Missing the Mark on NL South Coast Cod

A new year provides an opportunity for all participants in the fisheries to take stock of its successes and failures. One area that needs reflection from industry as a whole is the cod resource off the South Coast of Newfoundland in 3Ps.

The state of this stock is no surprise to anyone. Science representatives from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans have repeatedly told participants the ecosystem has changed. Cod are dying too quickly and too young, while recruitment is insufficient to feather the declines. At the same time, it is unknown how fishery removals are driving this stock towards the large-scale decline anticipated by 2020. All around the table agreed – cod has changed.

With this in mind, in 2017, the certificate holders (Icewater Seafoods and Ocean Choice International) decided to self-suspend the Marine Stewardship Council Sustainability certificate for the Canada/Newfoundland 3Ps Atlantic cod fishery, and instead focus on improving stock status by a fisheries improvement project. This was done because regardless of who harvests the fish, we could not, with any degree of confidence, advise consumers that the decisions being taken around this fishery would lead to stock rebuilding. This decision had nothing to do with whether it was an inshore gillnet, inshore otter trawl or year-round harvester removing the fish. The simple fact was that too many fish were disappearing, and Science was unable to provide a clear path to recovery.

In January 2017, it was with this same sentiment that the year-round harvesting sector (which has access to less than 15% of the Canadian quota), requested that DFO cut the quota in half, with the full realization that this would lead to an immediate loss of half of their catch. This decision was supported by the Federal Government who diligently negotiated with Government of France to achieve the reduction. This was done with the full knowledge that inshore participants would suffer no catch reduction as the burden was being borne by the local year-round harvesting sector and the harvesters of St. Pierre Miquelon.

We were confident this decision would result in at least a 10% and likely greater than 15% reduction in total catch. Harvesters in St. Pierre Miquelon also felt the sting of the drop in quota, but supported it because of the greater good – to help rebuild this stock, or at least stop the decline.

Instead, we are all faced with a grim reality. Newfoundland’s inshore sector significantly increased its catches over previous years. Projections now suggest that there will be no reduction in Canadian catch of cod in 3Ps despite 50% reductions in catch by the year-round sector. All the while, the year-round sector has been vilified despite working diligently to improve the state of the stock, keep over 200 people working in Arnold’s Cove and protect year-round jobs on larger vessels.

In retrospect, should any different outcome have been anticipated? In 1997, when this stock was re-opened after the moratorium, participants from the year-round sector decided not to participate in the fishery, citing concerns that the stock was not as healthy as was being suggested by Science and other sectors. Similar to now, this decision was based on the belief that by not fishing quotas, mortality would be reduced, and long-term sustainability would prevail. Instead, inshore sectors over-caught their allocations, leading to total catch being reflective of what would be expected had the year-round sector decided to catch the quota it was allocated. In short, what a wasted opportunity.

In 2017, similar to 1997, the voluntary and conservation-minded actions of various participants in this fishery have been falsely re-cast for political gain while the real benefits of progressive action have been lost by irresponsible resource stewardship. This is happening at a time when resource management and fisheries improvement projects are being tracked and monitored by European buyers with a keen interest in NL cod.

Perhaps for 2018, we should work together for a sustainable fishery that provides year-round economic benefit and facilitates investment in the plants, the people and the vessels that are needed to realize the potential of this marine resource. Various groups have advocated for this concept and perhaps it is time for them to action this approach by promoting stewardship within their membership and realize that the future of Newfoundland and Labrador does not lie in ‘fish fights’. The future is a balanced fishery that includes all participants and the associated benefits provided by shore-based processing serving premium international markets.  After all, isn’t that what this is all about?

Dr. Kris Vascotto
Executive Director, Groundfish Enterprise Allocation Council