HALIFAX —Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) just released its annual quota for critically depleted northern cod, maintaining the harmfully high catch level of 12,350 tonnes set in 2019. DFO increased the quota by 30 per cent last year, despite scientific advice to keep catch to the lowest possible level. Northern cod’s high quota is further damaging to the population because it ignores the amount caught in Newfoundland’s recreational fishery. DFO has still not completed a rebuilding plan for northern cod, nearly three decades after it first collapsed. Oceana Canada has been advocating for a return to the more responsible catch level of 9,500 tonnes, including from the recreational fishery.
“This decision fails to correct the harmful trajectory DFO set out on last year. Keeping the quota at this unsustainably high level allows us to continue irresponsible fishing pressure on a population that is deep in the critical zone,” said Dr. Robert Rangeley, Director of Science, Oceana Canada. “It also goes against scientific advice and the government’s own policy to rebuild depleted fish populations, as outlined in the amended Fisheries Act that passed into law last year.” said Dr. Rangeley, adding, “This comes on the heels of another dangerous fisheries management decision. Earlier this year, DFO allowed a nearly 20,000 tonne quota for seriously depleted northern capelin – a key food source for northern cod.”
When a population like northern cod is in the critical zone, serious harm is occurring and DFO’s own policy calls for conservation to be prioritized. In the absence of a rebuilding plan, there is no roadmap for success – no targets or timelines to return the population back to healthy levels and no guidance for responsible management.
Northern cod populations collapsed in the early 1990s, causing an economic downturn. Many people in coastal communities are feeling similar hardships today as the fishing industry has been impacted by COVID-19. Earlier this year, the Canadian government released economic support for the fishing and seafood industry. In addition to this support, the government must also invest in sustainably managing fish populations for the long term to ensure that the oceans will be an abundant source of food and livelihood for communities into the future.
“Stressors on the fishing industry, such as shifting environmental conditions from climate change and economic instability from a global pandemic, highlight how important good fisheries management is to protect our future,” said Dr. Rangeley. “Now more than ever, we need to take care of fish populations. Doing so will help communities and businesses that depend on healthy, abundant oceans. In the case of northern cod, this means keeping fishing pressure low while the population is in the critical zone and releasing a rebuilding plan that adheres to international standards.”
In 2017, DFO committed to releasing a rebuilding plan for northern cod by the end of March 2019, but a plan has yet to be released. A fisheries economics study commissioned by Oceana Canada in 2019 showed that a rebuilt northern cod fishery could provide 16 times more jobs and be worth up to five times more than today in as little as 10 years.
Oceana Canada was established as an independent charity in 2015 and is part of the largest international advocacy group dedicated solely to ocean conservation. Oceana Canada has successfully campaigned to end the shark fin trade, make rebuilding depleted fish populations the law, improve the way fisheries are managed and protect marine habitat. We work with civil society, academics, fishers, Indigenous Peoples and the federal government to return Canada’s formerly vibrant oceans to health and abundance. By restoring Canada’s oceans, we can strengthen our communities, reap greater economic and nutritional benefits and protect our future.
• For centuries, Atlantic cod supported massive fisheries, drove economies and fed millions. During the 1990s, most cod stocks collapsed in Atlantic Canada.
• Today, most of the remaining populations, including northern cod, are deep in the critical zone and are assessed as endangered by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). These fish populations are less resilient to factors such as climate change, reduced food availability and predation.
• Decades after its collapse, northern cod is still without a rebuilding plan to sustainably manage the fishery and support the recovery of its population to the healthy zone.
• Although northern cod continues to be officially under moratorium, total reported landings were 13,023 tonnes in 2017, 9,496 tonnes in 2018 and 10,559 tonnes in 2019. Currently there is no requirement to report recreational landings but estimates from cod tagging data in 2020 indicate that catches averaged 1,900 tonnes annually between 2016 and 2019.
• At the beginning of 2019, northern cod’s spawning stock biomass was less than half the limit reference point, 48 per cent, which is the number at which the population would move out of the critical zone and into the cautious zone.
• Although northern cod biomass has increased in recent years (2012-2016), recruitment, or reaching a certain size or reproductive stage, remains relatively low, with a recent average of 20 per cent of the pre-collapse period.
• Northern cod currently mature when they reach five years old and can live up to the age of 26, but few fish over 15 years old are seen today.
• The future of northern cod’s food sources, including capelin and shrimp, are also uncertain. Starvation is a strong component of natural mortality in northern cod.