Good afternoon, everybody.
I am sorry for the delay. We had a very moving tribute by our party leaders in the House of Commons, and that is why we are delayed by about 10 minutes. I don't expect us to go on too long.
This is just a reminder to the committee that we are putting aside 15 minutes at the end, in camera, to go over yesterday's subcommittee meeting. We managed to put together a schedule, and we will be asking for the committee's acceptance of that.
Just one little note that I would like to meet very quickly after we adjourn with those of us travelling next week for this study—Mr. Doherty, Mr. Arnold, and Mr. Finnigan. I know Mr. Johns isn't here, but you can pass along the message.
This is the start of our study, a motion put forward by Mr. McDonald, from the beautiful riding of Avalon. We are looking at a study of the northern cod stock today. As we normally do, we start out with a departmental briefing.
I want to welcome Philippe Morel, assistant deputy minister, ecosystems and fisheries management; Brian Lester, assistant director, integrated resource management; and Trevor Swerdfager.
Trevor, I am beginning to think you are an associate member of this committee and not just a witness; you have been here so often. As always, it is good to see you and get your expertise.
Last, but by no means least—from our home province, Mr. McDonald—we have Mr. John Brattey, research scientist, Newfoundland and Labrador region.
I thank you, sir, for travelling and being with us here today.
Trevor, I understand you are doing one presentation. If you want to exceed the 10 minutes, by all means, go ahead for up to 15-20 minutes if you wish, since there is only one of you doing that. Go ahead, sir, with your opening statement.
Thanks very much, Mr. Chair.
I have a couple of very brief introductory remarks, and then Dr. Brattey will take over the floor.
I will begin by saying thanks very much to the committee: (a) for undertaking this study and (b) for having us here before you today to look at northern cod, in particular off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Obviously, cod holds an immense economic, social, and cultural value for all Canadian communities, but particularly in the eastern part of our country, and as you know, DFO is heavily engaged in its management.
We felt that, as a way of starting the conversation around this table, it was very important to ground the discussion on northern cod with a short overview of what types of information we collect and what that information is telling us about the state of the stock.
Just by way of context-setting, I should note that the knowledge, expertise, and activities of the science sector provide the evidence base for the department's work and our operational decision-making. We are now about 1,500 people in the science sector across the country, in 14 major centres, and our expertise spans quite a number of disciplines, some of which you will hear from today. When you are in St. John's next week, I believe you will have an opportunity to hear from Dr. Pepin, who is one of our key experts in this area.
Our recent investments in ocean science are being put to good use. We have quite an extensive hiring process under way right now. We have engaged about 50 new staff in the last couple of months, with more to follow in that process. We had 11,000 applicants. We are going to interview about 3,500 over the next three weeks to come up with quite a talented pool of people to work in fisheries and ocean science, and we think this is just the beginning.
This allows us to improve our understanding of ocean ecosystems, and Dr. Brattey will talk to you a bit about northern cod in that context. We really feel that the work that is engaged in the broad sectoral links is critical to setting the evidence base for our decision-making.
You have been good enough, Mr. Chair, to introduce my colleagues who are here with us today, so I won't go any further in that regard, other than to say that Dr. Brattey—who has come to Ottawa because he knows that it is just a fantastic place to come to, and also for business—is one of our leading research scientists in the cod area. He is, by nature, a fairly modest person and certainly won't read his resumé to you. I can tell you that he has very deep and broad expertise. He has been in this field for quite some time and very much knows his stuff.
He will take you through a bit of an overview, and then we would certainly invite any questions or comments, either on the science or more broadly if need be, with my colleagues here at the table.
With that, I will turn it over to Dr. Brattey.
I'd also like to thank the honourable committee members for this opportunity to speak with you today about the status of northern cod and the science that we do on this important resource. I trust that all of you have a copy of the presentation, so I'll go through it fairly slowly, with not too much detail. It shouldn't take more than about ten minutes.
I'd like to begin by clearly defining what we mean by northern cod. There are in fact five managed stocks of cod off Newfoundland and Labrador, and northern cod occupies the area outlined in red on the map. It doesn't include the south and west coasts of Newfoundland or the southern Grand Banks. Northern cod occupies a huge stock area, and as we know, it once supported an enormous fishery. We harvested over 800,000 tonnes of cod in the 1960s in a single year. The average harvest was about 240,000 tonnes in the 1980s, and as we know, the stock collapsed and a moratorium was imposed in 1992. Small-scale inshore fisheries have operated since then intermittently, typically with landings between 4,000 and about 8,000 tonnes per year.
