Two weeks ago I was in Newfoundland at a meeting reviewing the dismal state of our Atlantic cod; the same species that once supported the most productive fishery in the world. Although it's been nearly 20 years since the announcement of a harvest moratorium on Atlantic cod, the populations have not rebuilt.
When comparing the health of Canadian Atlantic cod with the NHL standings you would find that most of the 10 managed stocks are equivalent to the Ottawa Senators — that is, somewhere near the bottom of the league and on a losing streak. A couple of stocks are on short-term rebuilding trajectories and with luck may make the playoffs in the next decade. Only one stock is teetering around making the playoffs, similar to the Toronto Maple Leafs. No Quebec Nordiques yet.
In fisheries jargon, a "Limit Reference Point" is roughly equivalent to making the playoffs. The LRP is the minimum stock size required before a modest harvest can be considered. Ideally you want your fish stocks to be the equivalent of the best teams in the NHL like the Vancouver Canucks but at the very least making the playoffs.
Why Atlantic cod have not recovered continues to be debated. Fingers point at oceanographic conditions, grey seals, continued fishing, bycatch of cod, foreign fishing, decline in prey, and the list goes on. Some argue cod have recovered, saying there are more than ever and it's the science to monitor the populations that is inadequate.
The science is actually quite good or at least probably as good as it gets in fisheries. There are regular systematic surveys that have been in operation for decades and several dedicated scientists. While counting fish is an imperfect science, the surveys and associated analyses do pick up trends of the stock. And these analyses show that stocks are in very poor condition. All populations of Atlantic cod have recently been assessed as "endangered" by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC); the science arm of the Species at Risk Act.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) has recently developed a policy initiative called the Sustainable Fisheries Framework. Part of this policy is a requirement for each fishery in Canada to develop a LRP. If the health of the stock is below the LRP, then removals from all sources must be kept to the lowest possible level. That would suggest no directed fishing, something DFO has failed to impose since the moratorium.
The Leafs have not won a Stanley cup in the last 43 seasons due to a system of poor decisions, forethought and perhaps just bad luck. Similarly, Atlantic cod has not recovered in 20 years. Over the next 12-24 months, DFO will be required to make significant conservation-based decisions to promote the recovery of Atlantic cod. With good decisions and cooperation from Mother Nature, we might see Atlantic cod make the playoffs again.