ST. JOHN'S, N.L. -- Conservationists are taking issue with this year's annual catch limit regarding Newfoundland's northern cod stock, which federal scientists say is still critically depleted.

The federal Fisheries Department set the catch limit last week for northern cod at a maximum 12,350 tonnes, the same amount as 2019 when the quota was increased by 30 per cent.

Robert Rangeley, science director for advocacy group Oceana Canada, says the decision to maintain the catch limit represents "scandalous" fisheries management in Canada, given the current cod population and lack of a formal rebuilding plan for the species.

"It's nothing less than irresponsible," Rangeley said in an interview Monday.

Rangeley said the current fishing limit is not a solution to the challenges faced by the once-abundant cod population that famously collapsed in 1992, throwing thousands of people out of work and devastating fishing communities in Newfoundland.

"We all want to see this stock regrow. We need to be patient," he said. "You can't fish yourself out of this kind of biological debt."

He said federal Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan is not meeting her obligation to prioritize rebuilding fish populations, a duty outlined in the mandate letter issued to her by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Jordan's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Fisheries Department, known as DFO, has not yet finalized a rebuilding plan for northern cod, which Oceana Canada argues is essential for population recovery.

An audit of Canada's fisheries published by the organization last fall indicated only 18 per cent of critically depleted stocks in Canada had rebuilding plans in place.

And while conservationists are calling for a lower catch limit, the Fish, Food and Allied Workers union is arguing it should be raised.

In a statement last week, the union said the current quota is unfair to harvesters because a full stock assessment did not take place this year due to COVID-19. Union president Keith Sullivan said the province's inshore fishery has been hit hard by the pandemic and the quota is intensifying the pressure.

"A rollover for this year's quota is completely unacceptable and must be reconsidered by DFO before the season opens," Sullivan's statement said. He argued that the northern cod biomass has increased and a modest increase in the quota is justified.

The Newfoundland and Labrador Groundfish Industry Development Council had argued for an increased quota of 14,350 tonnes and said DFO's approach has been overly conservative.

COVID-19 restrictions prevented federal scientists from holding their annual gathering to assess fish stocks, but a "regional science response" meeting was held in April.

During that meeting DFO reported on the results of a fall survey of northern cod biomass, which indicated the population fell within projections from last spring, and it was determined the advice from 2019's assessment was still valid.

DFO's presentation to journalists highlighted continuing concerns from scientists about the health of the stock, which is still considered to be in the "critical zone." The department noted there are signs the stock's growth has stalled since 2016.

The April presentation reported evidence of limited food supply for the fish, including declining prey populations of capelin and shrimp as well as increased cannibalism among the cod. It recommends fishing remains at the "lowest possible levels" until the stock leaves the critical zone.

Oceana Canada had called for DFO to reinstate 2018's quota of 9,500 tonnes this year, to correct the "harmful decision."

Rangeley said fishing mortality is one pressure on the cod population that humans can control and said a cautious approach is necessary for the valuable stock to have a chance at a rebound.

"You can't keep killing the fish and expect the population to grow when they're heavily depleted," he said. "Be patient, wait a few more years, get the house in order in terms of a rebuilding plan, and then we want to see an increase in fishing when the time is right."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 13, 2020.