DFO has adopted what we call a precautionary approach framework as part of its policy for managing fisheries resources. Three zones are defined for each fish stock—critical, cautious, and healthy, depending on the resource status. Science provides advice on where the boundaries of these are and the current and past status relative to these boundaries. We use the long history of the stock to define where the boundaries are.
Today I'm going to focus mostly on the boundary between what we call the critical and cautious zones. We talk about the limit reference point. This defines the boundary between these two zones. When the stock is below this limit reference point and in the critical zone, it's considered to have suffered serious harm, and this is really a place we don't want our stocks to be.
If we look at the graph of the long history of northern cod, it goes back to about the 1960s. It was a huge stock back then but the stock declined steadily for many years after. It rebounded slightly after Canada got an extension of jurisdiction to 200 miles in the late 1970s. The stock then stabilized through the 1980s, and then it crashed very suddenly in the early 1990s.
When the stock fell below the level of the 1980s, we found that it no longer produced good recruitment; it didn't produce good numbers of young fish. It also had much lower productivity. In fact, it had suffered serious harm. Hence, the limit reference point has been defined as the average spawning stock biomass observed by the stock through the 1980s. This spawning stock biomass, or SSB as we call it, can be derived in a number of different ways. In this chart on slide 4, the blue line is derived from a complex stock assessment model, but it can also be derived somewhat more simply using some other metrics in which we measure the spawning biomass. The black bars indicate DFO's research vessel survey spawning biomass index. You can also use that to define your limit reference point and calculate it. It's simply the average value through the 1980s.
Turning to the next slide, “Scientific Data on Northern Cod”, what sources of information do we scientists have to assess stock status? We have a long history on northern cod, and a lot of information has been collected, but for us, really the most important things are time series data collected in a consistent manner. These are what really count when we're assessing fisheries resources.
Before the moratorium, we had four main pieces of information about northern cod. We had catch information, which I would argue was quite poorly monitored. We also had research vessel surveys conducted by DFO, mainly from 1983 onwards. We also had commercial catch rate information, but this came only from large offshore vessels fishing well away from the coast. We didn't have information from the inshore fisherman about their catch rate trends in the inshore. That issue was addressed quite heavily around the time of the moratorium. We also had information from cod-tagging studies, and these are ongoing today.
In the post-moratorium period we have several new sources of information. We have more catch information and I think we have much better monitoring of our fishery, principally through the dockside monitoring program. We also have an extended time series of DFO research vessel surveys going right up to 2016; these are done annually. We also have an expanded tagging program and we're also using the latest technology for tracking fish migrations and movements—that's acoustic telemetry.
We've also developed logbooks for inshore harvesters to record their catch rate information, and we've put in place a sentinel fishery. Both of these provide us with time series information about catch rate trends from inshore fishermen.
The fishermen also fill out annual questionnaires, which they provide to us at our assessment meetings.
We have other initiatives like acoustic surveys, and we do beach seine surveys of small cod in the nearshore zone. We also have ecosystem science, and the department has an ecosystem-based management approach, much more important in decision-making now.
For northern cod, in an ecosystem context, we really focus on two issues: what are the key predators of cod, and what are the key prey?
As many of you will know, for northern cod, capelin is a key prey. It's very important in sustaining the stock.
The latest northern cod assessment was conducted in March 2016, about six months ago. The participation was by DFO scientists and managers, academia, various representatives from industry sectors, first nations, and NGOs. These are open meetings with wide participation. The agreement and the conclusions of these meetings is now by consensus. This is not a bunch of scientists in a room coming up with a stock assessment. There's broad participation, and everyone has to agree with the meeting conclusions before they're written down.
Another significant development occurred in March 2016. We have a new stock assessment model that integrates a lot of information from several different sources. It does a much better job of accounting for uncertainty in stock assessments, and it's considered a huge advancement in methodology. This has been contributed mainly by academic colleagues. It's able to integrate an extensive range of biological information about the stock.
If we look at some of the more recent assessment results, these charts show two scaled catches of cod from our DFO autumn research vessel survey. Typically, we go out and do 350 or so tows with the research trawl, tow them for 15 minutes along the ocean floor, and record everything that's captured. This takes about two and a half months, with two vessels fishing 24 hours a day.
