'The news is good': Northern cod stocks slowly increasing

The North Atlantic cod stocks are returning, but there’s still a long ways to go before a large-scale commercial fishery becomes viable again.

Northern cod biomass at highest rate since 1992

Grey, spotted salmon lay in a pile.
The northern cod stock has increased to an estimated 538,000 tons of fish. (CBC)

The Atlantic cod stocks are returning, but there's still a long way to go before a large-scale commercial fishery becomes viable again.

That's the finding of new research by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which shows that cod stocks in the Northern region are on the way towards leaving the "critical" designation.

The northern cod stock stretches from Labrador to the Grand Banks. (DFO)

"The stock is still not up to the level that it was, say, back in the 1980s when we had a substantial fishery," John Brattey, a cod research scientist with DFO, said in an interview with CBC Radio's The Broadcast. 

"But the basic message is the news is good, and the stock is going up quite well."

The stock in the 2J, 3K and 3L regions has increased to an estimated 538,000 tonnes of fish — the highest since 1992, when an economically devastating moratorium on cod was introduced in response to collapsing stocks. The moratorium is considered to be the largest single industrial layoff in Canadian history. 

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The fishing zones are off the coast of Labrador as well as the northeast coast of Newfoundland. 

Despite the positive finding, the stock has only reached 34 per cent of the level needed to escape the "critical" zone.

Three-year update

DFO performs stock assessments every three years, sourcing information from vessel surveys, commercial catches, tags on the cod and more.

In 2013, the stock reached about 300,000 tonnes. Today, it's almost double that.

"It's improved quite a bit since the full assessment was conducted three years ago," says Brattey.

The increase is due to higher birth rates among cod, or what's known as recruitment. Fish are also living longer in the northern Atlantic stock.

Some warmer water, which is correlated with better growth, is also helping, as well as an increase in capelin stocks, a key food source for cod. 

Cod fish have been switching from a shrimp diet to a capelin diet, which Brattey says is good news.

"As they switch towards capelin, the growth of the fish and their condition seems to improve. They seem to do much better, because capelin is simply a much better prey for them," Brattey said.

Remaining cautiously optimistic

Brattey said that it's difficult to project exactly where the cod stocks will be in three years or when they will reach "healthy" levels.

He said if current projections are accurate, the stock will be between 60 and 66 per cent of healthy levels by 2018, and he remains cautiously optimistic for the future.

"There's considerable potential for further growth, provided the cod have an adequate diet and environmental conditions remain favorable," Brattey said. 

"We feel as if we're in a more optimistic phase for northern cod at the moment."

With files from The Broadcast