Cod fishing graphic

Atlantic cod rebuilding plan undermines scientific evidence and Indigenous Knowledge: critics

Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s roadmap to save critically depleted species fails to address overfishing and climate change, while blaming ‘natural causes’ for population decline

Canada’s foremost fisheries biologists say Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s plan to rebuild Atlantic cod is “riddled with weaknesses from a science and policy perspective” and “it’s unclear whether it will help or hinder a cod recovery.”

The commentary, published last week in Policy Options, is the latest criticism of the federal strategy, which was released in December and is among the first plans the department has produced since 2019 amendments to the Fisheries Act requiring it to protect habitat and rebuild populations of critically depleted fish.

Next year marks 30 years since the 1992 cod moratorium, when the federal government shuttered Newfoundland and Labrador’s cod fishery. Although cod remains under moratoria, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) reopened a small, inshore commercial cod fishery called the “stewardship” fishery 15 years ago. 

Jeffrey Hutchings, a fisheries biologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax and lead author of the commentary, said the plan downplays science showing the greatest threat to cod is overfishing. He said overfishing played a primary role in the 1990s collapse and the failed rebuilding ever since. Part of the problem, he said, is Fisheries and Oceans Canada puts economic and commercial interests ahead of science and conservation efforts. 

“Politicians were ill-equipped to balance interests of the environment, sustainability of coastal communities and the employment they need, with pressures from industry to keep catching more and more cod,” he said of the collapse. “Underlying all of that was advice from scientists in the background.” 

He added that the rebuilding plan changes little by way of fisheries management.

Red Bay, Labrador

The fishing village of Red Bay in NunatuKavut, on the south coast of Labrador, was one of many communities severely impacted by the 1992 cod moratorium. Photo: John Angelopoulos

According to the plan, “natural causes,” such as the effects of warmer ocean temperatures and starvation due to depleted capelin, cod’s primary fish prey, are preventing a cod comeback more so than fishing. And yet, the plan offers no actions to counteract these threats and doesn’t even mention “climate.”

Meanwhile, the organization representing the Southern Inuit of Labrador said the plan represents a missed opportunity for reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples.

The strategy outlines Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s objectives and management measures for helping northern cod (a population of Atlantic cod) out of the critical zone. But without actions, targets and timelines, it’s unclear how, let alone if, that will happen, Hutchings said. 

This week, Fisheries and Oceans Canada will release its northern cod scientific assessment, which is expected to show the stock is still in the critical zone, where it’s hovered for the better part of the past 50 years.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada has long overlooked the role of overfishing in cod collapse: scientists

Julie Diamond, regional manager of resource management and integrated fisheries for Fisheries and Oceans Canada in Newfoundland and Labrador, said one of the primary goals of the cod rebuilding plan is “to try to strike that balance [between] promoting the growth of the northern cod stocks, but still providing regional fishing opportunities.” 

The plan sets out rules for monitoring the health of the stock and guiding annual fishing limit decisions in the stewardship fishery. Determining fishing limits rarely leads to consensus, Diamond said. As history shows, conservationists err on the side of keeping fishing removals as low as possible, while those with a commercial stake often want more leeway on quota. 

Indeed, when the cod rebuilding plan was announced, ocean conservation charity Oceana Canada argued the federal fisheries department swung too high, saying the plan “fails to include the fundamental elements necessary to rebuild stocks.” 

In contrast, Keith Sullivan, president of the Fish, Food and Allied Workers Union, said the plan swung too low, calling it “a major setback for the development of a sustainable cod fishing sector in rural Newfoundland and Labrador.” 

Kris Vascotto, executive director of the Atlantic Groundfish Council, the non-profit industry association representing year-round groundfish harvesters in Atlantic Canada, landed in the middle, saying the plan strikes the right balance, creating stability around catch, while allowing the cod population room to recover. 

