Plan to Put Critically Depleted Northern Cod on a Healthy Path Long Overdue, says Oceana Canada - Oceana Canada

Plan to Put Critically Depleted Northern Cod on a Healthy Path Long Overdue, says Oceana Canada

Press Release Date: April 28, 2020

HALIFAX — Northern cod has been deep in the critical zone for close to 30 years. Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) recently met virtually with representatives from the fishing industry, Indigenous groups, the scientific community and non-governmental organizations, including Oceana Canada, to discuss this year’s fishing quota for the fragile fishery.  

To successfully rebuild this historic fish population to a healthy level, Oceana Canada is urging DFO to complete its long-promised and long-overdue rebuilding plan and ensure fishing is kept to the lowest possible level. “Taking these steps now will help give northern cod a fighting chance to return to abundance,” said Dr. Robert Rangeley, Oceana Canada’s Director of Science. 

“We recognize the value of a Stewardship Fishery as it is an important source of income for communities. Maintaining the same quota as 2018 – a maximum of 9,500 tonnes – would serve this purpose and help correct the harmful decision taken in 2019, when DFO ignored scientific advice and increased the quota by 30 per cent to 12,350 tonnes,” said Rangeley.

Population growth has stalled in recent years as cod face poor environmental conditions due to climate change and declining availability of prey: capelin and shrimp. In turn, this has led to an increase in starvation and cannibalism. 

DFO committed to finalizing a rebuilding plan in 2019. The plan has not been completed and there is no revised date for when it might be. DFO should prioritize the completion of the plan this year.

“While it is essential to keep northern cod fishing pressure low, what is also ultimately and urgently needed is better management, an adherence to scientific advice and a streamlined process for decision-making. A rebuilding plan that meets international standards, which includes a harvest control rule and upper stock reference point, would address these issues – and is long overdue,” Rangeley said.  

With low fishing pressure and favourable environmental conditions, northern cod could recover in as few as 11 years, supporting economic activities worth $233 million in today’s dollars, according to a 2019 economic report conducted by Oceana Canada.

While fisheries management is being conducted in difficult times as a global pandemic puts severe pressure on Canada’s fishing industry, it doesn’t change the dire state of the stock. In fact, it further highlights the importance of preparing for economic uncertainty and planning for a more prosperous future. 

On April 26, 2020, the federal government announced $62.5 million for Canada’s fish and seafood sector in response to COVID-19, money that will go toward protecting workers. We must support communities without endangering the resource upon which they depend.

We can support sustainable management strategies proven to rebuild depleted fish populations, now. This means advancing rebuilding plans, implementing Canada’s Fishery Monitoring Policy and moving forward with strong rebuilding regulations to enforce the amended Fisheries Act. As these more comprehensive approaches to fisheries management are implemented, DFO must keep fishing pressure low on northern cod and all of Canada’s 33 critically depleted fish stocks and complete much-needed rebuilding plans.


Contact: Tammy Thorne, Oceana Canada,, (437)-247-0954

Oceana Canada is an independent charity and part of the largest international advocacy group dedicated solely to ocean conservation. Oceana Canada believes that Canada has a national and global obligation to manage our natural resources responsibly and help ensure a sustainable source of protein for the world’s growing population. Oceana Canada works with civil society, academics, fishers, Indigenous Peoples and the federal government to return Canada’s formerly vibrant oceans to health and abundance. By restoring Canada’s oceans, we can strengthen our communities, reap greater economic and nutritional benefits, and protect our future.

Media Assets

Northern Cod Fact Sheet

• For centuries, Atlantic cod supported massive fisheries, drove economies and fed millions. During the 1990s, most cod stocks collapsed in Atlantic Canada.

• Today, most of the remaining populations, including northern cod, are deep in the critical zone and are assessed as endangered by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). These fish populations are less resilient to factors such as climate change, reduced food availability and predation. 

• Decades after its collapse, northern cod is still without a rebuilding plan to sustainably manage the fishery and support the recovery of its population to the healthy zone.

• Although northern cod continues to be officially under moratorium, total reported landings were 13,023 tonnes in 2017, 9,496 tonnes in 2018 and 10,559 tonnes in 2019. Currently there is no requirement to report recreational landings but estimates from cod tagging data in 2020 indicate that catches averaged 1,900 tonnes annually between 2016 and 2019.

• At the beginning of 2019, northern cod’s spawning stock biomass was less than half the limit reference point (LRP), 48 per cent, which is the number at which the population would move out of the critical zone and into the cautious zone. 

• Although northern cod biomass has increased in recent years (2012-2016), recruitment, or reaching a certain size or reproductive stage, remains relatively low with the recent average at 20 per cent of the pre-collapse period.

• Northern cod currently mature when they reach five years old and can live up to the age of 26, but few fish over 15 years old are seen today. 

• The future of northern cod’s food sources, including capelin and shrimp, are also uncertain. Starvation is a strong component of natural mortality in northern cod.

• To date, there are 33 critical-zone stocks in Canada, only six of which have rebuilding plans. Of these, none meet global best practices for rebuilding plans such as the inclusion of timelines and targets.

• Canada is at a critical moment for managing fish populations. There is tremendous opportunity to rebuild depleted populations and the urgency has never been greater with the ocean being impacted by threats such as climate change, overfishing and pollution.

• If we act now with a strong commitment to sustainably managing marine resources, rebuilding fish populations in Canada can be our legacy.