Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
I'd like to thank the committee for the invitation to come and speak today. It is an honour and privilege to do so.
I'm here today to talk about the future of the fishery for northern cod. My name is Dr. Brett Favaro and I'm a research scientist at the Fisheries and Marine Institute of Memorial University. As a scientist, I build and test gear that is designed to produce the smallest possible impact on the environment while being safe and effective for fish harvesters to use.
I'd like to start today by acknowledging that this isn't just my story I'm about to tell, it's the story of my graduate students, my collaborators, and the many inshore fishermen who have played host to our research, especially Aubrey and Marie Payne from Fogo Island. I also acknowledge financial support from the Canadian Centre for Fisheries Innovation, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador's Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture, and the Research and Development Corporation of Newfoundland and Labrador, as well the other organizations on my slide.
As you're all aware, the collapse of the northern cod represented one of the greatest environmental and economic tragedies in Canadian history. However, for the first time since the moratorium, there appear to be early signs of recovery. I'm not going to spend much time today talking about the health of the stock, because I'm certain that will be amply covered by the rest of my scientific colleagues who will be speaking today. What I want to talk about is how to conduct a fishery if and when it opens again.
The sustainability of any fishery depends in part on the technology you use to catch fish. And whether you use gillnets, longlines, trawls, or any other technique, there are going to be impacts on the environment, but not all gear is created equal. For example, gillnets are a sort of gear that have been widely used to catch fish in Newfoundland and Labrador and were used to land a major component of the cod catch prior to the moratorium.
There are problems with gillnets. For one, it's not just cod that they catch. When you put a gillnet in the water, it's quite likely you're going to catch a lot of things that you don't want to be catching, from seabirds to seals. There is a lot of marine life that can get caught in a gillnet. Second, if you lose a net at sea, you get a lot of ghost fishing, which means animals that are caught and killed by these nets when they're drifting around in the water. This is bad for fishermen and it's also bad for the environment. Third, and perhaps the most difficult for industry to cope with, is that by the time you haul back your gillnets, there's a good chance that the fish will have degraded substantially in quality.
From the moment a fish is ensnared in the gillnet, the clock starts ticking. They struggle in the nets, they're picked up by predators and scavengers under water, and they slowly die before you even get the chance to harvest them. This makes it very hard to ensure consistent quality in the fish being caught in the gear and there are economic consequences to this, which I'll explain in a moment.
This brings us to my story today. In the early 2000s, my colleague, Phillip Walsh, began an effort to introduce a gear known as pots to the community of Fogo Island as an alternative fishing gear to gillnets. Pots are baited traps that are set on the bottom of the sea and Canada has a long history of using pots in many fisheries. For example, in British Columbia, we use pots to catch spot prawns and sablefish; and in Newfoundland and Labrador we use pots to catch snow crabs.
Over the last few years we've discovered that pots are a great gear for catching cod as well. On this photo, you can see one of the original pot types, which we call a Newfoundland-style pot. It's quite large and heavy and was used by some Fogo Island fishermen for several years to catch cod. Now, the Newfoundland pot did work, but it was somewhat expensive to build and if your boat is very small, it can be a little unwieldy. Therefore, we pursued a project where we'd identify a pot that is so efficient that it makes clear economic and environmental sense for fishermen to use it as their primary gear, and if we couldn't have identified such a pot, we'd design and build one ourselves.
The slide shows one of the pots that we designed and built. Between the summers of 2015 and 2016 we tested five models of pot aboard industry vessels from Fogo Island, including lightweight Norwegian-style pots with various mesh sizes, and this pot you're looking at right now. Pots are a very practical fishing gear; to save space, they're collapsible. Here, you can see three pots stacked on top of each other on the back deck of a fishing boat. Notice the little doughnut-like floats on the top of the pot. When the pot goes in the water, these floats actually pull the roof of the pot upward which opens it up, so fish can swim inside.
