Will the PERT Report Highlight Our Fishery?

By Barry Darby and Helen Forsey

*(Published in The Independent, April 30, 2021)*

The following is a slightly condensed version of a December 3, 2020 submission on the fishery to the Premier’s Economic Recovery Task Force.

While it is unclear when a report (interim or otherwise) from Dame Moya Greene’s Economic Recovery Team (PERT) will be released, our question is: Will it highlight the fishery as the key element it is for the Province’s recovery from the current perfect storm?

We have little way of knowing what most of the input has been to the PERT so far. The lack of transparency has been noted repeatedly, with only bits and pieces emerging as people or groups report on their meetings with Dame Moya or parts of her Team. Equally fuzzy is the path for citizens to follow in order to provide such input, as no contact information is given for the Team. The Terms of Reference merely suggest that anyone interested should offer their views through the online EngageNL portal; however, submissions there “will not be accepted … until after the caretaker period concludes following the 2021 provincial election.”  

Fortunately, we had a special opportunity to submit our suggestions several months ago, after Helen’s critical Sept. 9th letter to the media gained Dame Moya’s attention and led to a phone call. We were hoping for some sort of follow-up, but since that has yet to happen, we think it’s now time to make what we said public. The following is a slightly condensed version of our December 3, 2020 submission to PERT.


The Fishery – Key Element of NL’s Economic Recovery

This submission to the Premier’s Economic Recovery Team focuses on the fishery as a critical element of our economy and society, where recovery measures can be taken at zero cost to the Province. This paper sets out the framework for some specific recommendations, which are discussed and then listed at the end. The changes proposed here will not cost the Province a penny; in fact, many of them should result in modest reductions in expenditures and/or increases in tax revenues.

The fishery and provincial responsibility

The fishery, in all its aspects, is central to the life, economy and culture of Newfoundland and Labrador, and it must also be central to the work of the PERT. As our centuries of harvesting have proven, the rich marine life in our waters constitutes an economic resource that can sustain thousands of people and their communities. Moreover, unlike oil and gas or minerals, the life of the ocean is renewable – and the fisheries it supports can and must be as well.

Although fishery management comes under federal jurisdiction, provincial silence on this front is not an option. Our fishery sector needs the full attention of the Newfoundland and Labrador government if it is to thrive and optimize its contribution to our economy in the near future and beyond. The Province must treat the fishery as one of its top priorities, not just leave it with the federal government, where it too often takes a back seat – neglected, mismanaged or traded off in favour of other federal agendas. For our provincial government to abdicate its proper role in this crucial area is the height of folly.

[To quote from] a recent article:

…’The Province’s governing parties have apparently given up on the fishery, choosing instead to focus on hydro and offshore oil – two bets that they are now losing. The government’s downgrading of the fishery’s importance to the province has been reflected over the past several years in the changes to the name of the corresponding ministry: from “Fisheries and Aquaculture” to “Fisheries and Land Resources” to the present “Fisheries, Agriculture and Forestry.” This puts what once was (and still should be) the mainstay of Newfoundland and Labrador’s society way down the priority list, tucked in with a struggling forest industry and a small but valiant farming sector. Meanwhile, our fishing communities continue to struggle for survival.’

When asked recently about the controversy over the caplin harvest, Premier Furey reportedly brushed off the question, saying, “Sounds like a federal issue.” But that’s not good enough. Dr. Furey is now the premier of this province, and there is nothing more important to the economic and cultural survival of Newfoundland and Labrador than the fishery. The provincial government must take a much greater role in regard to this crucial sector, actively representing our interests and asserting our collective point of view as Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.

It’s true that the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans is constitutionally in charge of the entire wild fishery – research, planning, management, harvesting, costs and revenues, harbours, environment, safety and more – as well as sharing jurisdiction over aquaculture. This appears to leave processing, marketing and harvester certification to the Province, but overlap and complexities limit provincial powers even in those domains. When things like trade agreement requirements, environmental regulation, foreign ownership, corporate concentration, or food safety are involved – as they often are – provincial jurisdiction is less than complete even where it theoretically holds sway.

These factors represent a major challenge, but they are not insurmountable, and giving up is not the answer. The fishery is what Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have been doing for hundreds of years, and we should demand that our experience and recommendations carry the corresponding weight in decisions at the national level.

What must the Province do?

Given all the factors noted above, [we] offer the PERT some suggestions for recommendations to the provincial government regarding the fishery. These fall into two categories:

  • A. Measures the Province can implement directly, within its own exclusive jurisdiction, and
  • B. Actions the Province can take towards achieving needed changes in matters of federal and shared jurisdiction that are vital to Newfoundland and Labrador.

