a more traditional way.Greg Locke/The Globe and Mail

Because handlining produces premium catch, commercial fishermen can secure premium market value – twice as high as the going market rates for gillnet-caught cod. Over the past five years, fishermen averaged 76-77 cents a pound for cod, but Petty Harbour handline fishermen secure $1.50 per pound (making closer to $4.00 a pound for fillets).

Landed seafood prices in Newfoundland and Labrador are negotiated annually between the Fish, Food and Allied Workers (FFAW) union, which represents inshore fishermen, and the Association of Seafood Producers, which represents seafood processors. Pricing is based on a grading scheme, explains FFAW president Keith Sullivan. “It’s the process of fishing, not necessarily the gear used, that is determinative as to whether a high-quality fish is landed,” he says, pointing to such processes as the length of time gillnets are set, how soon fish is bled when brought onboard and how long before cod is properly iced.

But Fogo Island Fish, a water-to-table business that buys Fogo Island handline-caught cod and delivers it directly to premium restaurants, mostly in Toronto and Ottawa, markets itself on the premise that how cod is caught best determines its quality. The company pays double the market value to about 50 handline fishermen, all part of the Fogo Island Co-operative Society, a community-owned fishing co-op where everyone involved, from the fisherman to the plant worker, owns a stake.

Fogo Island fishermen also use cod pots. Some have argued handline produces a better-tasting fish than pots because trapping stresses the fish, in turn affecting their taste. But, like handline, pots are kinder to the fish and gentler on the environment than other methods such as gillnet, according to the 2008 gear study.

“You can’t build an industry on what 50 fishermen can do,” argues Alberto Wareham, president and CEO of Icewater Seafoods in Arnold’s Cove, on the southeast coast of Newfoundland. Icewater exclusively processes cod, making it the only fish plant of its kind in North America. This year, the plant begins year-round operations, processing more cod in a day than all Fogo Island fishermen can land in a season, Mr. Wareham says. The plant is not operating at capacity and Mr. Wareham is not pushing it, noting the “go slow” approach to raising catch limits is critical for a cod comeback.

“Industry will argue you can’t have a commercial fishery using handline and cod pots. I think that’s open for challenge for economic development opportunities,” says Robert Rangeley, the director of science for Oceana Canada, an independent charity dedicated to ocean conservation. Mr. Rangeley says there’s rationale for making a concession on fishing Newfoundland cod. “We recognize – as counterintuitive as it may seem – that there’s going to be some cod fishing, so do the science and get it right.”

Selectivity should be a key feature, Mr. Rangeley says, meaning gear should target the desired species and quantity (therefore reducing bycatch and preventing overfishing). But quick wins – specifically, high yield for low effort – often outrank all other considerations.

“Fisheries models today still reduce fishermen to effort, while modelling aggregates all fishing into one homogenous biomass, or dead fish,” says Dean Bavington, a geography professor at Memorial University and author of Managed Annihilation: An Unnatural History of the Newfoundland Cod Collapse. Amid colonization and industrialization, wild fisheries management adopted a language of numerical abstractions – fish became “stock,” catch became “quota” – all translating into dollars and cents.

Handline, with its “one hook for one fish” model, offers high effort to low yield. Alternatively, gillnet offers low effort to high yield, with one net yielding two to three dozen fish. Current regulations permit fishermen to set six to 30 nets (pending quota and geography limits), with nets allowed to soak up to 72 hours, further reducing effort and increasing yield (unattended nets continue fishing). Autoline, or automated longlining, is yet another high-yield approach but further reduces effort and improves ecological outcomes for the fish and the environment.

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A mural in Petty Harbour commemorates its cod-fishing past, including images of hauling in fish with nets.Greg Locke/The Globe and Mail

The reason handlining cod works for Fogo Island’s co-op is not only because they can secure premium pricing for their efforts, but because cod is one of many species harvested and processed across three of its fish plants. In fact, diversification works for small-boat fishermen too. DFO reports cod fishing comprises a 16-per-cent share of income for small-boat fishermen, while it’s only about 1 per cent of income for fishermen operating larger boats.

While the fishery in Newfoundland and Labrador was built on groundfish like cod, today it relies on shellfish, especially snow crab and shrimp. With steady population growth and strong market value anticipated for snow crab, gains in shellfish could help to alleviate expected losses in groundfish. In 2019, shellfish already represented more than half of seafood landings in Newfoundland and Labrador and contributed more than 80 per cent of revenues. Snow crab, the province’s most valuable exported seafood, garnered $415-million in 2019. That value is nearly 16 times greater than the export value of cod ($26-million). All told, the 2019 value of Newfoundland and Labrador seafood products totaled $1.4-billion, marking the fifth consecutive year that total exceeded $1-billion. Despite a growing aquaculture industry, wild fisheries represented 88 per cent of that value. Even a critically depleted species like cod has a market, with the majority in 2019 exported to the United States (44 per cent) and Britain (25 per cent).

Many international buyers land somewhere between fish sticks and fillets, making fishcakes from the catch. One of Icewater Seafood’s premier buyers is British retail giant Marks & Spencer, which uses Newfoundland and Labrador cod in its branded fishcakes. Packaging for those products indicates the “cod caught in the North East and North West Atlantic” is “100% responsibly sourced” and “only made from high-quality, responsibly sourced fish.” Despite the labelling, no Atlantic cod in Canadian waters (the northwest Atlantic) is certified sustainable.