When the pots are collapsed, they're quite compact. If you can believe it, you're looking at more than 30 pots of five different makes all stacked together in this small trailer. Here, you are looking at one of the lightweight Norwegian-style pots, but with a large mesh size that we added to make it easier for small fish to escape. This catch was pretty typical, about 30 fish with the length of, on average, about 60 centimetres. But the real advantage to this gear is not the quantity of fish, it's the quality. When fish are caught in pots, they're not killed by the pot. They're vibrant, healthy, and in great shape when you bring them aboard. This is why fish harvesters have been able to sell their pot-caught cod to fine restaurants at premium prices.
I contrast that with this photo of a gillnet-caught cod, which was taken by my graduate student, Phillip Meintzer, just last week in Labrador. Here you can see a cod that is beat up, damaged, and harmed by the capture process. This fish is not going to fetch you much money at the market.
While it's possible to get very high quality fish out of gillnets, if you leave them in the water for very short periods of time, in reality there are a million different reasons that a fisherman might leave the gillnets out there for longer than would be ideal. For example, if you have your net out and a storm unexpectedly rolls in, you may be unable to safely retrieve your gear during that same day. As a result, fish may be ensnared in nets for days at a time, and what you end up catching is damaged and worth very little.
Quality also depends on proper handling of the fish after they're caught. Here you can see us bleeding fish in icy water aboard the fishing boat. Here I'm showing you the bled and gutted fish being stored on ice for the trip back to the processor. This type of care is essential to ensure that you get as much economic bang for your buck out of every fish you take out of the water.
Now I'm going to show you a video that brings pots to life.
One aspect of my research is that I start nearly every project by attaching an underwater camera to fishing gear so we can better understand what actually goes on when the fishing gear is in the water. What you're looking at is our big experimental apparatus with the Norwegian-style pot on the inside of it. We're about to see video, looking from the top down onto this pot when it's underwater.
Now you're about 40 metres underwater, just off of Fogo Island. What you're seeing here is a few minutes after the pot was set in the water. It's hard to see because of the contrast, but you have some cod swimming around the pot, and you have one in the upper chamber of the pot right now. You can see that the entrances are on the left and right, so they're swimming around the bottom to try to find their way into the pot.
Now you're seeing about 20 hours after the pot was set. The pot has about 35 cod in it. You can see them swimming in that upper chamber. What actually happens is, whichever direction the water is moving, the fish will orient themselves and swim against the current while they're still in the pot. Again, these cod are still alive when they're in the pot, and they don't actually get killed until you bring them aboard.
In a moment we're going to see this pot get hauled up to the surface. These videos are very powerful because we can actually explore what's going on with this gear underwater.
Here's the fish being brought up to the surface. I've sped it up a bit, so this is actually at about double-speed. We're actually watching the gear come off the bottom and get hauled right back up to the surface to be brought aboard the boat.
This is the first instance when you're going to see the fish start to swim in a disturbed manner, where they swim more aggressively, presumably to try to find their way out of the pot. The videos have shown us that not very many actually manage to escape. When they get right up, near the surface, you can see some bubbles start to come out of the cod as well.
We repeated this many times in Fogo Island over the summer, and we were able to paint a really good picture of what a typical deployment of a pot looks like.
Now that we're underwater, I'm about to take you above the water.
Now we're flying over a fishing boat that's actually using a pot. If you look down here, this is one of the Newfoundland-style pots actually being hauled up and brought aboard the vessel. This just gives you a sense of what this looks like when you're actually fishing these out on the water. We have our fish down there in the water. This pot has a large cod end at the top where the fish accumulate.
This is the boom on the vessel. It's going to get swung out across, and it's going to get hauled out of the water.