A. Actions on fishery matters within exclusive provincial jurisdiction

1. Stop micro-managing

Our provincial government must seriously take on its political and moral responsibilities towards this rich renewable resource of ours. Instead, it seems to be trying to compensate for its relative powerlessness on the water by imposing the wrong kind of control on land. For years it has been micro-managing the processing, marketing and farming of fish in ways that favour big corporations at the expense of local small busineses, harvesters, and the rest of us. That has to stop. The government must step back from elaborate efforts at control, which stifle local initiative and community enterprise. In particular, it must remove existing bureaucratic and regulatory barriers to the local construction or expansion of processing facilities, so that entrepreneurs or existing companies can make their own business decisions, raise their own capital and take their own risks. The government should also stop obstructing harvesters’ direct fish sales to consumers, and encourage small-scale artisanal processing by harvesters. If unnecessary barriers are removed, diversification and innovation can thrive and contribute to the Province’s treasury.

2. Stop spending public money on private enterprises

In regard to government expenditures, the Province must end public subsidies, loan guarantees and investments that hand over taxpayer dollars to fish processing and aquaculture companies. It must also end tax breaks that do the same by reducing provincial revenues. We need profitable businesses to employ workers and provide much-needed taxable income, but well-managed businesses make their own profits and should take their own risks. It is not government’s job to pick winners and losers or to prop up private enterprise with public money.

3. Inhibit transshipment for processing elsewhere

In addition, the provincial government must use every means at its disposal to discourage transshipment of whole fish for processing elsewhere. NL’s Minimum Processing Requirements (MPRs) are supposed to restrict this, but they are inadequate and subject to many exemptions, and CETA may make the problem worse. Under current practice, our port facilities and cold storage plants can continue to be used to enable companies to ship our ocean harvests out of province. This may serve corporate interests, but it robs Newfoundland and Labrador’s workers and entrepreneurs of important economic opportunities, and cheats government coffers of what should be provincial income.

4. Maintain support for small coastal communities

The coastal communities and indigenous people of Newfoundland and Labrador are the carriers of the traditions and knowledge that have sustained them for generations. Our governments, both provincial and federal, need to recognize the economic and social potential of that fishery-related knowledge, located in small, resilient communities scattered along our coastlines in geographic proximity to the resource. With appropriate government policies and continued support for infrastructure and services, people in such localities could capitalize on those inherent advantages to establish community-scale enterprises that would be innovative, efficient and profitable. The Province should help by actively encouraging fishery co-operatives, local entrepreneurs and community-based initiatives.

5. Encourage consumption of local fish and seafood

With the ocean at our doorstep, fish and other marine life should constitute a major element of food security in Newfoundland and Labrador. However, various inappropriate policy and regulatory barriers prevent most people from drawing on these vitally important food sources. Our province has a high level of food insecurity, yet our per capita fish consumption is low in comparison with other ocean nations. The government should facilitate direct sale of fish by harvesters to consumers, which is still hampered by unnecessary restrictions. It should also explore further ways to encourage and enable greater utilization of our own marine food sources to build food security across the province.

B. Actions on fishery issues in federal and shared jurisdictions

6. Take an assertive, united stand vis-à-vis Ottawa 

Our provincial leaders must kick their bad habit of leaving the fishery to the feds. We have a unique point of view on fishery matters, and our legislators and government must keep it strong and visible. We must be proactive with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, advising them on an ongoing basis as to how we think they should do what they are constitutionally charged with doing – i.e. managing the fishery. In the past, on other fronts such as oil and gas, Newfoundland and Labrador has taken a much more assertive stand with the government in Ottawa – with some success. As we begin our process of economic renewal, the Premier, cabinet and all provincial parties should agree to confront the federal government with a united voice, and to work with our neighbouring fishing provinces to demand long-overdue action on the Atlantic fishery by the federal Minister.

7. Press DFO for effort-based fishery management

What should that federal action look like? A paradigm shift is urgently needed in how we approach fishery management, particularly in regard to harvesting. Barry Darby’s innovative proposal to start replacing the current quota system with one based on fishing effort, which may initially have seemed unrealistic, now appears to be gaining some traction among informed people fed up with the endless litany of mismanagement, buck-passing and denial that we see so much of in DFO. Harvesters, coastal communities and the fish stocks themselves would benefit in multiple ways from a transition to effort-based management, instead of the current slavish adherence to a quota-based approach that clearly doesn’t work. That transition is a key policy shift that the Province should be pushing the federal government to consider for implementation.

