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Risk of Extinction Increases for Cod

When John Cabot arrived on the shores of Newfoundland in 1497, the ship’s crew reported cod fish were so abundant that sailors could scoop them up with buckets. Even years later, English skippers wrote about cod shoals “so thick by the shore that we hardly have been able to row a boat through them.”

Plentiful catches are now the stuff of history books. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) reports cod populations from the Arctic to the Bay of Fundy declining to perilously low levels—by 97 to 99 per cent since the 1960s.

The committee recommends to federal environment minister Jim Prentice that cod be listed as “endangered” on the legal list of species at risk.

Even with reduced catches since 1992, “cod are at such historically low levels that they have gone beyond their tipping point,” says Jeffrey Hutchings, the Dalhousie University biology professor who just stepped down as the chair of COSEWIC. “They may no longer be able to replace themselves in their ecosystem.”

Cod was designated by COSEWIC as a “special concern” in April 1998 with some populations deemed “threatened” or “endangered” by May 2003. But at that time, the government rejected COSEWIC’s recommendation to list the cod as endangered because of “socio-economic” concerns.

(A note about the terminology: species considered “special concern” are those particularly sensitive to human activities or natural events but are not endangered; “threatened” are species likely to become endangered if limiting conditions are not reversed; “endangered” are species facing imminent extinction or extirpation, missing from the wild.)

But Dr. Hutchings believes there may be a silver lining to COSEWIC’s report if the federal government accepts it this time. “Then a recovery strategy would have to be implemented by law,” he says.

“It’s old news that cod are in trouble. It’s been 18 years since the collapse of northern cod stocks,” he says. “The silver lining is if we get determined action by the federal government to make recovery targets, set timelines to achieve those targets and establish harvest control rules.”

The committee, which met last month to assess 51 species at risk, has now assessed 602 wildlife species in various risk categories, including 262 endangered, 151 threatened, 166 special concern, 23 extirpated (no longer found in the Canadian wild), and 13 wildlife species extinct.

With Dr. Hutchings stepping down, Marty Leonard, also a Dalhousie professor, assumes the chair for a two-year term.

Charles Crosby | Newswise Science News
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