I hope this gives you a sense of what potting looks like in real life. This summer we found that we could catch a vessel's entire weekly quota in a single day of fishing with 25 pots. The new, lightweight pots are cheap to buy, and easy and safe to use, and there is tremendous grassroots' support for this technique. We receive dozens of calls every week from fishermen across the province who are interested in this gear. Pots are scalable, meaning you can use them on big boats or small boats, and they certainly catch commercial quantities of fish. They can preserve the quality of fish that they catch so the fishermen can achieve higher market prices than fish caught with less sustainable methods. You can use biodegradable twine to provide an escape hatch on the pot, so if a fisherman loses one underwater, the pot doesn't continue to trap fish forever.
As a conservation biologist, I'm impressed by their reduced impact on seabirds and other large-bodied marine species, which would otherwise be greatly harmed by the widespread reintroduction of gillnets to Newfoundland and Labrador.
I want to wrap up by leaving you with two key messages. The first is that, from a conservation and economic perspective, any new cod fishery should be based on quality rather than quantity. We cannot create a system that forces fishermen to catch massive volumes of low quality product to make a living. It is inherently unsustainable and doesn't make sense economically. Our research suggests that pots could be a viable tool to be used at large scale in a quality-based fishery. When you're making decisions about how to manage the cod fishery, pots should be at the top of your mind.
My second piece of advice deals with the nature of the cod stock itself. I remind everyone that we're talking about a species that the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, or COSEWIC, has assessed as being endangered. Even if it seems like there are more cod in the water than there have been recently, there are still far fewer cod in the water than there were historically. Any new fishery absolutely must go slow. Just because there are more cod now than there were a decade ago doesn't mean it's okay to hammer the species with more fishing pressure than it can take.
COSEWIC's most recent assessment of Atlantic cod occurred in 2010, based on data going up to 2007. I think it would be tremendously helpful for COSEWIC to assess cod once again so that all levels of government, as well as industry, can be given a clear-eyed picture on the health and status of northern cod, and so that any decisions about it can be made using the best available peer-reviewed science to date.
Once again, my two key pieces of advice were first, to focus on quality in the cod fishery and to consider pots as a tool to achieve that; and second, to have COSEWIC conduct a scientific reassessment of the state of Atlantic cod, and for managers to thoroughly consider that assessment in any decisions made about the fishery.
I spoke to you today about the benefits of pots and there are many. I think this gear can provide an excellent pathway towards sustainability in a revitalized cod fishery. As a scientist, I also have a responsibility to end with a reminder that the best way to make fishing profitable is to make sure there are enough fish in the sea to go around.
Thank you very much.
Mr. Chairman, members of the committee, thank you for the invitation to speak before you as part of your study on northern cod.
My personal experience with northern cod began as a child in the early sixties when I would walk with my father and my grandmother to Mr. George Temple's stage at the bottom of Bull Arm, Sunnyside, Trinity Bay. My science experience with northern cod began in earnest in 1992, two years after completing my Ph.D. at Memorial.
Since then, I have contributed more than 70 research papers in the peer-reviewed scientific literature on various things: the ecology, life history, reproduction, genetics, fisheries history, and population biology of northern cod. I appeared before this committee on the topic of northern cod in 1997 in Ottawa, and, as the chairman indicated, in 2005 in St. John's.
Although the earliest documentation of a Newfoundland cod fishery dates from 1504, northern cod have almost certainly been fished since the late 1400s. Harvests are estimated to have been less than 100,000 tonnes each year until the late 1700s, and from the 1830s until the late 1960s, catches were typically between 200,000 and 300,000 tonnes each year.
This apparently sustainable level of catch, coupled with some assumptions about a sustainable harvesting rate, implies that the spawning stock size of northern cod from the late 1700s to the mid-1900s was perhaps in the order of 1 million tonnes to 1.5 million tonnes. Today it's estimated to be 300,000 tonnes.
Following the introduction of European-based trawlers in the late fifties and the early sixties, catches increased to a historic high of 810,000 tonnes in 1968, before collapsing in equally dramatic fashion in 1977, when Canada extended its fisheries jurisdiction to 200 nautical miles. Controlled in part by total allowable catches established by Canada, catches increased gradually to a post-1977 high of about 270,000 tonnes in 1988 prior to the moratorium.
