Cod stocks off Newfoundland improving but recovery still years away: researchers

Scientists tracking northern cod stocks off Newfoundland say there are hopeful signs of recovery but that any lifting of an almost 23-year-old commercial fishing moratorium is likely a decade away.

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — Scientists tracking northern cod stocks off Newfoundland say there are hopeful signs of recovery but that any lifting of an almost 23-year-old commercial fishing moratorium is likely a decade away.

“In the past half a dozen years or so, we’ve seen a remarkable change,” said George Rose, director of the Centre for Fisheries Ecosystems Research at Memorial University’s Marine Institute in St. John’s.

There are more fish, they’re larger and older, he said.

“The fish are in much better condition and now we are sort of poised … for the next big step which should occur in rebuilding an animal population.”

It’s called a “pulse of recruitment” which essentially means a spike in births.

Rose has studied the fishery for more than 30 years and is quick to put such progress in context.

Recent surveys suggest northern cod numbers of around 100,000 to 200,000 tonnes of biomass, he said.

“Historically, we were in the millions of tonnes.”

A minimum spawning biomass of about 650,000 tonnes is what federal fisheries researchers have discussed to sustain any extensive commercial fishery, Rose said.

The northern cod moratorium, which threw thousands of people out of work after it was announced July 2, 1992, was initially to last two years. Rose was among those scientists who predicted at the time it would take much longer for stocks to rebound from a complex blend of overfishing, mismanagement and environmental factors.

They were right.

“I prefer to look at the whole ecosystem and not just one species,” Rose said. “We’re probably a decade or so … away from anything that would be a recovery.”

Warming water trends could ultimately help cod and caplin, a vital food source on which cod depend and which also collapsed in the 1980s, he added.

“As the caplin go, the cod will go.”

The role of growing seal populations is another hotly debated topic around fish stock recovery off the northeast coast of Newfoundland.

“Harp seals have been increasing tremendously over the last couple of decades,” said Jeffrey Hutchings, a biologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

“There is an imbalance, if you will, between predator and prey and it would not be surprising if the seals were having some impact on the recovery of cod. But the data really are not very clear in that regard.”

What, if anything, should be done about seal populations is “a political decision,” Hutchings said. But like Rose, he stressed that severely depleted fish stocks don’t just bounce back even after overfishing stops.

Federal Fisheries Minister Gail Shea said Ottawa has worked to spur the recovery through dockside monitoring for groundfish landings, research investments and gear changes to limit any bycatch of cod.

She was not available for an interview. In an emailed statement, she said independent science supports a link between grey seals and the lack of cod recovery in the Southern Gulf of St. Lawrence.

When asked about a possible seal cull, Shea said it’s “a complicated issue” that needs more input from researchers, governments and industry.

Still, Rose believes northern cod stocks are better poised for a recovery now than since the early ’90s. Ottawa can help by ensuring the best possible research guides management decisions, he said.

“There’s no recipe here. That’s basically our job, is to try to nurse this thing back to health.”

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Alberta vaccine rollout expanding to front-line health-care workers

More than 240,000 eligible health-care workers can begin booking vaccine appointments starting… Continue reading

File photo
The Red Deer Rebels will have three new assistant coaches when the WHL regular season starts on Friday. Brad Flynn (left), will be on the bench alongside fellow assistant Ryan Colville (right) head coach Brent Sutter (middle). (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)
Sutter steps down as Red Deer Rebels head coach

Red Deer Rebels Owner, GM and head coach Brent Sutter has stepped… Continue reading

Premier Jason Kenney announced $200 million more money that will benefit seniors living in continuing care on Wednesday. (photography by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Alberta’s in-school rapid screening test program expanding

Alberta’s in-school rapid screening test program will expand to as many as… Continue reading

Parents and students learned Tuesday what the coming school year will look like. It's pretty much back to business as usual, said Education Minister Adriana LaGrange. School precautions include frequent cleaning, keeping students in the same groups where possible, planning the school day to allow for physical distancing and staying home when sick. (photography by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Alberta’s largest school board says no to United Conservative draft school curriculum

CALGARY — Alberta’s largest school board says it will not use the… Continue reading

Red Deer-South MLA Jason Stephan is among those who have signed an open letter criticizing the government’s return to stricter health measures. (Advocate file photo).
Updated: Kenney tells UCP caucus COVID-19 dissent OK, breaking health rules means expulsion

15 MLAs released letter on Wednesday critical of new health restrictions

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau watches a speaker appear by videoconference during a news conference in Ottawa, Friday, April 9, 2021. Grassroots Liberals have overwhelmingly endorsed a resolution calling on the federal government to develop and implement a universal basic income — despite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's apparent lack of enthusiasm for the idea. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Trudeau winds up Liberal convention with election campaign-style speech

OTTAWA — Justin Trudeau wound up a three-day Liberal convention Saturday with… Continue reading

Team Canada skip Brendan Bottcher makes a shot against Italy at the Men's World Curling Championships in Calgary, Alta., Tuesday, April 6, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Men’s world curling championship in Calgary in COVID limbo

CALGARY — The men’s world curling championship in Calgary remained suspended Saturday… Continue reading

Pipes intended for construction of the Keystone XL pipeline are shown in Gascoyne, N.D. on Wednesday April 22, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Alex Panetta
Non-profit Quebec law centre to aid environmental group targeted by Alberta oil firm

QUEBEC — The Quebec Environmental Law Centre is coming to the aid… Continue reading

Conservative leader Erin O'Toole holds a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, April 6, 2020. Top Tory leaders of past and present will speak with supporters today about what a conservative economic recovery from COVID-19 could look like. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Conservatives cite empathy, relationships as ways to help expand their movement

OTTAWA — Conservatives should show empathy with Black residents who say they’ve… Continue reading

NDP Leader John Horgan celebrates his election win in the British Columbia provincial election in downtown Vancouver, B.C., Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020. New Democrats are reconvening for the second day of a three-day policy convention as they look to push past the glitches of the virtual event's opening sessions and rally around keynote speaker John Horgan. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
New Democrats reconvene as hiccups, frustrations plague national policy convention

OTTAWA — New Democrats reconvened Saturday for the second day of a… Continue reading

FILE - In this Monday, Oct. 23, 2017 file photo, President Donald Trump speaks during a joint statement with Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington. Former President Donald Trump plans to affirm his commitment to the Republican Party — and raise the possibility that someone else will be the GOP's next presidential nominee — in a closed-door speech to donors Saturday night, April 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)
Trump in 2024? He says only that ‘a Republican’ will win

PALM BEACH, Fla. — Former President Donald Trump plans to affirm his… Continue reading

A cruise ship sits docked waiting for passengers to be evacuated in Kingstown, on the eastern Caribbean island of St. Vincent, Friday, April 9, 2021 due to the eruption of La Soufriere volcano. (AP Photo/Orvil Samuel)
Ash-covered St. Vincent braces for more volcanic eruptions

KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent — People who ignored an initial warning to evacuate… Continue reading

Owner of 4 Point Taekwondo Kevin Mejia holds a board as organizer and martial artist Kevin Olsen breaks it in Edmonton on Friday, April 9, 2021. One hundred martial artists from around the world, will be breaking a board for an event called "Break for a Breakthrough." The idea is for martial artists to unite and re-engage with the arts because they may have drifted away or lost enthusiasm as a result of the pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Break for a Breakthrough: Canadian hosts international martial arts demonstration

EDMONTON — Whether he’s breaking a wooden board, a clay tile, cement… Continue reading

Most Read