A season of change: How N.L.'s wild fisheries have gone from plentiful to pitiful
In a remote corner of northern Newfoundland, we got to know the locals — mostly whales, fish and seabirds
The following is an essay by Jenn Thornhill Verma, the author of the book Cod Collapse: The Rise and Fall of Newfoundland's Saltwater Cowboys. Now based in Ottawa, Verma returns to her roots in Newfoundland and Labrador to examine the state of cod, capelin and other fisheries.
The water turns turquoise as each humpback breaks the surface. Their unmistakable puff of air creates an ensemble of sound and mist before each whale in the pod dives again.
Below, a feast of capelin awaits, rolling in the waves. The humpbacks have earned it, having swum 8,000 kilometres from their Caribbean tropical breeding grounds to the cold-water feeding grounds off Newfoundland and Labrador.
It's July 2018 and I'm vacationing with my family on Quirpon Island (Quirpon is pronounced like "harpoon"), an uninhabited island off the northernmost point of Newfoundland. On this brisk day, we are getting to know the locals – mostly whales, fish and seabirds.
Their warm welcome is especially appreciated in what seems unseasonably cold temperatures — temperatures that are, in fact, perfectly suited to this particular place at this particular time of year.
It's a reminder that seasons on the north coast of Newfoundland and Labrador are better defined by wildlife and iceberg migration than weather forecasts or temporal markers. Whale season started a few months ago and will continue for a few more. Iceberg season started around the same time and will soon draw to a close.
The iceberg making its way past the sea-cliffs along the island's receding coastline are likely among the last of the season. Its presence punctuates an idyllic outport scene. On the other side of the coastline, safely distanced from the pod of humpbacks, a fishing vessel has arrived for capelin fishing. Meanwhile, seabirds hang about, aware the humans and humpbacks will help them land a feed.
The unfolding scene is a reminder that when capelin flourish, so too do a number of marine species.
And when wild fish thrive, so too do our wild fisheries, which are still the lifeblood of many coastal communities across Newfoundland and Labrador and, indeed, Canada.
From plentiful to pitiful
Canada is a country of coastlines — the longest on the planet. But its magnitude is overshadowed only by the knowledge of its coastal peoples. They live and breathe these seasons — fishing being an especially important one — and know them better than anyone.
In 2019, nearly 16,000 people were employed in the seafood sector in Newfoundland and Labrador, and nearly 84,000 people across Canada. The industry hauls in $1.4 billion in N.L. alone ($11.85 billion across Canada) with nearly 90 per cent of that value attributed to wild fisheries. Aquaculture makes up the remainder.
And yet, those figures cannot begin to capture the value of the fishery to community, heritage and culture.
Overlooking the ocean from Quirpon Island back in 2018, I was filled with hope for the future of wild fish and our fisheries too.
"Plentiful" and "abundant" were the words that sprang to mind as I stood there holding my eldest daughter, then eight months old.
By this time, I was already well into my journey of trying to understand the east coast cod fishery collapse — a topic I wrote about in my 2019 book, Cod Collapse: The Rise and Fall of Newfoundland's Saltwater Cowboys.
I'd learned that both cod and capelin followed similar trajectories: near collapse prior to the 1992 moratorium, with somewhat of a comeback in 2014-15, but declining numbers ever since.
The headline in the daily paper at the end of January 2019 had said it all: "Cod Recovery Still Far Off: DFO." (DFO is the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans). In the case of cod, the same factors that had contributed to a hopeful comeback — thriving capelin and warming waters — had since swung in unfavourable directions. Fewer capelin prey and changing environmental conditions did not bode well for cod.
Now, in 2021, the prognosis for the cod population, capelin and the environmental conditions remains no better. In March, I attended DFO's annual science assessments for capelin and cod, particularly the populations (or what fisheries managers call "stock") in the fishing area called 2J3KL. At just under 800,000 square kilometres, 2J3KL is an area of the ocean roughly twice as large as Newfoundland and Labrador.
According to DFO science, both the cod and capelin populations are a fraction of what they once were, with no prospects of recovery under current conditions.
At its peak, the spawning biomass of northern cod reached 1.6 million metric tonnes in 1962 (in fact, that's the first year for which these figures are available), dropping to between 72,000 and 110,000 tonnes 30 years later (1992, the year of the collapse). The latest science shows the biomass is now about 411,000 tonnes.
For capelin, while there's a greater degree of uncertainty in their biomass recordings, the highest biomass DFO ever recorded was in the spring survey in 1990 at six million tonnes, but that's now dropped to closer to 200,000 tonnes.
In short, neither cod or capelin are anywhere near their one-time levels of abundance.
This is not good news for the fish or the fishing.
Soon, DFO fisheries managers will share quotas for the 2021 cod fishery (called the "stewardship" fishery) and commercial capelin fishery. Their decisions take the latest DFO science as well as consultation with industry and other stakeholders into account.
How did we get here?
DFO science shows several factors are predominantly to blame for declining cod and capelin populations, including natural causes, especially lack of capelin prey in the case of cod; high predation, particularly from fish (more so than seals), in the case of capelin; and warming ocean waters, among other environmental factors.
These natural causes outrank pressures from the commercial fishery, says DFO science. In 2020, capelin removals from fishing, for example, ranged around 16,000 tonnes, compared with removals by all predators ranging in the millions of tonnes. That said, the best available science advice is recommending all removals remain at the "lowest possible level."
"Even a small number of fishing removals has an impact," DFO scientist Fran Mowbray said, particularly critical given, as Mowbray put it, "all other indicators are saying things are going badly for the [capelin] stock."