We've just heard something about recent changes in technology, but technological changes have occurred throughout the 500-year old fishery. During the first three centuries, northern cod were taken mainly by baited or unbaited hooks, either from relatively large vessels on the banks or small vessels inshore. In the 1790s, the French introduced the bultow, baited, multi-hook line trawls, or longlines.
Cod nets or gillnets were introduced in the mid-1800s, followed by the cod trap in the 1870s. Bottom trawls were introduced just before the 20th century. These were initially towed by steam-driven side-trawlers before the advent of stern-hauled bottom trawl nets from factory-freezer trawlers in the second half of the 20th century.
These technological efficiencies, which have occurred throughout the centuries, had their greatest impact on northern cod from the late fifties to the mid-seventies, contributing to the massive overfishing that set the stage for a collapse in the early nineties.
When the moratorium was announced, it was estimated that northern cod had declined by 99% when compared to the size of the stock in the early 1960s. Globally, this was an unprecedented depletion for a bottom-dwelling, long-lived marine fish.
Such a massive depletion draws attention to a standard tenet in population biology, and it's one of the reasons the recovery of northern cod has been so slow and uncertain. That is, that small populations are more vulnerable to unexpected natural and human-induced disturbance than large populations. Put another way, after the moratorium, the unprecedented magnitude of depletion impaired the ability of northern cod to increase in the face of environmental conditions to which northern cod had been able to persist in the past when it was much larger. In other words, the smaller size of the northern cod stock made it less able to buffer natural environmental change.
Research indicates that fish stocks that decline to less than 10% of their maximum are likely to experience prolonged and highly uncertain recovery. The magnitude of loss of northern cod easily exceeded this threshold.
So, magnitude of depletion affects recovery, but fishing is also likely to have played a role. Although the 1992 moratorium significantly curtailed fishing activity, the catching of cod did not end. The yearly reported catch of northern cod from 1993 to 2009 was about 3,000 tonnes per year.
This might not sound like much, but for a depleted population, the impact can be significant.
For example, six years after the moratorium, in 1998, a directed commercial fishery for northern cod was reopened. The fishery was characterized as a limited fishery because the catch quotas were small relative to the quotas of the 1980s. But from a science perspective, the catch quota in and of itself is of no consequence. What matters is the size of the catch relative to the size of the stock from which the catch is taken.
In my view, this limited fishery, from 1998 to 2002, nipped early signs of recovery in the bud. If a lesson is to be learned from this ill-advised fishery, it is that it is necessary to have catch quotas be part of a management plan for which rebuilding targets and harvesting rules are clearly articulated, quantitative, transparent, and scientifically defensible.
Recovery targets and harvest control rules are two key elements associated with credible fishery management plans intended to achieve high-yield sustainable catches in the long term, yet they do not exist for most of our depleted cod stocks more than 20 years after their demise, and northern cod is one of those. In addition, the only existing harvest control rule for a Canadian cod stock solely under Canadian jurisdiction is unhelpfully open to multiple interpretations and unlikely to be very enforceable. It states that when the area 3Ps cod stock is below its limit reference point, “consideration may be given to whether directed fishing will be permitted at some level.” It goes on to say that fishing “should not be approved if the decline [below the limit] is substantial and should not continue for an extended period without evidence that recovery will occur within a reasonable timeline.”
So there are a lot of words that can be interpreted in many different ways, and such ambiguities are unlikely to lead to clear action when trouble is detected. It is instructive to compare the language associated with this 3Ps cod harvest control rule with one recent international effort initiated by fisheries management agencies to strengthen the scientific integrity of a harvest control rule for the largest cod stock in the world, off Norway.
