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The one-per-cent solution? FFAW says DFO should increase northern cod commercial quota

The management plan for the commercial northern cod fishery was revealed by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans on July 7, 2020.
The management plan for the commercial northern cod fishery was revealed by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans on July 7, 2020. — SaltWire File photo

Union president Sullivan suggests the department is managing other Canadian cod fisheries differently

A change of one percentage point would have given Newfoundland and Labrador fish harvesters a little more northern cod to catch this year.

The Fish Food and Allied Workers (FFAW-Unifor) had proposed increasing the Total Allowable Catch (TAC) to three percent of the biomass. That would have meant a couple of thousand pounds of cod extra for each commercial harvester in zones 2J, 3K and 3L (northeast coast and Labrador).


Stock area of Northern (2J3KL) cod. The dashed line indicates Canada’s 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). - Department of Fisheries and Oceans
Stock area of Northern (2J3KL) cod. The dashed line indicates Canada’s 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). - Department of Fisheries and Oceans

FFAW president Keith Sullivan told SaltWire an increase from two per cent to three per cent could have provided a TAC of about 18,000 metric tonnes.

“Some increase would allow us to grow our markets and have an opportunity to develop this fishery,” said Sullivan.

However, the decision by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to stick to the 2019 management plan for the 2020 season means the catch limit will remain at 12,000 metric tonnes.

Sullivan alleges the department is managing the northern cod fishery a little differently in terms of allowable catch rates than other cod fisheries in Canada.

“We have much smaller cod stocks that are in worse shape where we’re taking a higher percentage of fish, like on the Scotia Shelf, for example.”

He also pointed to other fisheries outside Canada, where catch rates of local cod biomass are at a much higher percentage rate.

“In Iceland, for example, they have a stock that has a biomass of around 650,000 metric tonnes. They have advice that suggests they can harvest 265,000 metric tonnes. They generally have harvest rates in the 25-30 per cent range.”

In the Barents Sea, he added, the allowable catch is close to 40 per cent of the biomass.

While he acknowledges that some of those stocks are a ‘little different’ than the northern cod stock, he contends moving from two per cent to a three-per-cent-of-biomass catch rate would have been reasonable.



He says the union and harvesters are being ‘ultra-conservative” in their suggestion of an increase in fishing rates, and he can see no reason why DFO could not allow an extra one per cent.

“This northern cod stock has shown continued growth but they’re just unwilling to allow people to rebuild the fishery . . . and at a time when we need it,” he said, referencing the impact COVID-19 has had on other fisheries and fish prices.

A minor increase of 2,000 tonnes, he said, “would have been a help to harvesters and coastal communities in a year when the economy really needs that extra help.”

The assessment

Scientists from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans were not available for an interview with SaltWire Wednesday.

A media spokesperson for the department was working to arrange that interview for later this week.

However, in the management plan documents, the DFO outlined some data that went into the decision.


Total Allowable Catches (TACs) and landings (thousands of tons) from 1959-2018. The right panel is expanded to show trends from 1993 onwards. Estimates of recreational catches are only available for 2006, 2008, and 2011-12 in the past 15 years. - Department of Fisheries and Oceans
Total Allowable Catches (TACs) and landings (thousands of tons) from 1959-2018. The right panel is expanded to show trends from 1993 onwards. Estimates of recreational catches are only available for 2006, 2008, and 2011-12 in the past 15 years. - Department of Fisheries and Oceans

According to the departmental report, the stock is still in the critical zone.

The report cited low levels of phytoplankton and zooplankton, and low abundance of key forage species such as capelin and shrimp, as factors that may be affecting cod stock growth.

“Capelin is anticipated to decline to low levels in 2020. This is expected to negatively impact our productivity and could compromise the potential for recovery of cod.

“Levels of capelin should signal the need for a more cautious approach with regard to harvesting decisions,” the report noted.

The DFO report also noted missing data in the equation, specifically there are no numbers available regarding recreational fishing landings for most years since 2006.

“Improving the management of recreational fisheries is strongly recommended so that total removals can be effectively controlled and directly measured.”

The department also noted there is uncertainty over data provided through the sentinel fishing surveys, a collaborative project of the DFO and managed by the FFAW.

The DFO, in its 2019 stock status report, said, “A thorough overview …. should be carried out to determine whether the current analysis method should be revised, or whether it should continue to be used as a data source.”

The 2019 report also noted, “predation by seals was not found to be a significant source of northern cod mortality in the period 1985 to 2007 and there is no indication of the impact of seal predation has changed since this time.”

The department concluded that the precautionary approach on northern cod should continue and “removals from all sources must be kept at the lowest possible level until the stock clears the critical zone.”

Cod and coastal towns

Alton Rumbolt is a fish harvester from Mary’s Harbour, Labrador.

He’s also mayor of that rural, coastal town.

He says northern cod has always been an important supplement to the annual incomes of fishers in that region.

This year, it’s even more important, given the cuts to quotas and prices of snow crab, their main commercial species.