Fisheries managers have only a few tools to do anything about depleted fish populations. They can limit the ways we fish (a topic I wrote about at length, recently, showing hook and line as well as cod pot and auto-line offer conservation and commercial benefits over gillnets and longlines) or they can limit how much we fish. But even the hint of cutting capelin and cod fishing quotas is politically charged.
After the capelin assessment, for example, industry came out strongly against accepting the status quo, in fact, wanting an increase in this year's capelin quota. Meanwhile, conservation groups such as Oceana Canada and World Wildlife Fund Canada, recommended a moratorium on the 2021 capelin fishery to give the stocks a chance to rebound. That's a move taken in European capelin fisheries in recent years (at the same time, Canada continued fishing capelin, earning twice as much in export value in 2019 than in 2018, given the global capelin shortage).
A dreaded word
"Moratorium" is a dreaded word here — and rightfully so.
Thirty years ago, the cod moratorium did more than cut access to cod fishing. It decimated jobs and an entire way of life. The fish weren't the only population to plummet; 10 per cent of the province's population left in the decade following the moratorium.
At the end of March, the Fish, Food & Allied Workers union lodged rallies following the rumour that DFO could place a "second moratorium" on cod in the adjacent fishing zone, 3Ps on the southern shores of Newfoundland. Never mind we'd already been fishing a species under moratorium (the 1992 cod moratorium is still in effect, but DFO reopened the "stewardship cod fishery" in 2006), cutting access to cod still has consequences for those who've hedged their bets on a cod comeback.
But it all shows the myopic view of wild commercial fisheries, focused squarely on "stock" and consumed with the question, "what's this year's quota?" We spend considerable energy quantifying a few thousand tonnes of fish (what actually translates into millions of fish, but fisheries management has reduced to a figure of convenience — granted, not one easily understood by the everyday person).
Even the first Rebuilding Plan for Atlantic Cod (released just shy of Christmas in 2020 for the population of cod in 2J3KL) has been criticized as being more of a fishing plan than a rebuilding one. The country's foremost cod scientists argue the plan doesn't take seriously the role overfishing played in the cod collapse — neither in predicating the 1992 moratorium, nor in the ongoing critically depleted state of the population
The scientists ask: if DFO science recommends fishing be kept at the lowest possible level, then why isn't that level zero for targeted fisheries? DFO says bycatch — that's when another marine creature is caught while commercially fishing for a different species — makes "zero" a technically unlikely figure. One DFO scientist explained it with this rhetorical question: "Will I shut down the shrimp fishery because it caught 50 tonnes of capelin?" Likely not.
Which does raise another consideration: why are we spending so much energy fighting over every single last cod or capelin, especially at a time when other marine species are doing, by all comparisons, well? Snow crab, Atlantic halibut, redfish, these are all good news stories for wild fish and fisheries too. The reason wild fisheries have worked since their beginning is because fishermen fished what was in season. For example, they knew a bad year for cod, could be alleviated by a good year for crab.
And yet, when it comes to the cod and capelin fisheries, we keep doing the same things, year after year, expecting different results. Over the last 10 years, we've fished 75.9 million cod and 5.79 billion capelin in the 2J3KL region alone. If a comeback is even a remote possibility, we have to give cod and capelin a fighting chance; and we must use the best tools at our disposal.
Are present preoccupations clouding more pressing problems?
Another old habit that's dying hard is the inordinate amount of attention spent on harp seals, while paying not nearly enough attention to understanding the consequences of an even more daunting problem: the climate crisis is already warming the ocean, threatening the very plankton that's fundamental to the functioning of ocean ecosystems.
Here's what DFO science currently says about seals: For capelin, predation is a main factor, but groundfish like cod are eating three times more capelin than harp seals; For cod, seal predation is not affecting the cod population's trajectory. And yet, for cod, DFO is conducting further analyses (to be released at next year's science assessment) to "make sure there's no changes" in this regard.
As it relates to climate, the latest cod rebuilding plan doesn't mention the term "climate." It also doesn't offer actions to understand or mitigate the pressures from the warming ocean. I was pleased, however, to learn DFO has an oceanographic team collecting data to better understand long-term climate trends and climate change-related ecosystem changes. But what we really need to know is: how will these climate changes affect cod, capelin, plankton and other species? And what will that mean for the future of wild fisheries?
Ultimately, I worry that reinvestigating known problems (harp seals) may detract from investigating unknown ones (the climate crisis). Here's a proof point: If I had not asked about climate at the cod science assessment, then it wouldn't have come up (apart from DFO citing the warming ocean, there was no mention of climate or the work of DFO's oceanographic team before I'd asked).
Marking the seasons
Thinking back to that 2018 scene on Quirpon Island, I've started to ask myself: if we don't attend to the problems facing wild fish and our fisheries too, what will become of the patterns that define our seasons? We must think about our footprint on this planet, control what we can, while planning for the days when livelihoods can once again benefit from plentiful populations of cod and capelin.
I've reached a time in my life when the seasons have taken on new meaning, marked by my children's latest activities and learning developments. My eldest, now 3½ years old, is in the season of asserting herself and losing her bicycle training wheels, while my youngest, twins approaching one, are in the season of first words and crawling. I hope to introduce my children to the seasons of my youth and do whatever I can to preserve the integrity of these seasons for generations to come.
According to FisheryAudit.ca, only a quarter of Canada's fisheries are considered healthy. It's a stark realization.
Back on Quirpon Island, the fishermen returned to the wharf with their day's catch.
I watched the humpbacks take their final dive of the day, their tails creating what seemed an endless supply of concentric circles, rippling outward until they disappeared into the waves.
- A prior version of this essay had incorrectly expressed the impact of fishing for cod and capelin in terms of billions of fish, rather than in millions.May 02, 2021 4:57 PM NT