8. Improve professionalization and labour market policies

The Province should work with the federal government to update and improve the policies and procedures regarding the fishery workforce, in order to maximize the efficiency and sustainability of the sector. It is essential to ensure that all professional harvesters have the right to fish commercially, that only professional harvesters have that right, and that new entrants are trained and certified. Likewise, labour market policies must foster employment and self-employment in the fishery, and creatively address the challenges of labour shortages, seasonality, and an aging workforce. Specific measures towards these ends are proposed in Barry Darby’s “Changing Course – A New Direction for Canadian Fisheries“, cited above, and inA Future for the Fishery – Crisis and Renewal in Canada’s Neglected Fishing Industry“, by Dr. Rick Williams (Nimbus Publishing, Halifax, 2019).

9. Aim to maximize net economic returns

The goal of our economic policy in regard to the fishery should be to maximize the net economic returns to the people of fishing communities, while ensuring sustainability both for the resource and for the sector itself. Assessing both provincial and federal policies and proposals through this lens will enable a multitude of direct economic and social benefits and spin-offs to accrue, as good ideas are developed and implemented and mistakes prevented.

10. Ensure full involvement of community people

The men and women of Newfoundland and Labrador – especially harvesters and their communities – must be directly involved in developing and implementing the necessary measures at all levels to restore the incredibly rich renewable resource that Canada took over from us decades ago, ensuring that its benefits flow to those who work and live from it. Their wisdom and experience are a resource whose value cannot be measured in dollar terms, but without it, economic recovery could not work.

Summary of recommendations for the Province:

  • Make the fishery a top priority for the province’s economic recovery. Strengthen the capacity and profile of this key sector by restoring it to full status under a Minister of Fisheries and Aquaculture. Reassert the provincial government’s role in maximizing the fishery’s economic and social benefits to our people.
  • Stop micro-managing the processing, marketing and farming of fish and other seafood. Facilitate construction and expansion of processing enterprises by removing unnecessary licensing barriers and allowing them to make their own business decisions. Stop obstructing direct fish sales by harvesters to consumers.
  • End public subsidies, investments and tax breaks for processing and aquaculture companies. Implement and enforce major restrictions on the transshipment of whole fish for processing elsewhere.
  • Maintain infrastructure and services for small coastal and indigenous communities to enable them to build prosperous futures with their own marine and human resources.
  • Provide technical and advisory support to encourage fishery co-operatives and community-based initiatives that enhance the value and viability of the sector. Develop policies to increase local utilization of our own seafood resources, enhancing NL’s food security.
  • Work across party lines to develop a united voice wherever possible for dialogue with the federal government on key fishery issues. Press the federal government to actively consider transitioning to effort-based fishery management (see www.barrydarby.com/the-proposal/)  
  • Work with the federal government to develop and implement optimum professionalization measures and labour market policies for the fishery. Prioritize the goal of maximizing net economic returns to the people of fishing communities and to the provincial economy, and apply this lens to both provincial and federal policies.
  • Ensure that the men and women of fishing communities are fully represented and listened to in fishery-related policy development at all levels, to maximize fairness, practicability and effectiveness.

Thank you for the opportunity to contribute to the important work of your Team.

Gaps and Assumptions in Fisheries Management

By Helen Forsey

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash.

The following letter by Changing Course‘s Helen Forsey was published in the February 2022, issue of The Navigator.

Dear Editor,

The Navigator managing editor’s overview of the Oceana Fishery Audit in the January issue was welcome and invites comment.

I agree with the Audit’s assessment that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ (DFO) management of our fisheries leaves much to be desired, and I support Oceana’s goal of improving it. However, I would challenge certain basic elements of its approach that reflect the same mistaken assumptions that DFO’s management itself is shaped by.

First, “rebuilding” fish stocks is a problematic concept. Computer models, targets and timelines do not make rebuilding happen, and putting them into a “plan” is just playing to our delusion that we are in control. We humans cannot rebuild nature, let alone plan it. What we can do is allow nature to rebuild itself, and support that process.

Part of that support will certainly involve applying both good fisheries science and Indigenous knowledge, and it will definitely require a genuine ecosystem approach. The ocean is not a farm and fish do not live in separate species-defined silos. Some o four problems come from treating them as if they do.

As part of our marine ecosystems, human harvesters play a role as apex predators, but large-scale industrial fishing has distorted that role into something that is too often destructive. If we focus our fishery policies on managing effort – the who, how, when and where of catching fish – then we can limit or eliminate those destructive practices and enable sustainable harvests.

Another problem with the current output-control approach (quota-based management) is the assumption that we can count or measure the amount of fish in the sea. But we can’t. All efforts to do so have massive margins of error in their results. The vulnerability of all marine life to climate change only magnifies these uncertainties, making computer models and targets based on past estimates even less applicable.

