When it comes to cod, there haven’t been plenty of fish in the sea since the great cod stock collapse of 1992, which led to a fishing ban so that the endangered species could recover. But now, European fishers have sabotaged that effort, according to information leaked to the World Wildlife Federation-Canada.
The controversy revolves around cod “bycatch,” which occurs when fishers unintentionally capture cod while trolling for other creatures. In 2008, European fishers were allegedly to blame for 70 per cent of the cod bycatch that occurred off the southern Grand Banks of Nova Scotia, reveals data WWF-C received from sources close to the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization, which manages those waters. That’s 444 tonnes of cod bycatch—way above the 420 tonnes limit that WWF-C had recommended to NAFO in 2007. It says that Canadian boats were responsible for some of the remaining 30 per cent of excessive bycatch.
WWF-C believes that hope is fading for the cold-water fish, whose numbers have barely budged since the early 1990s. “When you see opportunity for recovery and then the management agency and fishers blow that off, that’s a real shame,” says Robert Rangeley, vice-president of Atlantic operations for WWF-C. There is little incentive for fishers to reduce their bycatch, he explains, because the enforcement of limits is weak and penalties are rare. In fact, cod bycatch has its motivations for fishers: “They can make money off it,” say Rangeley, because it can be sold commercially, which is likely what happened in this case.
NAFO won’t confirm the data ahead of its Scientific Council meeting in June, when the agency makes recommendations to the Fisheries Commission on managing the ocean better. But Rangeley hopes NAFO will call for change such as less damaging fishing gear and firm caps on bycatch. “There’s no magic bullet that will reduce bycatch of cod on the southern Grand Banks,” he says.