Nfld. & Labrador

DFO says cut to 3Ps cod quota necessary, but FFAW has mixed feelings

The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans has reached an agreement in principle with France to allow a reduced cod fishery along Newfoundland's south coast, but the Fish, Food and Allied Workers (FFAW) doesn't believe the move is justified. 

South coast cod quota cut by 50 per cent, despite talk of fishery closure

DFO and the FFAW are at odds over a 50 per cent quota reduction to the total allowable catch of cod in 3Ps, along the island's south coast. This picture of cod was taken by SubC Imaging technology. (SubC Imaging)

The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans has reached an agreement in principle with France to allow a reduced cod fishery along Newfoundland's south coast, but the Fish, Food and Allied Workers (FFAW) union doesn't believe the move is justified. 

DFO announced Thursday that the agreement would allow for a fishery, but the total allowable catch of cod in the 3Ps zone would be reduced by 50 per cent for the 2021 season, down to 1,346 tonnes.

DFO says the quota cut is necessary because the stock is in the critical zone. They say the "reduced fishing effort" will allow the fishery to remain open, while promoting stock growth.

"Our position is one of significant concern for the 3Ps cod stock," said Adam Burns, DFO's director general of fisheries resource management. 

"We're pleased with this agreement in principle with the French to achieve a 50 per cent reduction. It does yield a 75 per cent chance of growth, of some growth anyway, of the stock by 2023," he said by phone.

DFO said the stock has been in the critical zone since the early 2000s and is currently at 38 per cent of the limit reference point, down from 40 per cent last year. 

Union says science doesn't support cuts

The FFAW, meanwhile, raised concerns about a possible closure of the fishery in 3Ps about two weeks ago, while Canada and France were negotiating the stocks, which they co-manage near the islands of St-Pierre-Miquelon. 

Canada entered the annual negotiations with France recommending a closure of the fishery, but said removals of fish from the water should be kept at the lowest possible level until a stock makes it out of the critical zone.

The FFAW says the cut to the quota isn't justified by the available fisheries science. 

"It's mixed feelings, I suppose," said Robert Keenan, FFAW's secretary-treasurer.

"In one sense, we're glad it's not a closure. A closure would have been very severe and it probably would have been a closure for a long, long time.… With that said, we are disappointed with the quota cut because we do not think the science supported the quota cut," he said. 

Dozens of fish harvesters and supporters protested the possible closure of the cod fishery in 3Ps on the doorstep of the office of Liberal MP Churence Rogers in Clarenville on Wednesday. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

The FFAW acknowledges the stock is in the critical zone, but Keenan believes that fishing isn't hurting the stock, he said natural predators like seals are.

"I don't think they're looking at the evidence in a holistic manner," Keenan said of DFO's decision.

"The seal herd on the south coast has grown dramatically in the last, say, 20 years or so … that didn't exist before. DFO has acknowledged that the stock to the west of 3Ps, in 3Pn in the Gulf, that seals have essentially eaten the cod stock into extinction or near extinction. So if it's happening just next door, clearly the seals don't acknowledge any border."

But DFO doesn't agree with the FFAW.

"The current evidence is that seal predation is not a leading cause of mortality in 3Ps cod," said Burns.

"Current data indicates that the main prey for grey seals in the area is sand lance. And of course, there's not a significant harp seal population in 3Ps. But that research is ongoing, looking at the distribution, the diet and the abundance of all seals and 3Ps."

Burns says other sources of natural mortality, like bottom temperature increases, changes in zooplankton and increases in the biomass of other warm water fish are leading causes of cod death, rather than hungry seals. 

"It's a point at which serious and irreversible harm could occur to the stock. And so that's why we take it very seriously. That's why a significant reduction in the quota was necessary this year. And that's why we will be focused over the next year on developing that rebuilding plan," said Burns.

Burns says DFO will focus on a rebuilding plan for cod in 3Ps ahead of talks with France next year. (CBC)

But the FFAW takes issue with the model DFO developed in 2019 to determine the health of the stock, and calls their science incomplete. The union wants to see predators like seals factored into DFO's the rebuilding plan.

"It's not accounted for in a northern rebuilding plan and it needs to be accounted for there and it needs to be accounted for in the south. We also need to have a good vetting of the model that they use and for us to gauge the stock and see how healthy it is," said Keenan.

"We've asked for an independent review, and we would hope that the findings of that independent review would be included into a rebuilding plan."

DFO, however, said its science included more data in their modelling of the cod stock, which also went through a scientific peer review.

"It's a model that's accepted not only by DFO scientists, but through an independent peer review, as well as the scientists and counterparts in France. And so we have confidence in the advice that comes from this model," said Burns.

"We think that it is absolutely the best available science to support the growth of this stock. And so that's the basis upon which these decisions have been made."

Burns said DFO hopes to have a rebuilding plan for the stock completed to inform negotiations with France again next year.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Lukas Wall