1-year commercial cod moratorium ordered for northern Gulf of St. Lawrence

Three days after the 30th anniversary of the cod moratorium of 1992, Ottawa has closed cod fishing in the northern Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Closure will last for one year and then be re-evaluated, says minister

The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans say cod stocks in the northern Gulf of St. Lawrence are in a 'critical' zone. (SubC Imaging)

Two days after the 30th anniversary of the 1992 cod moratorium that decimated the Newfoundland and Labrador economy, Ottawa has closed commercial cod fishing in the northern Gulf of St. Lawrence.

On Monday, Fisheries and Oceans Minister Joyce Murray announced a one-year ban on directed commercial fishing in the northern Gulf of St. Lawrence in order to give young fish time to reach maturity.

"I do understand just how important the cod fishery is for people in the Gulf area," said the minister in an interview with CBC News. "This is going to be a disappointment to many fish harvesters and their communities." 

Murray says cod stocks in the northern Gulf are "deep in the critical zone," and the closure will give the stocks time to recover.

"I know that most Newfoundlanders and Labradorians do want this stock to recover, so that it can be something that is fished in the future and for their children," she said.

In a press release, the Fish, Food & Allied Workers union criticized the decision.

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"Minister Murray's decision further hurts this struggling region while continuing to let the real problem — seal overpopulation — spiral more and more out of control," said union president Keith Sullivan.

Federal Fisheries and Oceans Minister Joyce Murray, seen in a file photo, says she knows the closure will create economic challenges for people who rely on the fishery. (CBC)

Murray said grey seals as predators are likely a factor in the declining cod stocks. 

"When there's that kind of pressure, that we don't have control over it, it still remains the case that we need to take measures to give the stock a chance to rebuild," she said.

Murray said she's committed to working to achieve a better understanding of the impact of seals on fish stocks and looking at ways to develop the sealing industry in Newfoundland and Labrador.

In a press release, provincial fisheries minister Derrick Bragg said the provincial government is disappointed that cod stock remains in the critical zone.

Bragg said the provincial government is concerned with high mortality rate due to natural causes, like predation from seals. He said the government is "actively encouraging" the development of new products and markets for seals.

'Cutting deep'

Ernest Decker, who lives in the community of Rocky Harbour on Newfoundland's west coast, said the fishery in the northern Gulf has had ups and downs over his 50 years as a fisher.

"I honestly think, deep down inside, that they never give the Gulf cod enough time to rebuild stocks," he said.

In recent years, Decker said, the commercial cod fishery in the area has only lasted about 12 days.

"It seems like the door slammed on that now for us too," he said.

Decker said he relies on crab and lobster to make a living — but Monday's announcement will still have an impact.

"When you start closing commercial fisheries, they start cutting deep into the pockets of fish harvesters," he said.

Stock at 10% of reference point

The press release from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans says cod stock in the Northern Gulf of St. Lawrence is at 10 per cent of its "limit reference point" and is the "most concerning" of any cod stock in Atlantic Canada.

According to the department, the total allowable catch for that area in 2021 was 1,000 tonnes, with about 510 tonnes available for the directed commercial fishery.

The press release states the recreational fishery will continue with daily possession limits, and the food, social and ceremonial fisheries will also proceed. The sentinel fishery, which is when harvesters collect data on stock while fishing, will also continue to provide updates about stock health.

Sullivan also criticized the decision to allow the recreational fishery to continue.

"The minister's decisions this year on shrimp, mackerel and now Gulf cod … show our federal government is not committed to the sustainability of our province," he said.

According to the department, the one-year commercial moratorium will be re-evaluated in 2023, "taking into consideration economic factors, stakeholder perspectives, and the best available science."

Murray said the stock will be assessed before a decision is made.

"Having a precautionary approach is, I think, critical given how important the fishery is to people."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Todd O'Brien and The Broadcast

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