Northern Cod rebuilding plan fails to live up to expectations
HALIFAX—For the first time in the 29 years since the historic collapse of the Northern Cod stock, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) has released a rebuilding plan. With little fanfare, the plan was released on the 21st of December 2020, just before the posting of formal rebuilding regulations. The plan has been in development since 2013.
The Northern Cod stock, which refers to cod in NAFO management areas 2J3KL, has experienced some growth since the initial moratorium in 1992. However, this growth has stopped in recent years, and the stock is showing little evidence of recovery: the stock remains in the “critical zone,” where it has been since the moratorium. As detailed by DFO’s precautionary approach framework, DFO policy dictates that commercial fishing on stocks in the critical zone should be kept to the lowest levels possible. The total biomass of the stock is approximately 39% of the level it was in 1983, when the fishery was considered healthy.
Today there is an active commercial stewardship fishery, landing roughly 12,000 tonnes in 2020. There is also a recreational food fishery in the nearshore that is estimated to take an additional 10 to 30 per cent of total commercial landings, according to the most recent information available from DFO. By landings, it is the largest groundfish fishery in Atlantic Canada—yet the stock has been designated as “endangered” since 2011 by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.
“While completing a rebuilding plan can be viewed as measurable progress, it will be decisions resulting from the plan that will impact the future of Northern Cod,” explains Susanna Fuller, Vice President of Operations and Projects at Oceans North. “Currently, the plan has no clear objective for when the stock could be considered healthy, and fishing can increase by 50 per cent before the stock reaches where it was just before the initial collapse.”
The plan has a clearly defined target—to build the stock out of the critical zone—yet there is no commitment to a timeline within which this is to be accomplished. On January 2nd, DFO posted the regulations for rebuilding under Section 6 of the modernized Fisheries Act, and Northern Cod is included in the initial list of priority stocks.
“At this point, it is unclear if the rebuilding plan that was released adheres to the proposed regulations and recent law amendments,” says Fuller. “The elements of a rebuilding plan are to include a timeline for rebuilding and, by law, to rebuild to sustainable levels. Right now, the long- term objective of the plan is only to get the stock out of the critical zone rather than to levels that are considered healthy or sustainable, let alone towards historical levels of abundance”.
The Northern Cod stock is included in the list of stocks in the draft rebuilding regulations, which are expected to come into force following a 30-day comment period ending February 1, 2021.
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Vice President, Operations and Projects
Oceans North is a charitable organization that supports marine conservation in partnership with Indigenous and coastal communities, and works to protect the health of the ocean in a changing climate.