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  • Writer's picturerryancleary

Ottawa advised to increase 2024 northern cod harvest, but not to lift '92 moratorium that would see commercial fishery reopen to offshore draggers

Lifting the 32-year northern cod moratorium to restart a full-fledged commercial fishery will unleash foreign and domestic offshore factory-freezer trawlers to pound away at the still-shaky stock. Ottawa, instead, should increase the harvest cap under a continued small-scale inshore stewardship fishery strictly limited to gillnets, longlines, handlines, and cod pots.

The stewardship fishery for northern cod is not a formal commercial fishery, and has had an annual harvest cap of 12,999 tonnes since 2021.

Baby steps, in other words.

But the call to resume a commercial fishery has picked up steam since last year when DFO introduced a new stock assessment model that takes in more fishery data extending back to 1954.

The number of northern cod in the northwest Atlantic did not change, but the new paper model elevated the stock's scientific status to "cautious" from the "critical" zone.

While inshore harvesters report significant growth in northern cod, DFO scientists said in their latest update this past March that stock growth has stalled since 2016. (Keep in mind the DFO credibility has been undermined by broken down science ships, missed surveys, years of budget cuts, etc.)

Last year DFO completed a fall northern cod survey for the first time since 2020, but the survey was criticized for being carried out earlier than usual off southern Labrador and the northeast coast.

The way to go is with extreme caution.


SEA-NL recommended DFO not reopen the commercial fishery for northern cod in 2024 or the foreseeable future, and, instead, continue on with the inshore stewardship fishery — albeit with a higher maximum harvest level. 

The FFAW also recommended a continued stewardship fishery — with a 25,000-tonne harvesting cap.

“Now is not the time to allow offshore or international interests access to this fishery," the FFAW said in its submission. (How awkward that the union represents inshore enterprises and workers aboard offshore trawlers?)

In the meantime, the big-boat offshore sector, represented by the Atlantic Groundfish Council, is pushing for a 25,600-tonne quota this year, but under a commercial fishery.

“... this is no longer a stewardship fishery, but rather a commercial fishery," the council wrote in its submission.


Under NAFO rules, foreign fleets get 5% of the northern cod quota once a commercial fishery resumes.

That's reason alone not to lift the moratorium.

The maximum harvest under a stewardship fishery could just as well be 25,000 tonnes as opposed to last year's 12,999 tonnes — considering historical quotas in the commercial fishery have reached hundreds of thousands of tonnes.

The other potential negative of a reopened commercial fishery is DFO has yet to say whether offshore trawlers will be permitted to catch the Indigenous share of the northern cod quota once a commercial fishery resumes.

That backdoor access to northern cod must be closed.


That's another good question.

Continuing with a northern cod stewardship fishery — hand-in-hand with a manageable increase to the maximum harvest in line with processing capacity — is the way forward.

DFO’s track record of turning around commercial stocks following fishery shut downs must also be questioned. 

Despite introducing a moratorium on the 3Ps cod stock off southern Newfoundland in 1993, followed by a reopening of the commercial fishery and quota levels that reached as high as 30,000 tonnes in 1999, that stock has been on its knees for years with a 2023 quota of just 1,346 tonnes.

DFO has never stopped the offshore sector from fishing its share of the 3Ps cod quota, despite inshore enterprise owners warning of the damage it does to the spawning and pre-spawning congregations.

It was just in February that Ocean Choice International announced it was picking up offshore NL groundfish quotas — including northern cod — as part of a deal to sell offshore scallop quota to three Nova Scotia companies.

The company isn't gearing up for the fun of it.

Lifting the northern cod moratorium at this point to allow for the possible resumption of foreign or domestic bottom-trawling would be foolhardy at best and criminally negligent at worst.

But then I'm surprised DFO wasn't sued long ago.

Ryan cleary is a former journalist, Member of Parliament, union leader, and long-time inshore fisheries advocate who’s currently helping to organize a co-operative ( for inshore enterprise owners. The opinions expressed in this blog are his own. Contact him at or call/text 709 682 4862. 

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