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Caplin science wasn’t up to scratch/northern cod science questioned before vessel breakdowns

The latest developments with DFO NL’s science program regarding delayed/cancelled/thinned out surveys — on top of recent interference complaints by the union representing scientists, and this year's 30th anniversary of the northern cod moratorium, with little stock improvement — underscores, yet again, the urgent need for independent review.

DFO NL announced Tuesday that caplin and northern cod assessments have been cancelled this year, primarily because the 40-year-old Canadian Coast Guard research vessel Alfred Needler was out of service last year during the survey period.

Mechanical issues were also behind incomplete crab/surveys announced by DFO NL in recent weeks.

But then problems with the aging Needler are nothing new: the vessel broke down off Nova Scotia in 2018, failing to complete an annual summer survey for the first time in 48 years.

The Needler has suffered "significant mechanical problems" going back to 2015 when surveying waters outside Canada's 200-mile limit on the Grand Banks.

The unreliability of the country's fleet of Canadian Coast Guard research vessels has been highlighted again, and again,

DFO's feet have not been kept to the fire — not by the FFAW, and not by the provincial government.

The 2021 total allowable catch (TAC) for caplin off Labrador and eastern Newfoundland (fishing zones 2J3KL) was set at 14,533 tonnes, a 25% decrease from the year before.


One weakness of DFO's science is its inability to accurately estimate the total number of caplin in the water — which scientists call an “absolute abundance estimate” — because it doesn't do a survey of the full area using sonar.

Other countries such as Iceland do acoustic surveys allowing them to estimate the full numbers. DFO should do no less an extensive survey.

Caplin are referred to as a lynchpin species — key to the recovery of more valuable fish like cod, crab, and shrimp.


DFO's science on northern cod has been challenged by independent scientists as "not scientifically credible."

DFO finally introduced a rebuilding plan for northern cod in 2019 based on a mathematical model that reveals overfishing wasn't what led to the 1992 moratorium (biggest layoff in Canadian history; 30,000-40,000 thrown out of work).

Rather, DFO now points the finger of blame at a massive sudden die of cod — one that scientists can't explain.

Despite that aspect of the model not being "scientifically credible," the independent scientists said it's still the element upon which DFO's northern cod rebuilding plan "entirely hangs its scientific credentials."

Finally, last fall the union representing DFO scientists wrote a letter to the deputy minister of Fisheries and Oceans in Ottawa to say the department's interference in scientific work was commonplace."

All that adds up very little faith in DFO NL science.

The 30th anniversary of the northern cod moratorium is coming up on July 2nd, and all three cod stocks adjacent to Newfoundland and Labrador are in the critical zone, with fishing to be kept to a minimum.

As well, there have been severe cuts to snow crab/northern shrimp quotas in recent years, and DFO does not factor harp seal predation into its scientific assessments.

That’s despite the fact that 30 years ago, in 1991, the Leslie Harris report on the state of the northern cod stock recommended “every reasonable effort be made to understand the cod-capelin-seal interactions, and to incorporate appropriate data into cod population assessments.”

What a disgrace/mess,

Ryan Cleary,

Executive Director, SEA-NL

To read more about SEA-NL, and for owner-operators to join please visit our website or e-mail Sign SEA-NL's petition to the House of Commons on non-core commercial fishing licences here.

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