From a sustainable harvesting perspective, it is fundamentally important, I think, that scientifically rigorous targets and harvest control rules be established. Without them, neither society nor industry can assess the degree to which a proposed catch level is consistent with the objective of achieving a particular target within a defined period of time. In the absence of targets and harvest control rules, there is no rigorous means of auditing the effectiveness or tracking the record of fisheries management actions. Efforts to recover northern cod could be strengthened immeasurably by a scientifically credible recovery plan that is entirely consistent with international best practices, such as those adopted for all commercial fisheries in the United States and the European Union. It would also, of course, be entirely consistent with Canadian sustainable fisheries policy, the implementation of which has been slower than perhaps is warranted.
This science-based recommendation carries considerable benefits, I think, from a communication perspective. Management strategies need to be scientifically credible in an international context to achieve fisheries sustainability certification, something of increased importance to all kinds of seafood industries. Management strategies that are transparent and quantitatively based strengthen the ability of society to audit their effectiveness.
This recommendation to establish scientifically credible target reference points and harvest control rules will require a stronger role of science than perhaps what has been evident thus far. This could be achieved, for example, by having science alone determine limit and target reference points, as is done in the U.S. and in Europe.
Once these have been established, harvest control rules might then emerge from discussions with various stakeholders, but they should be quantitative, unambiguous, and well-founded scientifically.
Thank you once again for the opportunity to offer these opening remarks. I look forward to addressing any questions the committee might have as a result.
Thank you for the opportunity to chat today.
My name is Josh Laughren, and I'm the executive director of Oceana Canada. With me is Dr. Bob Rangeley, who is the director of science for Oceana Canada.
We were established in 2015 as an independent charity and as part of the largest international group focused solely on oceans conservation in many countries around the world. Our view is that by restoring Canada's oceans we can strengthen coastal communities, increase economic benefits and nutritional benefits, and secure a future food supply.
To elaborate on that, seafood must be a big part of the solution to feed a growing population. Wild seafood requires minimal fresh water to produce, emits very little carbon dioxide, doesn't use up arable land, and provides healthy and lean protein at a cost per pound lower than beef, chicken, lamb, or pork. When properly tended, our oceans can provide a nutritious meal to nearly one billion people every single day, sustainably.
This view of Oceana about fish as food makes us not just pro-fish, but also pro-fishing. We have copies of a report that we did recently called “Here's the Catch”. You have a summary document, and we have the full scientific report, if you're interested. We think it's the most comprehensive and up-to-date public analysis at this date of fish stocks in Canada. Please don't hesitate to contact us if you have any questions.
Here are some facts we think just about everybody appearing before a committee has agreed upon so far. There are signs of a fragile, but broad-based, recovery for the northern cod stock, which is fuelled in part by an abundance of capelin and improving environmental conditions. This is good news.
The cod fishery of the future will not be the same as the past, and it must be based on quality rather than quantity. The stock is only at about a third or so of the limit reference point, with no certainty about the rate at which it will continue to recover. We must all be careful to safeguard this recovery while planning for the kind of fishery we want to build in the future. These we take as the general points of agreement.
How do we do this? How do we ensure the return of this fishery in the way that we'd like? We have four observations we'll make that will end in five recommendations.
The first, echoing what Dr. Hutchings said, is that there is still no rebuilding plan for cod nearly 25 years into the moratorium. Kicking off the hearings, DFO officials said there was a rebuilding plan, but elaborated that there is a process to develop a rebuilding plan with no set timeline given on it. I believe many of us here around this table—certainly, Bob and I, and the Royal Society of Canada report—have been calling for such a plan for much more than a decade now.
If you comb through all the science and management documents, you'll find that some of the fundamental elements of the rebuilding plan are not in place, specifically, with no rebuilding targets, timelines, or harvest control rules. We also haven't built in the precautionary approach requirements, even for those that are listed as needed under the integrated fisheries management plan for 2J, 3K, and 3L groundfish. DFO has not identified the three status zones, which are “critical”, “cautious”, and “healthy“, with an upper limit reference point. They have not set removal rates for each zone and there are no pre-agreed decision rules that have all been called for.
