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Northern cod 30 years after the moratorium: Confederation's greatest shame

As the 30th anniversary of the northern cod moratorium looms, DFO can not say with certainty whether the at-sea fall survey will be completed this year, the small-scale inshore fishery limps on with an average price of 64¢/lb, and the number of active enterprises has fallen to 1,259 — a shadow of the fishery's glory days when the stock supported 30,000-40,000 workers.

Codfish unloaded on Fogo Island in the fall of 2019. Northern cod is classified by DFO science in the critical zone, meaning fishing is to be kept at the "lowest possible level". Total reported landings in 2021 were 10,811 tonnes, plus up to 2,000 tonnes more that DFO guesstimates were taken in the food fishery.

On the plus side, scientists with Fisheries and Oceans finally acknowledge that seals "undoubtedly" have an impact on cod — just not as huge as the lack of caplin (which seals also eat by the millions of pounds, but one DFO baby step at a time).

In a meeting last week (April 12th) of an advisory committee hand-picked by DFO to make quota recommendations to the Minister, biologist Karen Dwyer said it is "hoped" that this fall's multi-species survey will go ahead.

But then it was also pointed out that the 40-year-old Canadian Coast Guard research vessel Alfred Needler is in dry dock in Darthmouth, Nova Scotia.

DFO science surveys were incomplete on a number of stocks last year including northern shrimp, snow crab, and caplin — primarily because of mechanical issues with the research ships.

This year's northern cod assessment was cancelled outright.

One industry representative said the level of patience with DFO science has gone from "frustration to embarrassment."

To me, that target was hit years ago.


The Atlantic Groundfish Council (representing the offshore dragger sector) recommended a rollover of the 2021 northern cod allocation of no more than 12,999 tonnes.

The dragger crowd also asked for 300 tonnes of northern cod for their own offshore stewardship fishery, which the FFAW scoffed at.

But remember that offshore draggers — although banned directly from the northern cod stock until the quota reaches 115,000 tonnes (this generation won't see it) — may still access northern cod through the (Indigenous) back door.

Full circle.

The total number of enterprises active in the northern cod stewardship fishery declined from 1,468 in 2018 to 1,259 last year — a 14% drop.

DFO officials said foreign fleets outside the 200-mile limit harvest only about 300 tonnes of northern cod a year, but then there's little faith in department numbers.

Last October the captain of a Faroe Islands longliner accused "pirate trawlers" of destroying the Grand Banks under DFO’s nose by directing for moratorium species such as cod and other illegal fishing activities.

While Canada brought down the northern cod moratorium on July 2nd, 1992, foreign draggers continue (to this day) to pillage the migratory stock with practical impunity when the fish swim outside the 200-mile limit.

Stunned codfish can't see the imaginary line in the water.


The landed value of the northern cod stewardship fishery last year was $15.2 million, a drop in the bucket compared to the snow crab fishery's landed value of $612 million for the first 11 months of 2021.

But then the average landed price (round weight) for cod last year was 64¢/lb — an 8¢/lb drop from 2019, and $6.96/lb less than last year's snow crab price.

So much for the success of the FFAW's cod quality project in driving up the price.

Upwards of 80% of cod is caught by gill net.

After 28 years of moratorium, DFO released a rebuilding plan for northern cod in December 2020.

But independent cod scientists condemned the plan last March in this paper: "The flawed new plan to rebuild Canada's iconic northern cod."

Problems with the rebuilding plan included the fact that it is not legally binding, can be modified at any time, and does not include rebuilding targets.

The other problem with the rebuilding plan is that its mathematical model is based on the premise that overfishing was not what led to the 1992 moratorium. (Gus Etchegary, among others, would beg to differ.).

Rather, there was massive sudden die off of cod — one that DFO scientists can't explain.

In the latest study released this past January, Dr. George Rose and Memorial University's Sherrylynn Rowe argue the northern cod zone (fishing zones 2J,3KL) should be expanded to include northern Labrador (fishing zones 2GH), and that the fishery there should be severely restricted or banned outright during spawning season.

That's even as the Labrador fishery has been growing (landings in fishing zone 2J off southern Labrador reached 1,272 tonnes in 2021, a 380% increase over 2018 when 264 tonnes were landed).

The delayed/cancelled/thinning out of DFO surveys — on top of recent interference complaints by the union representing scientists, and this year's 30th anniversary of the moratorium, with little stock improvement — underscores, yet again, the urgent need for an independent review of DFO science/management.

A class-action lawsuit against DFO/the federal government would be another way to push the fishery forward, an idea that was raised again with me just last week.

Caplin are referred to as a lynchpin species (key to the recovery of more valuable fish like cod, crab, and shrimp), but DFO does not carry out the most thorough caplin science using sonar.

The impact of millions of seals also isn't factored into the assessment for species such as northern cod, despite the fact it was called for 30 years ago by the Leslie Harris report on the state of the northern cod stock.

Sounds like an argument for negligence could be made easy enough.


What was initially supposed to be a two-year moratorium is now almost 30 years with no end in sight, and if (God forbid) the snow crab fishery fails tomorrow the inshore fleet and rural communities will once again be on their knees.

It's bad enough that Newfoundland handed over management control of her fisheries to the Government of Canada with the Terms of Union, but the fact that federal mismanagement has been so epic — with no real action to correct the course — is Confederation's greatest shame.

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 Please sign SEA-NL's petition to the House of Commons on non-core commercial fishing licences here.

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