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Northern Cod Sentinel Survey – Opening the Door for More Harvester-Led Science 

June 29, 2022

Northern Cod Sentinel Survey – Opening the Door for More Harvester-Led Science 

Inshore fish harvesters raised the alarm on steep declines in Atlantic groundfish in the years leading up to the moratorium, and their concerns were repeatedly dismissed by government. By the time science had caught up to what fish harvesters were seeing on the water, the damage had already been done.

The devastation of the cod moratorium led many inshore harvesters to fight for their seat at the stock assessment table, and over two decades later harvesters continue to play an important role in fisheries science. The harvester-led Cod Sentinel Survey in its 28th year of providing valuable information for the scientific assessment of the northern cod stock. The research project, which was developed by fish harvesters and FFAW-Unifor in close collaboration with DFO, represents an iconic example of incorporating the traditional knowledge and experience of fish harvesters into the DFO assessment process.

Each year, approximately 40 fish harvesters from around the province contribute vital data on catch rates, biological characteristics, geographical distribution, and more. The data collected has provided a long-term index to better understand northern cod around Newfoundland and Labrador and shows the critical role fish harvesters play in the processes for fisheries science.

“The success of this survey is due in large part to the dedication, commitment and cooperation of inshore fish harvesters over these past three decades,” says Keith Sullivan, FFAW-Unifor President.

Derek St. George of Heart’s Desire in Trinity Bay has been fishing for 42 years and has been a Sentinel participant for six years. Derek vividly remembers the moratorium and the changes that have happened in the years since. “Since I’ve been at it, I’ve seen a lot of changes. The fish are getting better, thicker, healthier. The different classes of fish we are seeing, it’s getting better all the time. Hopefully the trend continues,” said Derek.

“The Sentinel Survey is a valuable tool that contributes important information to the assessment process. We first saw the stock growing through the Sentinel Survey in 2J and 3K, and the survey gives us a very good idea of the availability for the fishery,” says Dr. Erin Carruthers, FFAW-Unifor Fisheries Scientist. “I believe that there is opportunity for harvesters to collect even more data that could provide additional insight and a better understanding of the northern cod stock.”

Harvester Terry Turnbull has fished the Penney’s Harbour sentinel site since 1995 and values the sentinel for its role in providing crucial information on the status of cod in the area. “Fish were scarce when I started with this program, and although we still have a long way to go, I believe the sentinel is necessary in continuing to provide important information on cod.”

The sentinel project has welcomed new harvesters to the program as others retire, including Melissa and Jeff Chippett, who fish the Glovers Harbour sentinel site. Melissa says, “The sentinel has already taught us quite a bit about the cod in our area. We’ve learned so much about its distribution that we wouldn’t have been able to in our commercial fishery.” Jeff adds, “I’ve really enjoyed my experience with the sentinel program and hope to stay with it going forward. I’d strongly encourage any harvester to consider inquiring about sentinel.”

The Sentinel Survey represented the first step in the movement towards a more collaborative partnership between fish harvesters and DFO scientists with respect to the collection of scientific data and the incorporation of this information into the stock assessment process. It also represented the first step in the development and delivery of other collaborative Industry/DFO science projects and programs such as the Industry Collaborative Post-Season Snow Crab Trap Survey, the Lobster At-Sea Sampling Program, the Green Crab Mitigation Project, projects on the reproductive potential of groundfish species and various tagging programs for cod and Atlantic halibut.

Any harvesters interested in learning more about the sentinel program can contact Ian Ivany ( or 576-7276) for more information.