ST. JOHN'S, N.L. -- The precious northern cod population off eastern Newfoundland and Labrador has increased slightly, but fisheries officials say they are still concerned about the critical state of the stock.

A federal report released Tuesday said northern cod's spawning stock biomass -- fish that can reproduce -- was higher than predicted last year, representing a four-per-cent bump from 2018.

The stock is currently assessed at 48 per cent of the limit reference point, meaning it is about halfway out of the fisheries department's "critical" zone.

Biologist Karen Dwyer of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) said this year's rise surpassed negative projections after further study of 2017's mortality numbers.

The report also said the stock's natural mortality rate -- meaning deaths unrelated to fishing -- has declined since 2017.

Despite the incremental good news, Dwyer said the department advises keeping cod removal at the "lowest possible levels" until population numbers clear the critical zone.

The commercial cod fishery, once the backbone of the province's fishing industry, collapsed and was placed under a moratorium in 1992, throwing thousands out of work and sparking protests.

Northern cod has a long way to go to get back to population levels of the 1980s but Dwyer said the signs of improvement leave little evidence to support the common perception that hungry harp seals are depleting the stock.

The Canadian Sealers Association called for an increased seal hunt last year to protect the cod and caplin stocks.

Dwyer said Monday that by comparing cod's natural mortality rates with the rising harp seal population, there's no discernable relationship between the two, suggesting the cod predators have little to do with the stock's overall fate.

"The fact is that this cod stock has started to improve and has shown significant increases over the time period where harp seals have been very high," Dwyer.

The report said there is a 63-to-73 per cent possibility that the stock will be greater in 2022 than it is today, but only a six-to-nine per cent chance that it will reach the limits of the critical zone by that same year.

The Fish, Food and Allied Workers Union issued a news release saying the numbers suggest a sustainable, responsibly managed cod fishery is possible in the province.

"As northern cod markets rebuild, modest increases in the harvest rates can simultaneously build capacity on land without having any significant impact on the growth of the stock," the statement from FFAW-Unifor president Keith Sullivan read.

"As it stands, the way DFO is managing this fishery will leave the inshore harvesters and coastal communities shut out of the fishery of the future."