Cod fishermen

Fishermen filet cod in Newfoundland. In 2006, Fisheries and Oceans Canada reopened a small, inshore commercial cod fishery following the 1992 moratorium. Photo: michael_swan / Flickr

Fisheries biologists, meanwhile, have criticized the federal fisheries department’s actions to increase fishing pressure on critically depleted cod stocks. 

In 2019, George Rose and Carl Walters published a study showing that Fisheries and Oceans Canada had underestimated the role of overfishing and overestimated the role of natural causes in the collapse as well as in more recent recovery efforts. The finding suggests the federal department’s decision to increase the cod fishing quota in the stewardship fishery runs counter to the best scientific advice, Hutchings says. 

Back in 2017, Rose and another colleague, Sherrylynn Rowe, wrote an open letter to Fisheries and Oceans Canada, urging the department to hold off on ramping up the northern cod fishery given stocks were “still well below historical norms.” 

But the department had already more than tripled the northern cod quota from 4,000 metric tonnes in 2015 to 10,000 tonnes in 2016 and 13,000 tonnes in 2017. The allowable catch has remained near 2017 levels ever since, despite the department’s own confirmation of a stalled cod recovery.

The cod rebuilding plan makes no reference to the Rose and Walter study, an omission Hutchings and others have suggested may be intentional given the evidence counters the fisheries department’s practice to increase northern cod catch levels. Diamond was unable to respond to this claim.

Climate change poses one of the biggest threats to cod, yet it’s not mentioned in rebuilding plan

The rebuilding plan acknowledges environmental conditions, especially warming waters, are a contributing factor to cod’s natural mortality, but doesn’t account for this threat. “Climate change should have been at least mentioned in the plan,” said Dave Reddin, a retired fisheries biologist who spent 35 years working for Fisheries and Oceans Canada in St. John’s. 

While science can explain how the ocean is changing due to the global climate crisis, it cannot yet explain how cod will respond, he said, save for the expectation that coldwater marine species will follow cold marine waters, meaning northern cod are likely to swim northward. 

Robert Rangeley, Oceana Canada’s science director, said Fisheries and Oceans Canada could have accounted for climate change by undertaking a climate vulnerability assessment to better understand how northern cod may react and respond to climate-related ocean changes. Such an assessment would identify vulnerabilities (for example, in cod reproduction rates and diet) created by issues like ocean warming and acidification.

Reddin said addressing climate change in the plan would make it clear the federal department is prepared to put conservation ahead of commercial interests. 

Cod in net

If the federal government lists cod as endangered under the Species at Risk Act, it would also have to take decisive action to protect the species, such as restricting fishing, something critics say it might not want to do due to the socioeconomic impacts. Photo: Derek Keats / Flickr

Reddin also pointed to Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s decision to not list cod as endangered under the Species at Risk Act, despite repeated recommendations to do so by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, an independent scientific body.

Hutchings, who chaired the committee from 2006 to 2010, noted that listing a species under the act would compel Fisheries and Oceans Canada to implement protections, such as a halt to all fishing activity.

“Almost any species of commercial value does not get listed,” he said. “A whale, bird or reptile, sure it will get listed. A caribou, maybe. But a marine fish of any commercial value? Not likely.”

Compared with shellfish like crab and shrimp, groundfish such as cod are not high income earners for the province’s commercial fishery, which was valued at $1.4 billion in 2019. But the 14,501 tonnes of cod harvested off of Newfoundland and Labrador in 2019 still garnered $26 million on the export market, according to the Seafood Industry Year in Review 2019.

Critics say rebuilding plan fails to consider capelin, cod’s primary food source

One of the greatest threats to a cod comeback, according to the rebuilding plan, is declining capelin stock. And yet, the plan offers no actions for the commercial capelin fishery. The plan should have explained how cod can recover under current capelin and cod fishing levels, Reddin said. 

