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January 7, 2011

News analysis: Video spotlights context of disputed cod stock data

 To see Dennis Smeaton's "Tons of Cod Fish" video, referenced in this story, click here.


The scene is Triton, Newfoundland, on Dec. 14, 2010, and the picture is cod, cod, cod and more cod, as far as the eye of Dennis Smeaton's video camera could see.

Tons of Maritime Canada and New England's founding fish are packed into a tight school, bank to bank in the Triton village cove.

A veteran videographer, Smeaton and his neighbors on the dock, employees of the fish processing plant in Triton, are fascinated but hardly flabbergasted by what they're seeing.

It's the pre-Christmas in-shore arrival of hoards of cod — in a sector of the north central Atlantic that some authors and environmental groups insist are fished-out marine disaster areas — a common, though irregular occurrence.

"We've seen in many winters the small dense aggregation of cod in these basins," said John Brattey, a research scientist with the Cod Assessment Group at the Canadian Department of Fisheries in St. John, Newfoundland.

"We're not sure why they do it," he continued, noting that seals or whales might chase them in, as illustrated by a 1996 Smeaton video of a trio of humpback whales having their way with a school at the same proximity to the town dock — close enough to touch.

Even at a moment when cod stocks in the Triton section of the Atlantic are at near historic lows — about 10 percent of the size of the stocks in the 1980s — and total landings were barely 3,000 tons, events like the one Smeaton captured on video are hardly rare.

"We see it most winters," Brattey said in a telephone interview, even while emphasizing that the return of such concentrations of cod to Newfoundland and Labrador are no sign the once-great schools have been fully restored.

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