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It may be a move in the right direction, but northern cod stocks remain well below historical abundance and, with a two-year data gap, scientists cannot confirm its current status

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The longliner owned and operated by Alex and Corey Saunders arrives in the southern Labrador community of Pinsent’s Arm to unload a catch of northern cod in September 2021.Photography by Jenn Thornhill Verma/The Globe and Mail

Captain Alex Saunders has more experience fishing northern cod than most fishermen. At 81 years old, the fishing captain has fished for cod off the Labrador coast for six decades. This year, he says, was a banner year for that fishery.

“There were no codfish in northern Labrador for about 60 years, but this summer the cod were all along the Labrador coast from Blanc-Sablon in the south to north of Nain,” Mr. Saunders says.

A good catch rate this season meant Mr. Saunders’s crew hauled in gillnets every day for weeks, returning to communities such as Pinsent’s Arm, a fishing town of about 50 people along the Labrador coast, to land cod at the wharf. But the season’s quick success also meant its early closing.

“On a Friday afternoon they said, ‘Get your gear out of the water Sunday by six o’clock,’ ” Mr. Saunders says of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ (DFO) decision to shut down the fall northern cod stewardship fishery weeks earlier than planned – a measure to ensure fishing did not exceed season limits.

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At 81 years old, Captain Alex Saunders has fished for cod off the Labrador coast for six decades.

Those limits should define how much cod can be fished while sustaining the fishery. DFO determines cod-fishing limits based on its Harvest Decision Rule, a calculation weighing stock status (critical, cautious, healthy or uncertain) against expected mortality (because of fishing or natural causes).

This year’s amount, set at 12,999 tonnes, was informed by DFO’s science assessment model showing northern cod – a population of the species Atlantic cod that inhabits an area of the northwest Atlantic Ocean roughly twice the size of Newfoundland and Labrador – has hovered in the critical zone for more than 30 years.

But with recent changes to the northern cod assessment model, DFO research scientist Paul Regular says northern cod likely graduated out of that critical state.

“Northern cod has been in a critical zone since 1992, since the collapse, but with more information at our fingertips, we can now say, between 2016 and 2021, cod moved into the cautious zone,” says Dr. Regular, who leads DFO’s northern cod assessment.

While that’s a move in the right direction, northern cod remains well below historical abundance. That’s true of all eight Atlantic cod populations – none are healthy, though most continue to be fished.

The new assessment model finds the population of northern cod peaked in 1962, when biomass reached 1.5 million tonnes. Three decades later, estimates dropped sharply through 1991 (to about 500,000 tonnes), 1992 (roughly 300,000), 1993 (75,000) and the lowest estimate, in 1995 (10,000).

Matthew Holwell, offloading crew at the Pinsent’s Arm wharf, preps a tub with ice for a load of northern cod.
All eight Atlantic cod populations, including Northern cod, remain well-below historical abundance.

Without question, industrialized fishing fleets (many foreign-owned) overfished the stock in the 1960s. But what predicated the early-1990s cod collapse, and stalled growth of the stock since, remains a source of debate.

Independent scientists criticize DFO for playing down the role of overfishing compared with other factors, including slow population growth and natural causes such as starvation and predation. The evidence, they say, is in DFO’s reopening of the commercial inshore cod fishery (called the stewardship fishery) while the 1992 cod moratorium – the federal government’s commercial cod fishery closing – remains in effect.

But nearly 30 years on, in 2021, the biomass grew to 350,000 tonnes. Under DFO’s previous 800,000-tonne limit reference point – the point below which a stock is considered in serious danger – that’s kept cod in the critical zone. Now, with a newly defined 315,000-tonne limit, that same biomass is elevated to cautious.

“The amount of cod in the water is still the same as it was before, but this offers a better outlook than we’ve had, increasing what we think is northern cod’s potential to recover,” says Katie Schleit, fisheries director with the marine research conservation group Oceans North.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Mr. Saunders says. “You have a resource that hasn’t been available to the people for the last 30 years and now the cod have come back.”

DFO’s assessment model, released last month in a technical summary, is forthcoming in an advisory report, based on the review carried out in mid-October by the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat, the body that co-ordinates DFO’s scientific peer review and science advice. Central to that assessment are the addition of 30 years of cod data (from 1950 to the 1980s, bringing the time series from 1954 to 2021), information on juvenile cod and the effects of low capelin supply (the primary prey of cod) on cod abundance.