While capelin catch limits have generally decreased since 2015, they rose in 2019, during a global capelin shortage due to decreased supply throughout Europe. That year, Newfoundland and Labrador capelin earned $41 million in export value, 65 per cent higher than 2018, while several European countries instituted capelin moratoria to allow the stocks there time to recover. 

Earlier this month, World Wildlife Fund Canada called on Fisheries and Oceans Canada to institute a moratorium for the 2021 Newfoundland and Labrador capelin fishery to allow the stock time to recover as well as to encourage cod stock recovery. More recently, Oceana Canada called on Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan to do the same. 

Rangeley said inaction on capelin suggests the fisheries department didn’t consider how species interact within the marine ecosystem. “Part of the problem is we don’t manage our fisheries in an ecosystem context,” he said. “We manage as if they’re out in the water with no other influences, as a single species and a single stock.”

Capelin fishing

Fishermen catch capelin off Quirpon Island, Newfoundland and Labrador. Capelin is a small fish that feeds a variety of species from Atlantic cod to humpbacks to puffins. Photo: Sean McKinnon

In March, Fran Mowbray, a biologist and the capelin stock assessment lead with Fisheries and Oceans Canada in St. John’s, presented the capelin scientific assessment, which showed the population is a fraction of what it once was with no prospects of recovery under current conditions. The assessment will inform the federal department’s commercial capelin fishery decisions, expected in mid-April along with decisions for the stewardship cod fishery. 

“[Capelin is] what we call a keystone species or linchpin species,” Mowbray said in an interview. “It really has an impact throughout the ecosystem.”

Despite the latest science, some in the commercial industry are urging the federal fisheries department to open this year’s commercial capelin season. But others within industry think it’s time to reexamine the capelin fishery, especially for the sake of cod.

“We need capelin,” said Alberto Wareham, president and CEO of Newfoundland’s Icewater Seafoods, which operates the only plant in North America exclusively dedicated to processing Atlantic cod. “The other things cod are eating are not putting weight on them. DFO needs to invest more in the capelin science.”

The NunatuKavut Community Council, the representative governing body for approximately 6,000 Inuit of south and central Labrador, is recommending the federal government halt the 2021 capelin fishery altogether. 

Fisheries management decisions fail to consider Indigenous Knowledge

When Canada modernized the Fisheries Act in 2019, strengthening the role of Indigenous Peoples in fisheries management decision-making was among the key changes. The cod rebuilding plan targets the largest commercial Atlantic cod fishing zone, half of which is off NunatuKavut’s coastline.

Diamond, of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, said the department hosted more than 20 consultations with stakeholders, including Indigenous stakeholders, since it initiated work toward a cod rebuilding plan.

However, Todd Russell, president of the NunatuKavut Community Council, said the federal plan represents a missed opportunity for reconciliation and he’d like to see Fisheries and Oceans Canada meaningfully involve Indigenous perspectives in decision-making. 

“We’re finding our knowledge has not been fully appreciated for the value it can bring to modern-context fisheries management and there’s been decisions that have continued to keep our communities marginalized,” Russell said.

“DFO, in my view, has not done enough,” he continued. “In fact, they’ve done very little to understand the opportunity that exists for reconciliation in the fishery. Every fisheries minister has been mandated to look, to seek and to pursue reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples through the fishery and how the fishery is managed. And we don’t see that.”

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We hear it time and time again:
“These are the stories that need to be told and you are some of the only ones telling them,” John, a new member of The Narwhal, wrote in to say.

Investigating stories others aren’t. Diving deep to find solutions to the climate crisis. Sending journalists to report from remote locations for days and sometimes weeks on end. These are the core tenets of what we do here at The Narwhal. It’s also the kind of work that takes time and resources to pull off.

That might sound obvious, but it’s far from reality in many shrinking and cash-strapped Canadian newsrooms. So what’s The Narwhal’s secret sauce? Thousands of members like John who support our non-profit, ad-free journalism by giving whatever they can afford each month (or year).

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