Ask DFO and they will bring the sustainability conversation back to fishing itself. “It’s about what’s within the department’s range of control,” says Julie Diamond, DFO’s regional manager of resource management and integrated fisheries for the Newfoundland and Labrador region. “When it comes to factors we have a direct influence on, it really comes down to fishing [quota]. That is one area we have a quantifiable impact.”

How much cod is commercially harvested is determined annually based on the “Harvest Decision Rule,” a calculation weighing current stock status against expected mortality (either because of fishing or natural causes). That rule guides annual quota decisions in the stewardship fishery. In commercial fisheries, quota is called Total Allowable Catch (TAC), which DFO first introduced for Northern cod in 1973. The TAC supposedly tells fishermen how much cod they can catch without destroying the stock. But here’s a quick history refresher: The TAC set for 1992 was 185,000 metric tonnes – while the number of codfish that same year was around zero.

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A cod icon adorns a fishing boat in Petty Harbour Maddox Cove.Greg Locke/The Globe and Mail

Thirty years on, Atlantic cod remains the record-holder for surviving the greatest numerical loss of any species in Canadian history, according to findings from Dalhousie University fisheries biologist Jeffrey Hutchings. In the 30-year period pre-dating the 1992 moratorium, cod in Canada are estimated to have declined by more than 90 per cent, says Mr. Hutchings – that’s two million tonnes of cod.

Fast-forward to 2020, when DFO set the quota in the stewardship fishery to 12,350 metric tonnes. While that’s a fraction of premoratorium levels, it’s triple the 2015 limits. It also runs counter to best scientific advice. While research from 2015 showed the cod population may be bouncing back, more up-to-date assessments show a cod comeback remains hampered. That’s mostly because of the climate crisis, which is warming the ocean, in turn displacing Northern cod even further north; and also thanks to a stifled capelin population, cod’s primary prey. Latest research also shows overfishing played an even greater role in the early nineties cod collapse than originally thought.

Meanwhile, DFO’s rebuilding plan doesn’t mention the word “climate,” makes no suggestion to cut capelin quotas, and fails to cite the latest research on overfishing. It’s worth noting that in 2019, capelin had an export value of $41-million – valued 65 per cent higher than in 2018 because of a European shortage (owing to a moratorium on capelin fishing there).

Next week, DFO will share its annual scientific assessment for Northern cod, but current evidence shows the stock is halfway to complete collapse. Even if the spawning stock doubled in size today, Atlantic cod would remain in the critical zone, just on the cusp of the cautious zone but still well below healthy levels. In short, relying on stock management decisions in Canada has not worked particularly well – especially because those decisions are notoriously overladen with politics, Mr. Hutchings says.

“In Europe, the United States, Australia and New Zealand, science advice on recommended [fishing] targets is made available and clearly distinguishable to the public from the recommended targets that emerge from discussions between fisheries managers and industry. We don’t have that transparency in Canada,” Mr. Hutchings says.

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Boats lie at the wharf in Petty Harbour Maddox Cove.Greg Locke/The Globe and Mail

The revised Fisheries Act grants DFO the policy tools it needs to help cod flourish, but in practice, the department isn’t using all of the tools at its disposal. In fact, its rebuilding plan has no timeline or targets.

“In what can only be described as managed annihilation, DFO’s latest plan shows the persistent blind spots of fisheries management in Canada and its counter-productivity, producing what it’s ostensibly designed to prevent,” Memorial University geographer Dean Bavington says, noting the dominant fisheries management focus on cod as a commodity also overrides cod’s local value as food and a source of culture and heritage for settlers and Indigenous people.

From her kitchen table in Petty Harbour, Ms. Orren considers what’s next for the commercial cod fishery. “With the cod stocks at such a low level, what’s the best thing to do? Is it to ravage what’s left?” she asks.

Looking back through history, it was fishermen in her region who passed a resolution to preserve their handline-only fishing grounds, banning longline in 1961 and gillnets in 1964. Their actions came in response to the Canadian government’s 1960 decision to repeal Newfoundland and Labrador’s laws protecting handline-only harbours. At the time, the federal fisheries department was making way for what it considered new, more sophisticated gillnet and longline gear. A few years later, otter trawls were considered best-in-line gear. By far the most damaging of all gear types, these large funnel-shaped nets are dragged along the ocean bottom by trawlers or draggers. The trawls are now banned in this fishery, but in the years predating the moratorium, trawls comprised 80 per cent to 100 per cent of offshore cod landings (gillnets made up the difference).

“What is very terrifying to many is when cod comes back – whenever that is – and the fishery scales up, do we want a large-scale trawler and gillnet fishery?” Mr. Rangeley says.

While the latest policy changes to the Fisheries Act offer hope, DFO’s cod rebuilding plan lacks inspiration. If practice can so easily sidestep policy and evidence, then what will prevent history from repeating itself?

Jenn Thornhill Verma is a fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and the author of Cod Collapse: The Rise and Fall of Newfoundland’s Saltwater Cowboys.

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