Sudden Shift in DFO’s Scientific Interpretation of NL South Coast Cod Stock Could Have A Concerning Ripple Effect on Industry and Communities

Year-round harvesters remain committed to resource sustainability and reducing catch as necessary, but are raising concerns with drastic changes in approach in new assessment model

(January 8, 2020 – St. John’s, NL) – Today, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) held a technical briefing on the latest science assessment for the 3Ps cod stock, located off the south coast of Newfoundland.

In their update, DFO Science introduced a new model and limit reference point (LRP – the threshold between the Cautious and Critical zones of the Precautionary Framework) which provided a highly conflicting perspective relative to assessments of the last decade. As recently as last year, DFO assessed the stock as far above the Limit Reference Point (LRP) while the new model places the stock substantially below the LRP, not only for the last year, but for almost two decades. This drastic change fundamentally reshapes the current and historic perspective on stock status, without any substantive year-over-year change within the resource itself.

“Our sector has consistently demonstrated our willingness to make necessary sacrifices for the sustainability of the stock, advocating for total allowable catch reductions to mitigate and reverse any downturn in stock health. However, those decisions must be based on the best possible science, and we strongly believe this new assessment model is overly pessimistic and understates important data collected by the Department’s own research vessel survey,” explained Kris Vascotto, Executive Director of the Atlantic Groundfish Council. “While we accept the stock has faced recent challenges, we question if the situation is as dire as was presented today.”

It is rare for the Atlantic Groundfish Council to disagree with DFO science. Expressing disagreement is not done without serious concerns on the accuracy of the assessment and the significant impact it has on the fishing industry and communities it supports and on maintaining international markets. When there are warning signs from science and associated reductions in catch, harvesters from inshore, midshore and offshore fleets shoulder the burden. That is part of responsible harvesting and to be expected of industry participants. However, harvesters should not be expected to face additional anxieties associated with uncertainties created by sudden shifts in scientific interpretation of stock status.

This news is also difficult for the people and operations at Icewater Seafoods in Arnold’s Cove, NL, the only world class cod processing plant in North America.

“At Icewater Seafoods, we have always said that resource sustainability must be the top priority, and we remain committed to that. We will not waver in our commitment to do the right thing,” stated Alberto Wareham, President & CEO of Icewater Seafoods. “We have 215 employees who are experts in cod and depend on the 3Ps cod resource. I remind them that we survived the cod moratorium and we have a world class processing facility. It will be difficult, but we will work together and we will find a way forward.

While the offshore sector accesses only 12% of the total allowable catch, the solutions will require all participants to work together to rebuild the stock. This may mean better science, reduced catches and analysis of the role of the environment in shaping the future of the stock.

“It is going to take us some time to digest this new perspective and determine a path forward.  Cod has been an important fishery for us as a directed fishery and as bycatch in other groundfish fisheries such as redfish and witch flounder. All support rural NL by providing valuable employment on offshore vessels and in land-based processing plants,” explained Martin Sullivan, CEO of Ocean Choice International, whose family has been harvesting cod for decades. “We remain optimistic that by continuing to keep harvest at responsible levels, and with the cooperation of nature, there is a positive future for this cod stock in Newfoundland and Labrador.”

While there were questions on the new assessment model, it was unanimously agreed that the challenges currently facing the stock are due to natural mortality, not fishing rates – an important indicator for global sustainability standards.

For 2020, the Atlantic Groundfish Council has requested that DFO Science conduct a thorough review of the new assessment model, to ensure that it provides a good representation of the stock and shortcomings identified in the 2019 process are addressed.

Given the significant shift in approach of the science and the potential implications for the harvesting and processing community, the Atlantic Groundfish Council is taking time to carefully consider its catch recommendation for this stock for the 2020-2021 season. The quotas for the upcoming year (April 2020-March 2021) will be set following a Groundfish Advisory Committee meeting on January 13th followed by negotiations with France in March (Canada holds 84.4% of the TAC and France holds 15.6% of the stock in respect of St. Pierre et Miquelon).

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Media Contact: Sarah Fleming, sfleming@atlanticgroundfish.ca, 709.725.5830

About the Atlantic Groundfish Council
The Atlantic Groundfish Council (formerly GEAC) is a non-profit industry association representing year-round groundfish harvesters in Atlantic Canada. Its members employ thousands of people, in mostly year-round jobs, in rural communities throughout Atlantic Canada. The Council contributes to research that will improve the sustainability and management of groundfish fisheries by actively supporting science, sustainability certifications and responsible management.