Inshore fish harvesters on the south coast of Newfoundland are accusing the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and the Fish, Food and Allied Workers Union (FFAW) of using the guise of science to allow large company-owned trawlers to catch cod during a time that is traditionally closed for cod spawning.

The cod fishery in area 3Ps was set to close for spawning on March 1.

But it was decided, the same as last year, the fishery would remain open until the end of March to help gather more information.

An organized group of fish harvesters on the south coast has opposed the idea since it's inception, suggesting it is specifically geared to allow large fish companies to harvest the fish they still have left in the water.

'Slap in the face'

Fisherman Alfred Fitzpatrick, who sits on the FFAW's inshore council, said "it's a slap in the face" for local harvesters.

"We're not long over a moratorium and we're just starting to rebuild the stock. Spawning closures [were] put in as a measure to help rebuild that stock. Now just as it's starting to get healthy … we're going right back to the same things we [did] back in the 1970s, '80s and early '90s that caused part of the collapse."

Fitzpatrick argues DFO can easily allow for science around cod stocks without opening the fishery to draggers during spawning, and the FFAW has shirked it's duty by not taking the matter to its membership.

'We're going right back to the same things we [did] back in the 1970s, '80s and early '90s that caused part of the collapse' - Fisherman Alfred Fitzpatrick

"If DFO wants science done, they've got boats to do the science with … wouldn't it have been a lot easier to send a boat out there once a month instead of allowing a whole, full fledged fishery out there for the draggers? No, it's all a ruse," he said.

"When I asked [the FFAW] why wasn't this taken to the membership, the fishers … basically we were told they can't put it out to the membership because they know the membership don't support it. If the membership doesn't support it, what was the union doing even bringing it forward or putting any support whatsoever behind a fishery during spawning season?"

Fish harvester Peter Leonard echoes Fitzpatrick's frustration, and says he believes the extended fishery came about as a result of pressure from large vessel interests.

Leonard said the union should have done more to stop it.

"The FFAW shouldn't be supporting any kind of fishery during spawning season let alone [vessels] using dragger technology," Leonard said.

"Everybody is pretty disgusted with what’s taken place. Conservation is a joke, conservation is a point of convenience for whoever needs to use it."

Fleets supportive of science: DFO

DFO says all fishing fleets on the south coast were represented in advisory meetings in December, including the Groundfish Enterprise Allocation Council (GEAC), the FFAW and several processing companies, when the idea to extend the season was discussed.

Dave Coffin, resource manager at DFO, said it's been suggested in years past that the spawning closure doesn't coincide with actual spawning, and he said fish caught during last year's season extension was in "quite good condition and spawning was not taking place."

'If there was significant landings and we were concerned that there could be an impact on the spawning component of the stock, then we may have to take further action. But we really don't anticipate that as being a big issue' - DFO's Dave Coffin

The idea this year, Coffin said, is to continue collecting scientific data on spawning cod.

"That piece of doing the work and gathering the samples was supported by all fleets — and of course to gather samples, we need fishing," Coffin said, adding that the department was aware that there was some opposition to the plan coming from small boat harvesters.

"There are some people that just don't want fishing on these spawning aggregations period, and we understand that. But we do think it's important to gather some samples to get the information for science and science can feed back to us so we can make an informed decision next year as to what we should be doing with the stock."

Coffin said 200 tonnes of fish was caught during last year's extension, which amounts to two per cent of the total 3Ps quota. Given the low fishing effort in 2014, he said DFO didn't feel a harvesting "cap" for fleets during March 2015 was necessary.

"What we did say was we would monitor landings, and if there was significant landings and we were concerned that there could be an impact on the spawning component of the stock, then we may have to take further action. But we really don't anticipate that as being a big issue," he said.

Union says anger misplaced

Meanwhile, the FFAW says it understands harvester's frustration and concern with the situation, but argues their anger with the union is misplaced.

Keith Sullivan FFAW president

FFAW President Keith Sullivan says the union isn't please with DFO's final decision to allow trawlers in the water at this time, and harvester's anger with the union is misplaced. (CBC)

FFAW President Keith Sullivan said the union is also not happy with the final decision, adding he shares the harvester concerns about dragger fleets potentially fishing spawning cod offshore.

"Right from the very beginning there was a concern, and we clearly expressed this to DFO, was this going to be just science used to allow the offshore, in particular, to fish during March and the spawning season?" Sullivan said.

"There was clear opposition to fishing on spawning aggregations of fish with mobile gear, otherwise known as draggers. Most people intuitively understand that if we're interrupting any animals during mating or spawning, it's definitely going to have an impact on stocks."

Sullivan said during the process, the union proposed any science collected on spawning fish should be collected over the entire stock area by different fleets at different times.

He said the union also wanted fish removal during the period to be "severely limited."

"This can't be used to just go hammer and tongs at a commercial fishery," he said. "We've demanded that DFO meet with us to talk about the possible repercussions."

No further discussions have yet taken place.