I want to spend a few minutes on establishing an upper reference point. It's complicated in this case, but it's also totally scientifically achievable. We committed to it under the UN fish stocks agreement. It's required for Marine Stewardship Council certification, for example. It's contentious because it forces us to make some difficult decisions, such as what historical baseline we're going to use for recovery.
After 25 years in, if we have not established a target reference point, then you have to conclude it's because DFO has decided not to do one. Not having an upper reference point is significant and consequential. Here's one point I hope you can remember. Without an upper reference point, the lower reference point, or the limit reference point, effectively becomes the target for rebuilding. You heard that from DFO officials who referenced that as reaching this point, which is the point at which we were never supposed to get to in the fishery, as the stage at which we can all look forward to having a fishery recur, even if modestly again. We hear it when people quote DFO model estimates and assert that we could—and we've heard it—significantly increase the harvest today without much risk of decreasing the stock size, but without reference to how it will affect the stock in getting to where we want it to be.
This is dangerously close to the textbook definition of sustainable overfishing, in which you ensure that the stocks have little chance of ever getting up beyond their depleted state and that they thus vastly underperform with regard to what they should be or could be doing economically and ecologically.
So reaching a lower reference point, the limit reference point, not a rebuilding target, has really come to define success in this fishery. It's a safe bet, we think, that without an appropriate rebuilding target in place, the pressure on the minister to increase the fishery will become just about unstoppable before the stock ever actually gets to that lower limit reference point. If this happens, we again risk squandering that opportunity to really grow the fishery back to a healthy level.
We don't have a rebuilding plan because the Fisheries Act doesn't require one. Canada has few formal rebuilding plans, despite having made a policy commitment to do so. In several cases, for example, for cod and redfish, we allow directed fisheries to continue fishing stocks in that critical zone. The reason is pretty simple: unlike in some other jurisdictions, the law does not require us to rebuild stocks that have been overfished.
Recommendations to FAO, the Royal Society of Canada reports, and research in other jurisdictions all show that recovery is more effective when a recovery plan is legally mandated and automatically triggered at predefined stages.
I know that later in the fall this committee is going to be conducting hearings on incorporating modern safeguards into the Fisheries Act. We argue that there really is no single recommendation that this committee could make that would do a better job of rebuilding cod and other depleted stocks than to amend the Fisheries Act to include a duty to rebuild. We hope we can appear before this committee later on to discuss this at the appropriate time.
Northern cod management is opaque still. It really is impossible for anyone but a determined expert to understand the state of northern cod, current projections, the way DFO is managing current fishing, its objectives, and the way its decisions are made.
I know DFO has noted that all science documents are in the public domain and that's true, but when you look at it, the integrated fish management plan is available only upon request. You have to know where to go to get that, and you really have to forage through all the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat, CSAS, reports and management plans over several years, crosswalking with some of the national frameworks, just to determine what the objectives are, where the gaps are, or even if there is actually a rebuilding plan or if an upper reference point has been set.
Key information used in the decision-making is often withheld, such as what has been called the fisheries checklist, now called the sustainable fishery survey, as we understand. That is not available to the public yet.
We're really encouraged, we have to say, by the commitments to transparency in the minister's mandate letter. There have been early steps taken by the department to better organize information publicly, and we've been calling for the release of the sustainable fishery survey or the checklist as an urgent priority, which we hope to see.
My last observation is that it looks as though we have five to 10 years to develop a vision and plan and to implement it for the future of this fishery. We've heard that if current positive trends continue—and with a rough year for capelin this year, there's no certainty that will be the case—northern cod may reach two-thirds of the limit reference point in three years. That means it will likely be five to 10 years until the stock clears that critical zone where we really should be thinking about a harvest increase.
We wish it were faster, of course, as does everyone, but the silver lining is that we have at least five years to implement a rebuilding plan that outlines the kind of fishery that benefits Newfoundland and Labrador communities.