What we can and should measure is what gets caught, including bycatch, most of which occurs in the large-scale fisheries. Instead of trying to micro-manage the so-called “recreational” food fishery with its miniscule proportion of the harvest, we need to focus on countering the waste and damage done to our fisheries and our marine environment by big industrial players.

The gaps in Canada’s marine fisheries management might be reframed as the gap between a new approach based on ecosystem realities, Indigenous wisdom and effort controls, and the current computer-modelled, quota-based approach that has shown itself time and again to be destined to fail.

Helen Forsey

St. John’s, NL 

Echoes – Newfoundland Outport Fisheries and Indigenous Traditions

By Barry Darby and Helen Forsey

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash.

The abstract and conclusion below are excerpted from an article submitted for an e-book on small-scale fisheries in Canada, to be published in 2022.

Abstract: This article argues the need for a fundamental shift in fish harvesting policy and practice in order to build future sustainability for the marine environment and fisheries. The new paradigm must prioritize small-scale fishing, and be re-envisioned in accordance with the traditional understandings and approach of Indigenous peoples. It must incorporate and apply the local knowledge and methods proven in Indigenous communities and in Newfoundland and Labrador’s outport past.

The authors describe features and characteristics of both Indigenous and outport harvesting traditions, highlighting how both contrast with the present-day large-scale industrial approach to fishing. They note how, despite fundamental differences, outport and Indigenous traditions sometimes echo each other, and suggest that those echoes represent valuable insights.

Based on those insights, they urge a shift to a predominantly small-scale fishery that effectively recognizes human harvesters as part of the ecosystem. It should operate in a framework of respect and reciprocity with “all our relations” as Indigenous traditions teach, draw on the practical knowledge and harvesting methods that enabled a sustainable outport fishery in Newfoundland and Labrador’s past, and implement the lessons shared by both sets of traditions.

Conclusion: Large-scale industrial fishing is not only environmentally unsustainable, it is also inefficient in economic terms and counter-productive socially. Seeing a dragger arrive in Burin with 500,000 lbs of cod, Barry’s Uncle Frank commented: “Dere’s enough fish in ‘er to keep two or three families going for a year, but all the crew’s getting is two weeks’ wages.” Caught between a rock and a hard place, and “managed” by DFO, Newfoundland and Labrador’s inshore harvesters were steered into destructive compliance on the margins of the industrial model.

Like industrial agriculture, industrial fisheries are part of the toxic legacy of patriarchal Western renaissance ideas about controlling Nature. The very term “fisheries management” embodies this approach, which has been thoughtfully challenged at a fundamental level elsewhere. The ongoing depletion of marine life worldwide is the result, echoed by parallel disasters in forests and farmlands.

If we want a viable future for ourselves and all our relations, we must step off our current destructive path and choose a better way. There are signs that can be done. In Ardoch, Algonquins and their allies still harvest their rice from canoes and “dance” it to edible form. In Fogo and Petty Harbour, harvesters catch top-quality fish by handlining in gillnet-free zones. But it will take more than that.

Indigenous prophesies describe our era as that of the Seventh Fire, a time when humanity must choose what path we will take into the future. Setting the course for fisheries will be part of that choice, and for that, the wisdom and knowledge of traditional harvesters will be essential.

That knowledge is of two very different kinds. The local knowledge and traditional fishing methods of the non-Indigenous people of the outports, proven through several centuries of sustainable harvesting, can be relearned and adapted for continuing use. But it is the other vast knowledge system – the Indigenous understanding of the natural world and humans’ place within it – that must form the indispensable framework for applying the specific local and practical knowledge of both Indigenous and outport harvesters.

Hope lies in using the marks of our Indigenous and outport past to set a course based in respect and reciprocity, to navigate safely and to harvest honourably the stormy waters of the future, listening through the fog for the echoes that can tell us how.

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash.

Driving to Central – A Fisherie’s Analogy

By Barry Darby

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash.

Is it an impossible job that DFO is tasked with in setting harvesting quotas? That’s something I’ve claimed in arguing for a different system for managing ocean harvesting, but it’s time to examine that assertion further. What exactly is it that’s impossible?

The numbers in DFO’s stock assessments for 2J3KL cod over recent years show a large variance. Spawning stock biomass (SSB) values in 2018 were listed between 304 and 418 kilotonnes (kts), and in 2019 between 306 and 518 kts. Other key factors such as natural predation, food supply and the stock’s age composition lead to further variability in estimating what yield would be sustainable. Moreover, there is a broad range of opinion as to what percentage of SSB is the correct one for calculating a sustainable harvest.