“We also spent quite a bit of time trying to quantify the impacts of seals on the cod population. We know they eat cod, but we don’t know the precise numbers they’re removing,” Dr. Regular says.

Scientists are applauding what the update means for shifting fisheries management from single-species to ecosystem-based management, which considers multiple species within a marine area. Modelling scientist Rebecca Schijns, whose study of 500 years of northern cod catch data showed the 1992 collapse could have been avoided if fisheries managers had stabilized catch levels in the 1980s, says there are critical variables still left out of the equation.

“Nearly three-quarters of fish stocks in Canada don’t formally consider climate change when there is the availability of scientific evidence to support research on climate impacts for the majority of Canada’s fisheries,” says Ms. Schijns, fishery scientist with Oceana Canada.

Dr. Regular says his team is exploring the impact of oceanographic temperatures and conditions on cod. “There are some problems and signals there, but more research needs to be done to try and pinpoint how weather is impacting rates of mortality,” he says. Another issue is the two-year data gap.

“We don’t actually know what the stock looks like today,” Ms. Schleit says.

The new assessment is outdated, a weak point that DFO attributes to having no offshore trawl surveys since 2021, because of problems with the federal department’s research vessel fleet.

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The dockside crew in Pinsent’s Arm welcome a longliner landing a catch of northern cod.

The news on northern cod comes just as the Office of the Auditor-General of Canada last week released its latest report finding that DFO is unable to collect the catch data that it needs to sustainably manage commercial marine fisheries. DFO has yet to deliver on most of the corrective measures that it committed to seven years ago, when this area was last audited.

“Without dependable and timely data on fish being caught, Fisheries and Oceans Canada does not know whether commercial stocks are being overfished. The collapse of the Atlantic cod population in the 1990s – with its far‑reaching economic and social impacts – has shown that it is far more expensive and difficult to recover depleted stocks than it is to keep them healthy in the first place,” Jerry DeMarco, the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, says in a media release.

With a new research vessel onboarded to its fleet, DFO’s fall survey is now under way – just in time to inform DFO’s spring northern cod assessment.

“What we’re really waiting on is that March, 2024, assessment, because that’ll tell us what the status of the stock is right now and what the probability is that it’s out of the critical zone,” says Dr. Erin Carruthers, science lead with the Fish, Food and Allied Workers union (FFAW), which represents Newfoundland inshore fishermen.

At stake are short-term harvest decisions and long-term fisheries rebuilding.

“A decision for the 2024 season will be made following the northern cod stock assessment and advisory process in spring 2024. A rebuilding plan for northern cod will be required within 24 months if in the future an assessment indicates that the stock is in the critical zone,” DFO says (in an e-mail response).

Northern cod is one of 30 fish stocks subject to the Fish Stocks Provisions under the Fisheries Act, which requires DFO to develop a northern cod rebuilding plan. That plan has been harshly criticized for lacking targets and timelines for rebuilding cod to healthy levels. Long-time cod scientist George Rose was among those who argued the plan read more like a fishing plan than a rebuilding one.

Dr. Rose, who spent 40 years studying Atlantic cod, including eight years at DFO, calls the new assessment model “a step forward in our attempts to understand this ecosystem and the history and productivity of the northern cod.” But he advises DFO to stick with the research.

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Captain Saunders hopes DFO sticks to its commitment to allow the inshore sector and Indigenous groups in Newfoundland and Labrador first access to the allowable catch for northern cod.

“There’s no evidence of stock growth since around 2015. It is only an assigned goalpost of productivity that’s changed. Whatever goalpost DFO uses, the stock remains in the lower end of its historical biomass, and management should be consistent with that if stock growth is the objective,” Dr. Rose says.

Meanwhile, there are already pressures to increase cod-fishing quotas.

“Inshore fish harvesters and Indigenous groups in Newfoundland and Labrador have been guaranteed the first 115,000 tonnes of northern cod and were negatively impacted this year by a limited stewardship fishery,” reads FFAW’s October release, referencing DFO’s Integrated Fisheries Management Plan to put local fishermen first should cod continue its climb toward a healthy-enough status that would allow a return to a commercial fishery.

Back in Labrador, Mr. Saunders hopes DFO sticks to that commitment.

“They’re going to have to address the issue of those closest to the resource having first access to the resource. Without the fishery there wouldn’t be no south coast of Labrador, because there’s no reason to be there if there’s no work,” Mr. Saunders says.

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