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Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)
Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)

Jeffrey Simpson

Cod in Newfoundland: Already seen that drama Add to ...

A very bad movie has returned to Newfoundland. The script is well-known; the actors have not changed; the plot never alters; and the commercial results are always disappointing. Yet the movie keeps coming back for another rendition.

The plot revolves around what used to be a mainstay industry for Newfoundland: the cod fishery. It has been in decline for decades, during which scientific advice about the precariousness of the cod stocks was usually ignored.

There were too many parties, and too many politicians, with vested interests in ignoring science, or playing it down, or claiming that the results were biased. They are still around, and vocal.

Cue the current reel of the old movie. Once again, scientists from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans are providing the data on which the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada makes recommendations to the federal government. Once again, the committee has recommended that Atlantic cod be designated an endangered species. And once again, all the usual suspects are dumping on the science, discrediting the recommendation of the scientists.

Fishermen are irate. The provincial Fisheries Minister says stocks are improving, thereby justifying the existing levels of fishing. And the Fish, Food and Allied Workers Union calls the committee report "political science," "misleading," and "nonsense."

Of course, none of these individuals or groups has separate, better scientific data. They have only anecdotal reports from fishermen, and part of the old movie's script always features fishermen claiming fish to be more abundant than the scientists do.

So what do the DFO scientists say? In the last report of the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat on northern cod, the scientists found a small improvement in stock levels, but it said that "the stock has not increased across much of its historical range and overall remains far below historical biomass levels."

What does that mean? According to Dalhousie University fisheries biologist Jeff Hutchings, chair of the endangered-wildlife committee, northern cod stocks are 4 per cent of their levels of the 1960s and 10 per cent of their 1980s levels.

The situation in the Gulf of St. Lawrence is even worse, according to the latest science. Two DFO scientists recently wrote a paper saying that the cod would disappear entirely in 40 years at this level of fishing and that the stocks are now seriously imperilled.

A DFO report on the southern gulf cod found stocks at their lowest levels in 60 years. The replacement rate of cod is far less than half of what would be required just to maintain the stock at existing levels.

The increase in northern cod is what the union and the provincial government use to justify the existing fishery - the one the endangered-wildlife committee thinks should be scaled back but not necessarily eliminated. But the increase is not only small, it is way, way below what would be necessary over time to rebuild stocks to something approximating long-term health.

In the United States, legislation mandates the federal government to regulate fishing of stocks at the level of long-term renewal, rather than seeing them depleted and then perhaps built up later. In Canada, no such legislation exists. There are no targets or rebuilding strategies, just a series of one-off, yearly assessments ultimately left in the all-powerful hands of the federal minister of fisheries.

That person, currently Gail Shea, always plays the same role. The minister hears the advice from the department's scientists and then disregards or plays down the advice in deference to the howls coming from the fishing interests, the provincial government and Newfoundland MPs.

Long-term stock recovery gives way almost every time to short-term job and profit considerations. When Ms. Shea responded to the endangered-wildlife committee's report by saying she would "study it," we know what will come next. Nothing.

So year after year, indeed decade after decade, we stare in the face of scientific data that say stocks are declining fast, or improving only very, very slowly from decimated levels, yet the same voices remain in angry denial that more serious conservation action is required.

The St. John's Telegram bravely editorialized against the local deniers and denigrators of the science: "To quote Yogi Berra, it's déjà vu all over again."

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