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COMMENTARY: How and Why We Fish (Part 1)

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In Cod We Trust.

A fitting statement when, several years ago in 2015, northern cod surprised everyone as new research cautiously showed the stock making a “comeback.” At play perhaps was a warmer ocean, which bode well for capelin, in turn helping cod. Frugal wild fisheries management may have also helped, said researchers, as Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) maintained its lower catch limits (while the 1992 moratorium on cod continues, DFO operates a northern cod stewardship fishery).

By 2017, the same researchers were calling on DFO not to ramp up the northern cod fishery. Without a long-term stock-rebuilding plan (and at the time, no annual stock assessment), DFO was steadily increasing northern cod quota—from 4,000 metric tonnes (t) in 2015 to 10,000t in 2016 and 13,000t in 2017. While the initial findings from the 2015 research appeared promising, the researchers warned the cod stock was “still well below historical norms.” Further research showed a need for continued cautious optimism. Meanwhile, DFO’s 2016 assessment also predicted cod numbers were going up, but the same assessment carried out two years later showed any comeback had stalled, with the cod spawning experiencing a 30 per cent decline.

DFO responded by lowering the cod fishing quota to 9,500t in 2018, but raised it again to 12,350t in 2019. The 2019 decision came within days of the Government of Canada announcing promising revisions to the Fisheries Act. The amendment included new protections for fish and their habitats—a sensible policy not yet realized in practice. This was evidenced by DFO’s decision to increase the quota for northern cod despite scientific evidence (including their own) on the health of the stock. It’s further evidenced by the limited nature of the discussion. It’s inadequate to focus on stock science or “population dynamics”—what Jennifer Telesca, an assistant professor of environmental justice in the Department of Social Science and Cultural Studies at Pratt Institute in New York City calls “[t]he king of all science in fisheries management today.”

As Telesca puts it, stock science is not about species protection and recovery so much as it “is designed to inventory the number of ‘wild’ fish in stock so that managers may determine strategies for profitable exploitation.” In her forthcoming book, Red Gold: The Managed Extinction Of The Giant Bluefin Tuna (2020), the scientist rightly asks: “If experts have at their disposal sophisticated techniques to count sea creatures, then why have many fish stocks still crashed?” In the case of bluefin tuna—an ocean giant rapidly and nearly exterminated because of its value as a global commodity (sound eerily familiar?)—focusing on the stock has ignored other major factors at play in the species’ demise “such as warming water temperatures’ ocean acidification, floating (micro)plastics, and the accumulation of toxins such as mercury from coal burning and iron mining.”

Mark Kurlansky’s latest book, Salmon: A Fish, the Earth, and the History of Their Common Fate (2020) draws a similarly finding. Why is it, Kurlansky asks, that even in the North Atlantic where there’s no commercial fishery for Atlantic salmon, the salmon stocks keep declining? Salmon present a particularly interesting case, plagued by the woes of human intervention at sea (like those mentioned) and on land (for example, poor farming practices, pesticide use, deforestation and damming of rivers). But Kurlansky boils it down to a dominating factor—the role of climate change in upsetting the ocean’s capacity (or what’s called “carrying capacity”) to feed ocean life.

The same ocean warming that may have created favourable environmental conditions for northern cod and capelin leading up to 2015 cannot and did not last. Back in 2018, DFO scientists rightly noted the decline in cod stock as reflective of a wave happening across the marine ecosystem—with cod’s food sources like shrimp and capelin down, cod were, in effect, starving. The bottom-up causes (such as lack of food and poor conditions) likely depleted cod’s numbers more so than top-down causes (predators or overfishing). In the North Atlantic Ocean, scientists speculate that the warmer environment will continue to limit the food production species depend on to survive, while pushing many species north to colder waters. Today, no marine species (right down to the phytoplankton) is anywhere near its historical levels of abundance. And of the two-thirds of marine stocks in Canada that are considered in a cautionary or critically depleted zone, the majority of those deemed critically depleted are Atlantic groundfish like northern cod, reports Oceana Canada in their 2019 Fisheries Audit.

We must use the stock science not solely as values to assess our ability to continue doing what we’ve always done—garner as much “biowealth” as we can from the oceans while we can—but to ask what we must do differently for fish and their habitats to truly flourish once again. Certainly, there’s rationale to limit fishing during this critical period, but we must move beyond our usual conversations to reconsider the ways we fish. For example, could we consider a graduated approach in the commercial fishery to replacing gillnet—Newfoundland and Labrador’s cod-fishing method of choice—with more sustainable methods like baited handline, yielding higher-quality catch, while reducing bycatch? Doing so would bring back a 350-year-old practice that encouraged a natural equilibrium between fishers and fish.

Our much-cherished cod jigger, designed to look like capelin, was introduced by merchants so fishers could catch cod no longer taking bait. If fishers could guarantee catch, then merchants could guarantee incomes. Fishers were skeptical of the innovation at the time, as reported in Managed Annihilation (2010) because it removed a measure of self-preservation for the fish—to wait until they were hungry to take the bait.

Cod pots are yet another sustainable method, designed to keep the fish alive once trapped. Additional measures can reduce the role lost or ghost-fishing gear plays in fish removals, for example, commercial fishers could use biodegradable escape panels and rings in cod pots, while also tagging their pots, requiring them to report lost pots and issuing a limited number of replacement tags. Taking these steps would set us on fillet-over-fish-stick (quality over quantity) model, where fishers are paid a good price for cod (today, most fishers are paid less catching cod than they did pre-moratorium). Making use of as much of the fish as possible to reduce fisheries waste is also along these lines of sustainable practice.

Taking these steps—none of them novel and some already in practice, by the way—will help us move beyond our dominant thinking, valuing cod as stock (strictly as populations and commodity), to valuing them as living beings, for their very existence. Kurlansky writes, “If salmon doesn’t survive, there’s little hope for the survival of the planet.” Let’s place our attentions to putting our modernized Fisheries Act into modernized practice. Yes, the fishery is facing an unprecedented blow, as with many industries during this global pandemic. But if not now, then when? We can no longer take a blind trust approach—in cod or what only the stock science tells us. While we have a renewed policy in hand, we must reassess the ways we fish and our reasons for fishing too.

The authors use northern cod as the exemplar, having both penned books about the demise of northern cod and its fishery (Cod Collapse, 2019 by Thornhill Verma; and Managed Annihilation, 2010 by Dean Bavington), however the arguments here apply more broadly. Stay tuned for Part 2 (Cod as Food: A Counterpoint to Cod as Solely a Commercial Commodity), where The Independent explores the reasons we fish.

Photo provided by Jenn Thornhill Verma.

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