Aging fleet, broken parts force DFO to cancel northern cod stock assessment

Nfld. & Labrador

30 years after the cod moratorium, DFO said they also won't be able to do a full assessment on the province's capelin stock.

The CCGS Alfred Needler, pictured here, was out of service during the Department of Fisheries and Oceans' species surveying period last year. As a result, an assessment of the northern cod stock has been cancelled for this year.(CBC)

As the 30th anniversary of the cod moratorium approaches, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans says it can't complete research on northern cod stocks because of broken parts on an aging vessel.

Mechanical issues on a Coast Guard survey ship has forced DFO to cancel the assessment of Newfoundland and Labrador's northern cod stock for this year.

The department said it had to make changes to data collection in 2021 due to offshore weather and the condition of its research vessels.

Brian Healey, a division manager with DFO, said one of the two survey vessels normally used — the CCGS Alfred Needler — was out of service during surveying.

"As a result of that, we don't have the full area for northern cod covered. And without having that survey data, we are not able to provide scientific advice in the same way," Healey said.

DFO said in a follow up email, the main problem is "the main fishing trawl winch clutch failed and parts could not be repaired, sourced, installed and tested in time to contribute to the fall survey."

The situation is also affecting research on the province's capelin stock, which will see an update this year rather than a full assessment.

The department says it is confident it can still make an informed decision on quotas, because the northern cod stock is regularly assessed.

"The loss of a data point … is a major problem," Healey said. "But we have many years of data.

"The population seems to have been steady since about 2017 based on last years results, and even with the forecast model last year projected stability into 2022 as well."

For Keith Sullivan, president of the Fish, Food and Allied Workers Union, cancelling this year's assessment is a disappointment.

"It's certainly not good enough," Sullivan said. "Government talks about the importance of science, and this is a fundamental survey for so many species. It has to be prioritized. We have to make sure we're prepared and have all the capabilities to do it."

The department's news release says a mitigation plan is in place to help deal with the change.

FFAW president Keith Sullivan says harvesters could be an asset in filling in gaps of data around the health of the northern cod stock.(Garrett Barry/CBC)

In the meantime, Sullivan hopes any plan will include input from fishermen and harvesters, who he says could likely fill in the data gaps given what they've seen on the water.

"Harvesters have seen good things in recent years with cod and capelin, and we're really expecting increased opportunities with those species this year. Now we're left without harvesters having any input on the science going forward this year," he said.

"I think we're at a pivotal time in that [cod] fishery now, and that's why we were really hoping that this would be a year where we would get a full assessment and hopefully turn the corner."

Healey said both ships should be ready for the next survey window, but will face delays in the spring that he says will being a slight impact to the work.

The department is also working to integrate two new ships into the available group of surveyors, which Healey said are experiencing "growing pains" as they begin work.

With files from Patrick Butler

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