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Newfoundland’s northern cod making a comeback, prompting calls for expanded fishery

People show off their catch as they fish in Bay Bulls, N.L. in 2007.

Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

Almost 25 years after a sweeping commercial fishing ban that devastated Newfoundland, northern cod are making something of a comeback — sparking calls that the fishery be expanded again.

A federal report Monday said cod stocks off eastern Newfoundland and Labrador continue to rebound, but are still in the "critical zone." It warns that catches should be kept to the lowest possible levels for now as a precaution.

The union representing fishermen and plant workers, however, wants to immediately expand the relatively small commercial cod fishery, saying it would not stunt that growth.

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"Those aren't modest numbers," David Decker, secretary-treasurer of the Fish, Food and Allied Workers-Unifor union, said of recovery rates over the last decade. "Those are very phenomenal numbers."

Karen Dwyer, a biologist with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, said Monday any optimism must be tempered with patience as an unpredictable recovery unfolds. It will be about three years before new assessments offer more news of when the ban on large-scale commercial cod fishing may be lifted, she said.

"I appreciate how harvesters are waiting with bated breath for this information," she said.

The report found that while total biomass was up seven per cent from 2015 to 2016, stocks are still well below what would be needed to sustain larger-scale fishing.

Former federal fisheries minister John Crosbie announced a moratorium on the province's commercial cod fishery on July 2, 1992. The drastic move instantly threw thousands of people out of work, sparking angry protest and widespread shock.

It was the most difficult file he dealt with in his 17 years in federal politics before retiring in 1993, Crosbie said Monday in an interview.

"There's no doubt about that, this was the toughest."

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He recalled how news of the "disastrous" announcement had leaked out ahead of a trip he made to Bay Bulls, about 30 minutes south of St. John's, the day before he confirmed the moratorium.

Crosbie described how around 1,000 people were waiting for him on the wharf — many of them angry fishermen and women who worked in the plants.

As the crowd began to turn on him, demanding details of a compensation package he still says was inadequate and that he fought to increase, he uttered the famous quote: "I didn't take the fish from the god damn water, so don't go abusing me."

The moratorium was initially to last two or three years, but stocks have been slow to rebound. A fishery that had sustained the island and its far-flung outports for more than 400 years had collapsed under a combination of blamed factors: mismanagement, overfishing and climate change.

Glen Winslow's family had bought a state-of-the-art fishing vessel two weeks before the cod moratorium came down.

"We had a really rough year in 1992," he said Monday at the St. John's harbour where he docks his latest boat, the Roberts Sisters II.

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But they switched gear to go for scallops, and stayed afloat.

Winslow has been on the water for 36 years, and said harvesters know the value of science-based policy. Any real commercial cod recovery is "a ways off" and will have to be managed differently, he added.

"I think we have to be prepared to operate on small volumes, top quality and (focus on) the top markets of the world."

The federal report released Monday suggests a spawning biomass — fish that can reproduce — of about 300,000 tonnes in 2015.

Dwyer said a spawning biomass of 900,000 tonnes would support a more extensive commercial fishery, raising levels from the "critical" to the "cautious" zone.

But Decker, whose union represents harvesters and fish plant workers, said it's time to lay the foundation for a renewed ground fishery.

Many harvesters have focused over the last 25 years on now-declining shrimp and crab stocks. The provincial industry is not ready to capitalize if northern cod recover, Decker told reporters Monday.

"It's very clear from DFO science that our ... small-scale (cod) fishery is having no impact on the rebuilding of the stock," he said.

Last year's commercial cod landings of about 10,000 tonnes were up from 4,400 tonnes in 2015. Decker wants to see those numbers substantially raised as more effort goes into creating cod markets and plant space to handle a larger industry.

"We can't wait three or four years, five or six years, until we've got a rebuilt stock because then we will have a fishery with no value to the communities," he said.

A recent report by the Commons standing committee on fisheries and oceans urged yearly studies of the population of northern cod along with capelin, a key food source for several species.

It also pushed for the hiring of more scientists to track cod numbers, and says the Fisheries department should limit the seal population which preys on both cod and capelin.

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