Dr. George Rose, the Director of the Centre for Fisheries Ecosystems Research (CFER) at the Marine Institute (MI) of Memorial University, said that the northeast cod seem to be poised for a possible comeback.
Dr. Rose attributes the possibility to the increasing warmth in ocean temperature over the past six years.
Dr. Rose said, “I like to compare the cod there to a medical patients who were just flat lining for the past 15 years. They were not dead but they weren’t doing much alive either – they just existed.
“Now we’re seeing a radical change as the cod are doing much better now - they’re healthier, they’re bigger, stronger and we don’t see the high mortalities of the past 15 years.
“We’ve had incredibly warming conditions over the past six years and we’re seeing a response to that.”
Dr. Rose said that one of the key changes for the cod with the warming trend is that their main food supply, capelin, has also returned with the warmer water conditions. He said that they saw more capelin in the 2012 spring survey than they did in the past 20 years.
“The cod were having a great time feeding like they want to on the capelin as we caught fish glutted with their favourite food. So, we have overcome the first hurdle in seeing a major comeback for the cod as they’re living longer now than before.
“Hopefully, if this is going to translate into reproduction, because that is really what it’s all about, we have to get these fish reproducing at a high level and recruiting a lot of young fish into the system.”
With any news of a possible cod comeback some people start clamouring for a commercial fishery right away without giving the matter real serious attention.
Dr. Rose said, “The biggest challenge the cod face right now is us. There is a cry from a lot of people to reopen a much-expanded fishery from what we have now. I don’t think that’s the right response at the present time. With this first stage of the rebuilding taking place we’ve got to give it a chance to really take hold, to get that rebuilding really taking place before we start going after larger fisheries.
“While you could possibly sustain a small fishery there I think we have to set our sights higher than that. I don’t think people in the fishing industry in the province are going to think it’s wise to just sustain a small fishery that won’t get us anywhere.
“We want to get back to a major cod fishery and in order for that to happen we’ve got to let it happen. We have to let those fish reach their potential and not knock them down before they can do that. If we knock those fish down now chances are we would end up with nothing, and how anyone could think that would be a good strategy to take is beyond me.
“We have seen some good signs for a possible comeback of the Northern cod. This is where our maturity as a society comes in. We have to show a certain amount of restraint here or otherwise we’re going to end up shooting ourselves in the foot again.
“The chances to get some strong recruitment of cod into that system are much better now than they have been for 20 years. When it happens, and I believe it will occur, it will probably take place within a handful of years as we’ll get a strong recruitment and then the stock will really start to grow.
Dr. Rose said that while environmental conditions favor the Northern cod right now, no one can say with any certainty that these conditions will continue in the future.
“We have every reason to expect the trend to continue certainly in the short term. However, we don’t know that for certain and these kinds of intangibles are hard for anyone to predict.”
Warmer water temperatures may not be good for everyone
According to Dr. Rose, while warmer water temperatures may favour northern cod, the same may not necessarily for cod off the south coast of the province. He said that in the spring 2012 survey on the St. Pierre Bank researchers found a large number of silver hake, a fish usually associated with areas further south such as the Scotian Shelf and St. George’s Bank.
“With warming temperatures it may be that fish like silver hake are moving north. We’re very likely to see big changes not only in species composition that we have but also in the distribution of the fish that are presently here.”
The warming conditions may also not be good for snow crab or northern shrimp. He said that there has been little recruitment in the shellfish stocks in the past 10 years or so.