Cod stocks off the south coast of Newfoundland are not recovering, and worse, catches are expected to drop during the next few years, according to a new report from the Canadian government.

The report, “Stock Assessment on 3Ps Cod,” the federal designation for the south Newfoundland fishing region, states that two fairly strong year classes, 1997-1998, supported the fishery for the past few years.

The next two maturing year classes, 2000-2003, are weak, the report continues “… and at current catch levels it is anticipated that fishing mortality will increase over the next few years.” Nothing in the report predicted any foreseeable end to the decline.

“Our concern is [as] these weaker year classes feed into the fishery, you’re going to have less fish available to be caught, to support the fishery,” John Brattey, a scientist with the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans told CBC news.

After several years of steadily declining catches, the Newfoundland cod fishery was abruptly shut down in July of 1992. At the time, the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans anticipated a two-year moratorium while stocks rebuilt.

A limited fishery was not resumed until 1997 with a 10,000 metric ton quota, which increased by 10,000 tons each of the next two years. But when stocks showed no signs of rebuilding, the total allowable catch (TAC) set by the government annually was reduced to 15,000 tons. For the TAC covering April 1, 2006 to March 31, 2007 the TAC was cut again, to 13,000 tons.

Nearly 15 years after the moratorium, stocks have failed to rebound to anywhere near former commercial levels and scientists have no easy explanation.

Some scientists say the fishery should not have reopened at all, to give stocks time to rebuild, but pressure from inshore harvesters to reopen the fishery was great. A few have admitted that although Newfoundland’s abundant cod fishery had supported a fishery for 500 years, they had never seen such a massive collapse and they had no base of scientific knowledge to predict the circumstances needed for stocks to fully recover.

The 3Ps fisheries division is one of 12 cod fishery management areas. The 3Ps stock area extends from Cape St. Mary’s to west of Burgeo Ban and over the St. Pierre Bank and most of Green Bank. Southern Newfoundland cod stocks grow faster than their northern counterparts and appeared to be rebounding more successfully.

Prior to the establishment of the 200-mile limit in 1977, Newfoundland cod stocks had been heavily exploited by foreign fleets, primarily Spain. After 1977, catches averaged around 30,000 MT until until the mid-1980s, when fishing effort by France increased and total landings reached about 59,000 MT, according to the report. France owns the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon which are located in the 3Ps area. In recent years, negotiations between France and Canada have determined the quota for French fishermen.

Catches continued to decline until Ottawa took a rare step and halved the quota in midseason. When fishermen could not catch the greatly reduced quota, the moratorium was imposed. Landings the year before the shutdown reached only 36,000 tons but plummeted to 15,000 tons just prior to the moratorium.

DFO held meetings with fishermen before publishing the report and their comments are included. Trawler captains said last year they found cod in deeper waters earlier than in the previous season. The number of large cod, more than 10 pounds, found in their catches declined, but they reported catching more market-sized cod.

Captains believe a warming trend in ocean temperatures is continuing in offshore fishing areas. They believe this is a contributing factor to finding cod in deeper waters. Harvesters also reported a higher abundance of cod in western Placentia Bay and St. Pierre Bank.

“Management plans, seasons and the need to use cod as a bycatch to maximize financial return has changed the way the fishery has been prosecuted in recent years. For these reasons harvesters feel that conclusions based on catch per unit of effort data from commercial log books may not be reflective of changes in stock status,” stated the report.

— Nancy Griffin