The science of sustainable seafood, explained

Canadian Perspective on Atlantic Cod Stocks & Management

Last week we released a two part feature on the status of Atlantic cod stocks. Part 1 was a general overview of the status of stocks while Part 2 dove deeper into the reasons behind different statuses.

Jeffrey Hutchings, a fishery scientist at Dalhousie University was inspired to comment on our feature below; if you feel so compelled, tell us what you think in the comments below or reach out to us on twitter or email.

Comment by Jeffrey Hutchings, Dalhousie University

Despite voluminous research, science discussions of Atlantic cod can verge on the simplistic.

Overfishing and ‘the environment’ unhelpfully portrayed as alternative or additive causes of decline. Temperature presented unequivocally as the driver of recruitment. Variable attention to how differential responses to natural and human-induced environmental stressors can be influenced by basic elements of demography — population size, age structure, natural mortality — especially when these fall outside a population’s norm.

The collapse of Northern cod was unprecedented but the low temperatures that cod experienced prior to collapse were not (it has been as cold, or colder, if one’s temporal horizon extends beyond the mid 20th Century for this 500-year-old fishery). Recruitment failure is not affecting the recovery of some depleted stocks, such as Southern Gulf of St. Lawrence cod, but altered predator-prey interactions – predicated by prolonged overfishing – almost certainly are. Not all northeast Atlantic cod are doing well, as the current status of those along the Norwegian coast will attest.

From a management perspective, however, simplicity can have benefits.

Simplicity can lead to clarity and lack of ambiguity. The textbook example of collapse – Northern cod – has potential to become a textbook example of recovery, but it is unclear whether Canada’s sustainable fisheries policy framework, as currently implemented for cod, is best positioned to achieve this desirable outcome.

Recreational and commercial fishing of Northern cod did not cease with the 1992 moratorium. In some years, removals likely impaired recovery. The 5-year ‘limited fishery’ from 1998 to 2002 (a product of fisheries-union pressure) resulted in mortalities (F) ranging between 0.15 and 0.35. In 2013, annual allocations per licensed fisher increased 33% over what they were in 2012 when the spawning stock biomass of Northern cod was at 0.12 of its limit reference point (Blim). Twenty-four years after the moratorium was announced, there is still no rebuilding target reference point or harvest control rule (HCR) for Northern cod.

Inconsistent application of the Precautionary Approach (PA) in fisheries management was highlighted in October 2016 by the Auditor General of Canada. Among other findings, management-plan objectives are often unclear and unmeasurable, and there are no rebuilding plans for 80% of Canada’s major stocks currently below Blim.

Foremost among impediments to consistent policy implementation is the absolute discretion afforded to the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans. This has contributed to an arguably unhelpful degree of flexibility in the articulation, interpretation, and implementation of sustainable fisheries policy. To take one example, the policy states that when stocks fall below Blim, “removals by all human sources must be kept to the lowest possible level”.

But there is a problem here. What constitutes the “lowest possible level” is contextual. It will differ among vested interests, scientists, managers, politicians, and the public. This interpretative latitude has led to an HCR for southern Newfoundland cod (3Ps stock) that is ambiguous, unclear, and ultimately unenforceable when the stock falls below Blim.

According to the Supreme Court of Canada (1997), “Canada’s fisheries are a ‘common property resource’ belonging to all the people of Canada”, concluding further that “it is the Minister’s duty to manage, conserve and develop the fisheries on behalf of Canadians in the public interest”. The multiple challenges associated with facilitating the recovery of Northern cod will put these ministerial obligations to a very public and globally watched test.

Jeffrey A. Hutchings is the Killam Memorial Chair in Fish, Fisheries and Oceans in the Department of Biology at Dalhousie University. Read more about him here.

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