N.L.’s northern cod stock moves out of critical zone

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BAY BULLS, Newfoundland and Labrador –

It’s a technical, scientific change: the Limit Reference Point, a key part of the assessment of a fish stock’s health, has been revised.

But for Newfoundland and Labrador’s Fish, Food and Allied Workers (FFAW) union, the implications couldn’t be more clear.

Because of a change in their scientific method, officials at Fisheries and Oceans Canada now believe that Newfoundland’s northern cod stock has moved out of the critical zone for the first time in decades.

“It’s great cause for celebration,” said Greg Pretty, President of the FFAW. “It’s the best news we’ve had in 31 years.”

That’s because the reassessment opens up the possibility of more commercial fishing of the resource — something that’s been heavily restricted since the federal government imposed a moratorium on the fishery in 1992.

“The potential is here now to do it again, and do it properly this time,” Pretty said.

The northern cod stock was a backbone of the Newfoundland and Labrador economy — a culturally-defining resource — before it was fished to the point of near-extinction in the 1990s.Greg Pretty is the president of the Fish, Food and Allied Workers union, a fisheries union representing both fish harvesters and plant workers in Newfoundland and Labrador. He said when he first started working with the union, nearly every community in the province was involved in the cod fishery.

When then-fisheries minister John Crosbie shut down most of the fishery in 1992, about 30,000 fish harvesters instantly lost their jobs.

It was the biggest layoff in Canadian history. Fish harvesters were given $225 a week for 10 weeks to get by.

The moratorium was only expected to last two years, but in the decades since, the northern cod stock never left the critical zone — until now.

Pretty dreams of the possibilities. “Longer seasons, more money in the communities, less dependence on social programs,” he said.

He said fishermen in his union are excited for the future and looking forward to March, when industry groups will get together with Fisheries and Oceans Canada officials and figure out more details about what next year’s fishery will look like.

“It’s not a magic elixir but done properly, collaborated on, this can be a significant financial boost to our province,” he said.

But the road from a restricted fishery to a booming industry will be a long one. Last season, only a handful of plants in Newfoundland and Labrador processed cod fish and they didn’t pay much to the fish harvesters who were selling their catch.

Jason Sullivan is a fish harvester from Bay Bulls, N.L. a community about 30 minutes away from St. John’s, N.L. Sullivan is an outspoken voice in Newfoundland and Labrador and is frequently challenging the political and union leadership on fishery issues.

That’s why fish harvesters like the outspoken Jason Sullivan, from Bay Bulls, N.L., are waiting to be convinced.

“Fuel, now, $2 a litre and bait has gone up five times what it used to be three years ago,” he said. ”It’s just very difficult to make money when you’re still getting prices for fish that you got 30 years ago.”

Aside from fishing, Sullivan also helps run a takeout in Bay Bulls with his brother. Fish and Chips — deep fried cod and a side of fries — is a popular menu item.

“Normally we’re paying around $6.50 or so for fish … sometimes we’re after paying $9 a pound. But what pisses me off about it is that I know that the fisherman that caught that fish only (got) 90 cents,” he said. (reworded to make it read better)

But Pretty points to Iceland, where the fishing industry brands their cod as a premium product as what’s possible in Newfoundland and Labrador.

“All I can say is we got to do it properly … There has to be a plan, it may be a five-year plan or it could be a 10-year plan,” he said.

“We have the potential.”

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