It has been noted many times that there's a lot of cod on the global market and that to be competitive we need to focus on sustainability and on quality, not on quantity. We've heard a terrific presentation today on that, especially on having years with cod pots and line-caught cod. These are the kind of low-impact years that really should be strongly promoted in a new fishery.
We recognize that with innovation come quantifiable transition costs and that new investment will likely be needed, but the payoff will be substantial. If five to 10 years sounds like a long time, it's really not. We're already 25 years in, so we want to take advantage of the urgency and the ambition arising now due to these positive signs of recovery, to spur the science and the investment to building the sustainable fishery that coastal communities want and that the global market demands.
The observations on the lack of a rebuilding plan, the lack of transparency, the lack of a need for a rebuilding plan, and the opportunity we have to develop the plan for future fishery lead us to five short, specific recommendations. In each case these recommendations are consistent with what has already been committed to by the department but has not yet been implemented.
One, obviously develop a rebuilding plan based on the best available science that includes target reference points, timelines, and control rules, and stick to that plan unless and until new and reliable data comes into play.
Two, ensure we manage carefully for prey availability, especially capelin, and factor in ecosystem considerations like habitat protection and climate change as much as we can.
Three, keep removals from all other sources at the lowest possible level we can, at least until the stock clears that critical zone, and then make decisions that are consistent with the rebuilding targets that we set.
Four, make the rationale for management decisions as transparent as we can, including publishing DFO's sustainable fishery survey or checklist.
And five, invest in and give priority to gear and harvesting methods proven to increase quality and reduce bycatch and other impacts.
We have lots to build on: investing in the reinvestment in science that we've seen, a commitment to openness and transparency, the sustainable fisheries framework to be implemented, and great entrepreneurial developments in Newfoundland.
Every experience around the world shows that when you follow the science and set and stick to targets, stocks do recover, and people reap the benefits. And the northern cod fishery, we do believe, can be rebuilt once again to contribute enormously to the health of coastal communities and global food supply.
Thank you for the opportunity to participate in this exercise.
I've been the co-chair of the marine fishes subcommittee in COSEWIC since 2010. In fact, the first report that I presented to that committee was on Atlantic cod. That was the last report that COSEWIC did on the species. Before that, I was a scientist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and I have had experience on the east and west coasts. On the east coast, I did research in stock assessments on Atlantic cod. I chaired the groundfish subcommittee of the Canadian Atlantic Fisheries Scientific Advisory Committee from 1991 to 1993, and participated in several Atlantic zonal cod stock assessments meetings.
With regard to COSEWIC and what COSEWIC has been doing with Atlantic cod, the current format of COSEWIC was established under section 14 of the federal Species at Risk Act. Its assessments form the scientific foundation for the list of wildlife species at risk under that legislation. COSEWIC's mission is to assess the conservation status of species that may be at risk in Canada, and to report the results of the assessments, including reasons and uncertainties, to the Canadian Endangered Species Conservation Council, the Minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada, and to the Canadian public. COSEWIC uses the best available scientific, aboriginal, and community knowledge to assess species. The assessment process is independent and transparent.
The Species at Risk Act, or SARA, recognizes that conservation of biological diversity requires protection of taxonomic entities below the species level. With this in mind, COSEWIC developed guidelines for recognizing separate populations that are both discrete and evolutionarily significant relative to other populations. Discreteness refers to reproductive isolation caused by physical barriers or behaviour, and evolutionary significance refers to adaptation within discrete populations to differing environmental conditions in their respective habitats. A prime example of this is adaptation to preglacial isolation. If such discrete and significant populations are lost, they would likely not be replaced through natural dispersion. COSEWIC uses the term designatable unit, abbreviated as DU, for such populations.
Fisheries management also recognizes that population structure and species are divided into stocks for management purposes. These stocks are thought to be self-contained, with limited movement between stocks. However, fish stocks tend to be less discrete than DUs, and therefore less likely to develop evolutionarily significant adaptations. In the case of Atlantic cod, where both stocks and DUs have been defined, stocks have been combined into DUs, and no stock has been split between DUs.