The left panel shows the catches from about a decade ago. As you can see from the scale, they're very small. There were no big catches at all. Most catches have less than 10 fish in the trawl. This was the picture for more than a decade, but after 2005, and as we move forward to 2015, you can see there's a substantial increase. Now we have many sizeable catches of cod, large ones in some areas, and there's considerable improvement over much of the stock area. The only exception seems to be the southern portion of the stock range, in the southern part of what we call NAFO division 3L.
These two graphs summarize some of the latest assessment results. They show trends in stock size from 1983 onwards. There are two metrics shown here. On the left we have the numbers or the stock abundance, and on the right, the total weights, the stock biomass. This is further subdivided into the biomass of all fish and then the spawning stock biomass, which is just the total weight of all the spawning individuals in the population.
Both show similar trends. They are high in the l980s, crash in the early 1990s, are low for a least a decade, and are now increasing, especially in the last decade. In fact, the numbers have increased 4.5-fold in the last decade, and the biomass has increased twelvefold in the last decade.
Our assessments produce estimates of the numbers of young fish each year. These are key to stock rebuilding—what we refer to as recruitment. These show similar overall trends to the abundance and biomass I've just shown you. These were highly variable in the 1980s but at a generally high level. Then there was consistently very low production of young fish for many years, about two decades, but now it's improving.
The last two groups of young fish we have seen in our surveys are now considerably improved, and these represent about 25% of what we saw for those ages in the 1980s. As I mentioned at the beginning, we have to put our assessment results in the context of a precautionary approach framework. Where is the stock relative to this limit reference point I talked about, this average spawning biomass of the 1980s? We use our assessment estimates for each year.
We divide each one by the average for the 1980s and then we can simply re-graph the results and express each annual value as a percentage of what we saw in the 1980s, or as a proportion. This allows us to graph out where the stock is, relative to our limit reference point.
If you look at the chart, you'll see the line of dashes. That's the limit reference point that defines the boundary between the critical and cautious zones, and the solid line is where the stock is. Clearly, you can see the stock improvements in the last decade. This quantifies them with respect to the limit reference point. The stock has improved from 3% in 2005 to 34% in 2015. The central take-home message from this chart is that we do have good growth in the stock in recent years, but it's not fully recovered. It still has a considerable way to go, but certainly we seem to be in a period of optimism.
The last slide is on the next steps for science on northern cod. As my colleague mentioned in his introductory remarks, new investments in ocean science are under way, with new staffing and funding, some of it directed towards northern cod directly. We'll also be continuing and enhancing our stock and ecosystem monitoring initiatives and will be using the latest technologies. We also have several new partnerships and collaborations with academia that are about to begin. Many of you will have heard about the recent announcement of funding that went to Dalhousie, Memorial University, and, in fact, UPEI. A portion of those funds will be directed towards research on northern cod, and the same is true for the other two issues I've mentioned there. With all these initiatives in place, we hope that northern cod will continue to grow in the coming years and once again become one of our important and valuable fisheries resources.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for the opportunity to present this information.
Thank you, members of the committee. That concludes my presentation.
We use a whole variety of things to come up with our estimates of biomass.
As I mentioned, one of the key ones is certainly our research vessel survey time series. In the run of a year, taking about two and a half months in the autumn fishing, we typically organize and conduct this survey with a standardized trawl that's used the same way every single year, with very large coverage of the stock area, in which the net catches fish of a broad range of sizes. They're all measured; age is determined; and many are brought back to the laboratory. From that survey, at the end of each year we come up with an index of what the stock is doing.
When we put that annual value into a time series, it gives us a measure of where the biomass is. Then we bring in the information from the catch. We have a whole range of people out measuring fish from the catch, quantifying how much is caught, and what numbers of each age group are caught in the fishery each year and removed from the fishery. Then the assessment model reconciles the information and puts it together to come up with the estimates of biomass. We also use a lot of information about recruitment, which is what I mentioned: the numbers of young fish coming in.
Really, what we're doing is a study of population dynamics. We look at the factors that will increase the stock over time and then we look at the factors that will reduce it. We put them all together to come up with our estimates of biomass over time.
The other participants at the meeting contribute actively to the assessment. We have a lot of debate about the results. We have individual presentations from the FFAW. We sometimes have presentations from individual fishermen. Other academics from Memorial University come in and present their research findings. They're all considered in the preparation of the summary document from that meeting.
At the end of the meeting, there has to be agreement on what the assessment says about the biomass of the stock, and the agreement has to come not just from DFO scientists but from academia, from the non-governmental organizations, from the industry members themselves, and from the union. It's quite a broad-scale approach to it and very different from what it was before the time of the moratorium.