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Fishery by the numbers; 84% drop in small-boat enterprises since moratorium

Between 1992 —the year Ottawa shut down the northern cod fishery — and today the number of inshore commercial fishing license holders in Newfoundland and Labrador has dropped 84% — from 20,021 to 3,202. At the same time, the number of fishing licenses (including shares) has increased by almost 18% to 22,538 today from 19,117 in ’92. Far fewer fishermen are chasing more species (not necessarily more fish).

The number of commercial fishing licences in the province stands at 22,538, including licence shares, which are permitted under DFO's exiting/combining policy. For example, a snow crab licence with an additional quota is actually one licence, combined with a 100% share of another licence. Fishermen of Fogo Island.

This past Saturday, July 2nd, marked 30 years since the late John Crosbie, then federal Fisheries Minister, announced the shut down the northern cod fishery.

The moratorium remains in effect today, but there is a small-scale stewardship fishery — which DFO says is permitted "to allow fishers the opportunity to test their beliefs about the health of the stock."

Almost sounds like DFO is indulging a bunch of whiny NLers.


Northern cod was once one of the largest groundfish stocks in the world, and the northern cod zone (fishing zones 2J,3KL) includes waters off eastern Newfoundland and Labrador.

According to DFO, 1,672 enterprises are licensed to fish groundfish such as northern cod, and last year 1,259 of those were active.

That number includes 74 active enterprises from Labrador, out of a total of 119 groundfish licence holders in the Big Land.

This year there was a change in the northern cod management plan in that 2,600 tonnes of the 12,999 tonnes were allocated specifically to fishermen from Labrador.

That means that of the 1,672 groundfish licence holders in the northern cod zone, the 119 based in Labrador (or 7%) will have access to 20% of the overall quota.

Owner-operators on the northeast coast (fishing zone 3K) can also choose to fish off Labrador (2J), and last year three enterprises did so.

The first 115,000 tonnes of the northern cod quota (if the quota ever reaches that high again) has been traditionally reserved for the inshore fleet, but it was just last year that the DFO policy was changed to “the inshore sector and Indigenous groups in Newfoundland and Labrador.”

How much of a share will indigenous groups get, and will offshore draggers be allowed to catch it for them?

SEA-NL posed those questions in this blog post from the spring of 2021: Will Indigenous groups get 25% of northern cod; will offshore draggers catch it for them?

The questions remain outstanding, but if I were a betting man ...

Ryan Cleary,

Executive Director, SEA-NL

To read more about SEA-NL, or to join the non-profit organization please visit

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