It might be one of the most important fish science reports in years, but it was released with so little fanfare, you could forgive even the most hardcore of fisheries observers for missing it.

The report was released online in late November and it’s called “Short-Term Stock Prospects for Cod, Crab and Shrimp in the Newfoundland and Labrador Region (Divisions 2J3KL).”

It basically looks at the effect of warming oceans and then sets the table for the next three to five years in the shrimp, crab and cod fisheries. For those of you doing the math, those species represent more than $600 million worth of annual economic activity in the province.

The report is significant for many reasons, the first of which is the fact that it doesn’t look at species independently — it brought all of DFO’s primary scientists (the ones that haven’t been cut by the current federal government anyways) together at one table. That rarely happens.

The report is also significant for the picture it paints. And the news for the fishing industry as a whole is not good.

Warming Oceans

By now everyone knows the ocean is getting warmer, and that’s bad news for shellfish and good news for groundfish like cod. When you consider cod was worth about $10 million in the province last year while crab and shrimp made up the remaining $600 million, you can see why there’s more than a few nervous bellies in the industry.

“Ocean temperatures have been increasing since about the mid-90s,” Don Power, acting science advisor and co-ordinator for DFO’s Newfoundland and Labrador region, recently said on The Fisheries Broadcast. “We’re in a warming trend. We’re expecting that to continue for another one to two decades before there’s a transition back to a cool phase.”

So what does that mean for fish species?

You may want to take a seat if you’ve got anything at stake (here’s a hint: If you call Newfoundland and Labrador home, you’ve got something at stake).

Shellfish stocks collapsing

First of all, if you fish shrimp, the further south you are, the more likely it is you’re soon going to be out of business either because of federal fish management policies like "last in, first out" (LIFO) or for the pure lack of anything to catch.

The fishable shrimp biomass off the coast of Labrador has fallen about 48 per cent since 2006. The biomass on the northeast coast of Newfoundland — the primary inshore shrimp fishing zone referred to as SFA 6 — has fallen 68 per cent in that same time frame. And the biomass off the east coast of the island in Area 7 is down a whopping 92 per cent in the past eight years. In fact, in 2015, there will be no directed shrimp fishing in that zone.

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A report called “Short-Term Stock Prospects for Cod, Crab and Shrimp in the Newfoundland and Labrador Region (Divisions 2J3KL)" was released with little fanfare last month, but its findings are not good for this province's shellfish dominated industry.

All that being the case, you can probably brace yourself for the decimation of 3,000 shrimp-related jobs in the province this spring if the down-swing continues and the federal government insists on sticking to the highly controversial LIFO policy. (Here's another hint: They're going to. They've already said so. Can their minds be changed? We shall see come April).

The new science report indicates a clear decline in crab stocks around the province too, except in one area. For areas 2J3KL along the coast of Labrador and northeastern Newfoundland, the fishable crab biomass has declined between 70 and 75 per cent since 2006-2008.

The one anomaly was 3LNO off the southeast coast of Newfoundland where the crab stock has actually increased.  Don’t break out the party hats and noisemakers just yet though. It’s not expected to continue.

“There’s an increasing trend there at least … but overall, in these resources, the exploitable biomass is expected to decline even in 3LN0 over the next five years,” Power said. “All sources of biological data we have indicate recruitment will likely decrease in the short term.”

No surprise, cod on the upswing

While the environmental conditions and warming waters are proving devastating for shellfish, it seems they are doing wonders for cod and caplin numbers.

Cod numbers had been pretty well flatlined around the province since the late 1980s, but that appears to be changing. Given that the stocks are still way below where they were prior to the collapse, there’s no reason to go cod-crazy just yet.

'In terms of what we’re looking at in the stomach analysis, crab was not a very big constituent in the stomachs of cod.' - Don Power

According to Power, cod stocks in the early 1990s was less than two per cent of the acceptable limit reference point. The numbers have been climbing steadily since 2005, but today are still only 18 per cent of the limit reference point.

And scientists are finding cod in more northerly waters, and the limited amount of caplin survey work being done shows an upswing in cod’s favourite food as well.

Are cod eating shellfish?

But the big question in fishermen’s minds? Is all that extra cod gobbling up shrimp and juvenile crab? We’ve all seen the photos of cod with their stomachs full of crab or shrimp. But Power says that’s more the exception than the rule, especially as it applies to crab.

“There is a relationship there for sure,” he said. “With the improvement in cod there’s also been an improvement in caplin the last few years. In terms of what we’re looking at in the stomach analysis, crab was not a very big constituent in the stomachs of cod. Yes, I’m sure people are sort of saying all this is happening because cod are coming back, but that’s not really the case.”

So what does all that mean for a fishery that has been hugely successful in recent years on the back of valuable shellfish species?

Again, probably best to sit down.

“If the current trends persist we could expect … the 2J3KL area will return to sort of a groundfish dominated structure,” Power said. “But because everything is so complex we’re uncertain as to the exact nature of the emerging structure and how this will compare historically.”

A final interesting point about this report? It wasn’t carried out the way a typical species advisory report is done. Most of these kinds of documents are circulated around to different people and reviewed before publishing.

The feeling in this case, according to Power, was that a lot of the information being compiled had already been peer reviewed by all the stakeholders, save for a preliminary shrimp report and a caplin survey.

Make of that what you will. But anyway you slice it, it seems clear the Newfoundland and Labrador fishing industry is in for some huge changes — and challenges — in the very near future.

Perhaps sooner than anyone wants to admit.

To read the new DFO science report, click here.