“Northern cod will play a big role in subsidizing our income for the year,” he told SaltWire.

Rumbolt has two boats — a 40-foot longliner and a smaller boat for fishing close to shore.

He’s invested a lot of money into his fishing enterprise over the past several years, buying up extra crab and groundfish licenses from others who have left the industry.

Currently, he holds three inshore crab licenses and three inshore groundfish licenses, providing him with three individual quotas to fish.

Last year, thanks to those license purchases, he was able to catch 12,000 pounds of cod weekly (The DFO rules allowed 4,000 pounds weekly for each groundfish license).

In a year when the snow crab didn’t provide as much income, he said, having a little bit extra cod to catch would have helped.

And the cod fishing has been good in recent years, he said.



Rumbolt lands most of his cod in August and early September, using gillnets and handlines.

He says he can set a gillnet and haul it within a couple of hours and have a good catch every day to land his weekly quota.

As mayor of the town, he also knows the importance of the fishery to the local economy.

He pointed to the fact the Labrador Fishermen's’ Union Shrimp Company is building a brand new processing plant, right in his town.

The new facility is specifically for cod processing.

“So we got to have cod in order to run that plant. And I hope the stocks will rebound enough so we can get some increase in our quota.”

Asking for review

Keith Sullivan, meanwhile, thinks it’s not too late for DFO to consider the management plan for 2020 and tweak it.

He points out that while science completed the offshore trawl survey for cod last fall to collect data for the 2020 stock status report, one of the things that were missing in the lead-up to the 2020 management plan was the consultation and discussion between DFO scientists and industry representatives, including fish harvesters.

That step in the process was halted this year because of COVID-19.

The consultation meetings, which usually take place in-person, were canceled.

Sullivan said the union has been talking to the minister for DFO and seniors officials of the department, and are asking them to reconsider the decisions for the 2020 cod fishery.

“Considering the incomplete science work and consultation process this year, I think there’s room to review this information.

“There are people who are working in this business who have been very conservative, who have been great stewards of the northern cod, and they deserve that kind of consideration.

“I don’t think it’s too late to do that and we will be asking DFO to give some more consideration to the management decision.”


History of Northern Cod

  • 1960s - Catches of Northern cod increased to a peak of over 800,000 t (metric tonnes) in 1968.
  • 1970s - Northern cod catches declined steadily to a low of 140,000 t in 1978.
  • 1980s - Catches increased to about 240,000 t through much of the1980s.
  • 1990-92 - Catches declined rapidly in the early-1990s prior to a moratorium on directed fishing in 1992.
  • 1993-97 - Catches of northern cod came mainly from by-catches, the recreational food fishery, and sentinel (fishing) surveys that started in 1995 and conducted by DFO and the FFAW.
  • 1998-2000 - Northern cod also came from a limited index/commercial inshore fishery restricted to fixed gear and small vessels (<65 ft).
  • 2003 - The directed commercial and recreational fisheries were closed in April 2003; most of the landings in 2003 came from an unusual mortality event in Smith Sound, Trinity Bay. That spring, thousands of dead, frozen cod, began to float to the surface of the water in this fjord-like inlet. Scientists determined the temperature of the water became too cold for the natural antifreeze system of the cod and they froze and died. The cod was deemed safe to eat and most of ended up being landed by fishers and sold to processing plants.
  • 2004 and 2005 - substantial by-catches (>600 t) of cod were taken in the inshore, mostly in Divs. 3KL, in the Winter Flounder (blackback; Pseudopleuronectes americanus) fishery.
  • 2006 - A directed inshore fixed gear Stewardship fishery and a recreational fishery for cod were re-opened in the inshore in 2006 and continue to present.
  • 2016, the 2J3KL DFO implements weekly catch limits for the Northern cod Stewardship Fishery.
  • 2018 - A maximum authorized harvest amount of 9,500 t was introduced. This corresponded to a 25% reduction from the 2017 removals. Reported landings for that year were 9, 269 t from the stewardship fishery, 148 t in the sentinel surveys, and 63 t taken as by-catch (mostly from the redfish (Sebastes) and turbot (Reinhardtius hippoglossoides) fisheries).
  • 2018 - The Recreational Groundfish Fishery season was open for 39 days, a reduction of seven days from 2017. Catch limits set at five groundfish per day per person and 15 fish per boat when three or more people are fishing from the boat.
  • There are no direct estimates of recreational landings for eight of the past 10 years; therefore reported landings are less than the total catch in those years. Evidence from tagging data shows that although removals by the recreational fishery have been substantial in some years since 1997, they have been about 25% of the commercial catch in the last three years (2016-18).
  • The Scientific Council of the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO) reported the annual catches of cod by non-Canadian fleets outside the 200 nautical mile limit on the Nose of the Grand Bank (Div. 3L) were 300 t or less during 2000-18 (provisional value of 16 t in 2018).

Source: Department of Fisheries and Oceans


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