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Canada Newfoundland cod stocks suffer serious and surprising decline

Rexene Daley and Lisa Barrett work on the cod fillet line at the Icewater Seafood plant in Arnold's Cove, NL on Tuesday, November 14, 2017.

Paul Daly/The Globe and Mail

Newfoundland’s legendary northern cod stocks have suffered a major decline in the past year, despite having made a remarkable comeback over the last decade.

Scientists with the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans revealed on Friday that cod in the fertile fishing area that stretches from Labrador to the Avalon Peninsula dropped 30 per cent between 2017 and 2018. Further declines are forecast for next year.

This drop is a marked departure from earlier projections that cod’s upswing would continue throughout 2018. Those predictions, made two years ago, stoked hope that that the end of a 25-year moratorium on commercial cod fishing was coming into sight just as Newfoundland’s fishermen are grappling with hard times. The lucrative crab and shrimp stocks they relied on in the post-cod era have fallen off and quotas have been slashed.

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News of cod’s unexpectedly bad year has underscored the legendary fish’s fragility and renewed uncertainty over whether it will ever again have a commercial future.

“This is a reminder that where we are in that critical zone is a very precarious place to be,” said Karen Dwyer, a stock-assessment biologist with the department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). “We have to be careful with all sorts of removals.”

Ms. Dwyer issued a similar caution in 2016 but federal policymakers, who issue management decisions after consulting with scientists and industry groups, have been steadily increasing what is known as the stewardship fishery since 2015. It allows licensed harvesters to fish and sell a small number of cod commercially, but not usually enough to make a living.

Carrie Cockburn/The Globe and Mail

More than 12,000 tonnes of cod were harvested off Newfoundland last year – about triple what was fished in 2015. With the provincial government funding sustainable gear initiatives to help cod fishermen ready themselves for the increases, industry groups were hoping that the 2018 season would see another increase.

While a policy decision remains weeks away, some science and industry groups are calling for restraint.

“I think a more cautious approach is certainly in order,” said Sherrylynn Rowe, a renowned cod expert with Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s. “It’s a pretty sad story,” she said, adding that the drop in cod was “predictable.”

Dr. Rowe was one of the first scientists in Newfoundland to trumpet the return of cod, which she and a colleague catalogued in a journal article published in 2015. It set off a buzz and, as that grew, so did political pressure to allow fishermen to catch more fish.

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Last year, before the 2017 cod quotas were announced, Dr. Rowe and a colleague published an opinion piece in the journal Nature that implored policymakers not to “derail cod’s comeback in Canada.” It went on to discourage stepping up the fishery for 2017 and warned that “data indicate that the cod’s comeback may have stalled.”

Days after it was published, policymakers increased quota for the 2017 season.

“I have to blame it on the incredible pressure that has been leveraged by industry groups,” said Kris Vascotto, executive director of the Groundfish Enterprise Allocation Council, an industry association that represents year-round groundfish harvesters in Atlantic Canada.

“This is an iconic stock. We are being forced to speak for the fish,” he said, adding: “I find that a very interesting position for us to be in.”

Ms. Dwyer, the federal scientist, said this year’s decline does not necessarily mean cod’s comeback is finished. “I don’t think our recovery is completely stalled,” she said.

While some of the stock’s decline was related to fishing, the report attributes a large proportion to natural mortality. The term is a catch-all that includes deaths due to disease, predators, age as well as unreported fishing catches or by-catch.

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Dr. Rowe, the academic scientist, said she hopes that rather than point fingers at one another, industry groups, policymakers and scientists can agree on a way forward in the coming weeks.

“The key question now is what are we going to do about it? Are we going to allow the fishery to continue as it has over the last couple of years? Or are we doing to do something a little different that maybe puts more emphasis on conservation of this resource and gives us a better chance of having a … fully rebuilt fishery?”

At least one industry partner is in favour of a conservative approach. Alberto Wareham, the seventh-generation CEO of Icewater Seafoods, the only fish processor in Newfoundland that handles only cod, said he would like to see fewer cod fished this year.

“Hopefully this is a bit of a wake-up call and people realize that they’ve got to look at a different way of managing this fishery.”

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