A 10-year moratorium on fishing for northern cod that left 28,000 Newfoundlanders looking for work and cost the federal government more than $3-billion has failed to rebuild the fragile fish stock, a federal advisory council has found.
As Newfoundlanders are about to observe the 10th anniversary of the collapse of what was for centuries the world's most abundant fish stock, scientists and fishermen still can't explain what happened in the depths of the North Atlantic.
"The state of the northern cod is disturbing," the Fisheries Resource Conservation Council said yesterday in a letter to federal Fisheries Minister Robert Thibault.
"After 10 years of a Canadian fishing moratorium, both scientific data and fishermen's knowledge affirm that there has been no significant rebuilding."
The influential advisory council is recommending that the Fisheries Department end a popular recreational cod fishery off Newfoundland in which 1,900 tonnes were caught last year and consider restricting a small-boat fishery that took about 5,000 tonnes.
Conservation council chairman Fred Woodman said in an interview yesterday that even catching 7,000 tonnes of cod a year could jeopardize any chance the stock has of rebounding.
He noted that in 1991, the last full year of fishing before the moratorium was declared, about 190,000 tonnes of northern cod was landed. Now scientists believe that less than 100,000 tonnes is left in waters off the coast of northeastern Newfoundland.
"My personal opinion is that we fished it down so low that it's going to take a long, long time for that stock to recover," Mr. Woodman said.
The council letter also notes that the cod have suffered from changes in the ecosystem, predation by seals and "severe mortality of adult cod from undetermined sources."
It calls for strict protection of spawning areas from any kind of fishing to allow the few remaining cod to reproduce.
Scientists have been baffled by the appearance of large schools of cod in Bonavista and Trinity bays in recent years while the major offshore fishing areas have been barren.
Mr. Woodman said that existing fishing technology enables fishermen to locate and catch fish in deep water.
"With the technology we have today it's quite possible to catch the last fish, and we have to watch that technology quite closely," he said.
The news that the cod have not recovered didn't surprise many Newfoundland fishermen, but it dashed any hopes they had of a return to the boom years of the 1980s.
Tony Doyle, who has fished in Conception Bay for several decades, said that when the cod stock collapsed in 1992 he was skeptical that fishermen would ever haul cod in by the boatload again, although he expected some recovery.
"This does surprise me. Like a lot of people, we thought we would be in some kind of recovery period by now when we'd be into a large fishery," he said.
After the 1992 moratorium was announced, fishermen from Mr. Doyle's area patrolled the coastal water regularly, looking for some sign of the fish.
"There were people on the water just checking it out. We couldn't believe the cod was gone," he said.
Mr. Doyle believes some of the northern cod stock migrated south to warmer waters and where there have traditionally been large amounts of capelin, the small fish the cod feed on. He noted that fishermen in the bay areas found some large cod in the mid-1990s, but those numbers dwindled as fishing increased off the south coast of the province.
Now he sees an increasing number of smaller cod in the water, and he's hoping they will be left alone to mature and form part of the recovery.
Mr. Doyle, who has turned to catching crab, lobster, herring, capelin and lumpfish, said tough decisions have to be made to restrict fishing and allow the cod to come back. That could involve calling off the popular recreational fishery.