He stopped for a moment, just stood there,
With a handkerchief, he wiped his eyes;
He looked out to sea, then he looked at me,
He said, “I pities you, boy.
You’ll never see the great big old codfish,
Float up in the trap and go on
Out over the heads like one time,
‘Cause now, she’s gone, boys.”
– Wayne Bartlett, ‘She’s Gone Boys, She’s Gone’
by Catharine Grant.
For centuries, cod was the economic backbone of many Atlantic Canadian coastal communities and an important part of our cultural heritage. When the cod fishery collapsed in the early 1990s, the consequences were huge. With one of the main economic drivers of the region grinding to a halt, coastal communities saw many more empty houses and fish plants and the start of an exodus by the younger generation for the more lucrative industries out west.
When fishermen were told to tie up their boats, many of them took to a guitar and a tune instead, to lament the loss of their livelihood and their way of life. Of course, it wasn’t only Atlantic Canada’s communities that took a blow from the collapse of the cod fishery, but also our ocean ecosystems. Unfortunately, Canada’s cod populations have not recovered from this collapse and, in fact, some are in worse shape than ever.
All populations of Atlantic cod (except in the Arctic) have been assessed as “endangered” by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), which means that they face the imminent threat of local extinction. Recently, we’ve seen indications that the Atlantic cod off Nova Scotia are doing a lot worse than predicted, and their populations have not been rebuilding. The factors behind this are complicated and may be the result of an ecosystem shift: cod are not surviving into maturity, and they are increasingly being killed by predators.
How do we grapple with a situation like this when it’s impossible to fish for haddock and halibut (also very economically important to our region) without catching cod, especially when using lower impact gear like bottom longline?
This is a conundrum that we, at the Ecology Action Centre, have been struggling with, because we support healthy coastal communities that fish, as well as healthy oceans. We want fishermen to be able to keep fishing groundfish, especially those with healthy populations, but we also need to make sure that efforts are underway to improve cod stocks. Luckily, there are useful lessons to learn about this from other regions that have faced the same difficulties, and there are concrete steps we can take right here in Atlantic Canada to support cod conservation and recovery.
It’s clear that, given the latest science update on the state of the cod stocks in Scotia-Fundy region, the Total Allowable Catch (TAC) for the region will have to be reduced. However, other measures can be used to limit how big this TAC reduction will need to be. If proactive conservation measures are adopted across all fisheries that interact with cod, the hit won’t have to be as big over the long-term.
A sensible first step to dealing with low cod populations, and reducing the impact our fisheries have on cod, is to eliminate directed trips all together and direct only for species with healthy populations, like haddock. Haddock stocks are doing better than cod stocks, and haddock also brings in a better price, so this makes both economic and ecological sense. However, when directing for haddock or other species, fishermen will still inevitably land cod.
This is where experimentation with fishing methods comes in. A lot of research has been done looking at how to avoid catching cod by using different types of bait, and by changing fishing behaviour; modifying line depth and soak time, are a few examples of this. These potential stewardship options should be explored in the groundfish fishery.
Speaking of bait, lobster traps often catch cod and which are then used as bait by fishermen. An endangered species should never be used as bait. If these fish were released alive, it could benefit the stock considerably, as well give the lobster fishery a leg up with its MSC certification. Bycatch across all fisheries needs to be quantified, but lobster is a good place to start.
Also, communities such as Petty Harbour-Maddox Cove in Newfoundland, found that when certain gear types were restricted from fishing areas, cod did better. This is likely because some gear types adversely affect cod habitat. This should be explored in other areas in Atlantic Canada.
Creative ideas for how to deal with declining cod stocks are needed. The Ecology Action Centre is eager to work collaboratively with partners at DFO and the fishing industry to tackle this issue, so that the state of cod does not interfere with our ability to continue to fish healthy stocks in Atlantic Canada. In the end, we want to see our fisheries resources recovering and flourishing, and our communities singing happier songs.
Catharine Grant is the Marine Policy and Certification coordinator at the Ecology Actiion Centre. She grew up fishing cod.