Foreign overfishing on the Grand Banks off Canada’s east coast continues to deplete groundfish stocks while Newfoundland outport communities, reliant on marine resources, continue to shrink and die. The Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization, the international organization that governs stocks in the area, has been condemned by individuals, industry and most recently by a federally appointed Advisory Panel on the Sustainable Management of Straddling Fish Stocks as being ineffective. Now, the environmental organization World Wildlife Fund has added its voice to the issue.

WWF-Canada released a report in September charging that illegal fishing practices, disguised as bycatch of species at risk and other fish species by foreign and some Canadian fishing trawlers on the Grand Banks, are threatening the future of offshore fisheries.

The study, Bycatch on the High Seas: A Review of the Effectiveness of the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO), was led by Dr. Andrew Rosenberg, a University of New Hampshire professor who recently finished serving a multi-year term on the US Commission on Ocean Policy.

The 164-page report says that nine of the 20 stocks currently managed by NAFO are at extremely low biomass levels and are under fishing moratoria. The report says that all moratoria stocks are taken as bycatch in fisheries targeting other species and bycatch appears to be inhibiting the recovery of at least five moratoria stocks.

“Cod on the southern Grand Banks was the most blatant bycatch problem,” said Dr. Robert Rangeley, WWF-Canada’s Atlantic Marine Program Director. According to Rangeley, the study shows that the bycatch on the southern Grand Banks cod has increased at least tenfold since the 1994 moratorium.

WWF-Canada’s goal is to reduce the bycatch in the Grand Banks, outside Canada’s 200-mile limit, by 80 per cent.

The organization is calling on the Canadian Government and NAFO nations to address the bycatch problem by protecting known sensitive habitats and areas important for spawning and juvenile fish; implementing precautionary and ecosystem approaches to management; enforcement of NAFO fishing regulations on the water and in port; addressing overcapacity; implementing better technology such as more selective “smart” fishing gear; and investing in better scientific research and monitoring.