That's a bit of background to help with what I will give next, which is the timeline of Atlantic cod assessments by COSEWIC. These have been done three times. In 1998, the species was considered a single unit and it was assessed as special concern. While there were considerable declines in both abundance and distribution of various Atlantic cod stocks at the time, the species was still highly abundant across its Canadian range. It did not meet the criteria for threatened, but it was considered to be special concern, because if conditions persisted it might become threatened.
It should be noted that at the time, research on genetic and adaptive variability among Atlantic cod populations in Canada was in its early stage, and the available evidence did not support establishment of multiple DUs. The assessment was done again in 2003, and Atlantic cod was assessed as four DUs. This change in population structure reflected a considerable amount of new information on variability in genetic discreteness and adaptive characteristics of the species throughout its Canadian range.
The Newfoundland and Labrador DU included the area from Cape Chidley in the north, the Labrador coast, and the Grand Bank off eastern Newfoundland. There are three separate cod stocks in this area: the northern Labrador or 2J stock; northern cod, 2J3KL, which is the main interest in this committee, I understand; and the southern Grand Bank cod 3NO.
There was also an Arctic DU, which was restricted to coastal lakes in Frobisher Bay and Cumberland Sound. This isolation from other Atlantic cod, and very special characteristics of its habitat, qualified it as being both discrete and significant relative to other populations.
There is also a Laurentian North DU that include two stocks, St. Pierre Bank and the Northern Gulf of St. Lawrence, and then a Maritime DU that included five stocks in the Southern gulf of St. Lawrence, Cabot Strait, Eastern Scotian Shelf, Western Scotian Shelf, and the Canadian portion of Georges Bank.
The Newfoundland and Labrador, Laurentian North, and Maritime DUs were distinguished from one another by variation in a number of characteristics indicating discreteness, which comes from genetics and tagging, and significance, which has to do with biological characteristics like age and maturity and also other genetic studies.
The Newfoundland and Labrador DU was assessed as endangered based on an estimated decline in abundance of 97% since the early 1970s, and 99% since the early 1960s. There has been virtually no recovery since the fisheries were closed in 1992 and 1993.
The Canadian government decided not to list the Newfoundland and Labrador DU under SARA, citing management initiatives that were in place under the Fisheries Act that focused on recovery and reducing catch.
Significant native, social, and economic impacts were anticipated related to reductions in other fisheries as the DUs were listed, whereas no mention was made of permitting capture under sections 72 and 73 of SARA, as had been done with both fish species when they were grandfathered under SARA in 2003.
The species was assessed again in 2010. The cod was assessed at that time as six DUs. As was the case in 2003, this change in the number of DUs from four to six resulted from further accumulation of information on population structure and immunity from genetics studies.
What was previously the Arctic DU was split into two, Arctic Lakes and Arctic Marine. The Arctic Marine included marine waters east and southeast of Baffin Island, and these fish seemed to have genetic characteristics more closely related to those of cod in Greenland and eastern Atlantic than to other Canadian cod stocks.
The Maritime DU was split in two—the new Laurentian South DU included the Southern Gulf of St. Lawrence, Cabot Strait, and Eastern Scotian shelf; the new Southern DU included the Western Scotian Shelf and Canadian portion of Georges Bank. These DUs were distinguished by genetics and age of maturity.
The Newfoundland and Labrador DU and the Laurentian North DU were not changed. The Newfoundland and Labrador DU was reassessed as endangered for the same reasons used in 2003. There had been very little change in abundance between the two assessments. The population remained extremely depleted with little sign of recovery. No decision has been made regarding whether the species will be listed under SARA, and it's been six years now since that assessment.
COSEWIC reassesses species at risk every 10 years, and the next Atlantic cod assessment will be in 2020.