Let’s take a look at a simple example of the practical mathematics of variance in a non-fishery context. Suppose you have to travel from the Burin area to Central Newfoundland next week, a distance of 400-500 kilometres. You’ll be travelling at 80 – 120 km/hour. How long will it take you to get there?

A little bit of math will show you that you might possibly make it in as little as 3 hours and 20 minutes, but it could take you as long as 6 hours and 15 minutes.

This analysis leads to three conclusions:

  1. There is no exact answer to the problem.
  2. There is a range of possible answers that can inform your planning.
  3. There are many answers outside that range that you know are wrong: e.g., You can’t do it in two hours, but it won’t take you ten.

Now let’s apply the same process to harvesting 2J3KL cod. Comparable cod fisheries in Iceland, Norway, and pre-moratorium Newfoundland and Labrador show that sustainable harvesting rates vary widely. A conservative estimate based on the known information would suggest that harvest rates of between 10 and 30% of SSB can be, and have been, sustainable.

We know we have an SSB of between 300 and 500 kts of Northern Cod in 2J3KL. A bit of math shows that an appropriate harvest from this stock could be as low as 30 kts (10% of the lower estimate) or as high as 150 kts (30% of the higher estimate.)

Again we can draw three conclusions:

  1. There is no exact answer to the problem of how much to harvest.
  2. There is a range of possible answers that can inform our planning.
  3. There are many answers outside that range that we know are wrong: e.g., We shouldn’t catch 200 kts, but 12 kts is way too low.

Quota-based management (QBM) fails and will continue to fail because it requires exact answers to the question of how much fish to harvest. No matter how complex the modeling, it is simply not possible to determine a correct Total Allowable Catch from which to allocate the resulting quotas. From the efforts to calculate the Bmsy (Maximum Sustainable Yield) in the 1970s, and the use of F0.1 in the ’80s, to DFO’s new “harvest decision rule” of 2020, no system will enable us to do the impossible.

Quota-based management will continue to disappoint, and worse. We will either overfish as we did in the 1960s, or underfish as we are doing now. With the current system, we are harvesting less than we sustainably could – and in fact should, to help keep stocks in balance with the carrying capacity of their habitats. DFO needs to stop trying to achieve the impossible and start implementing a better way.

DFO’s Magic Machine – Science into Practice

By Helen Forsey (May 2021)

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash.

“Everything we do is science-based.” That’s the standard response of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to doubts or criticisms about how they manage our fisheries.

Well, my B.Sc. degree doesn’t make me a scientist, but I do have enough scientific background to know when science is being applied and when it is not. And a lot of what DFO does in fishery management falls into that latter category.

The Department’s website, news releases and interviews constantly reiterate their claim that all their policies, plans and regulations are determined by “the science.” Of course, calling it “the science” tends to give the impression that fisheries science is one big homogeneous entity with no uncertainties, no disconnects and no disagreements – which if course is nonsense. But even apart from that, their claim is suspect.

Yes, DFO employs highly qualified fishery scientists who do a lot of valid and important work in a complex and challenging field. Their competence and dedication is not in question. The problem is something else entirely – the linkage between the science and the practice. Understanding that linkage – what it is and what it should be – goes a long way toward explaining why crises persist with our fish stocks.

This problem is two-fold. First is the question of how the scientific work gets converted into the management policies that govern fish harvesting. The second is how those policies in turn determine what scientific work the Department will undertake or pay attention to.

On the first question, the process by which DFO translates its science into policy and practice is never explained or even really questioned. How do their scientific studies, stock assessments and computer models metamorphose into management policies, allowable catches, quotas and harvest plans?

Apparently we’re supposed to believe that “the science” translates flawlessly into sustainable practice simply because they say it does. Is there some mysterious mechanism that reliably produces coherent and practicable harvest plans out of the scientific raw material fed into it? I can picture DFO functionaries pouring “the science” into a big funnel, through which it passes into some kind of magical machine, and – Presto! – out the other end come the required fishery policies, regulations and harvest plans.

Now that obviously can’t be how it happens. There is no magic machine that translates “science” into management plans by some invisible process. Instead, it is the people in the management system – the DFO fishery managers – who do that translating. They receive the scientific information, and then analyze and interpret it using the lenses the system provides them with.

Like the imaginary machine, the actual process is also invisible, making it a challenge for critics to zero in on what is wrong. But a closer look shows that DFO’s translation of science into practice is based on and bounded by the assumptions inherent in the Department’s management system, which revolves around quotas.

As fishery policy analyst Barry Darby explains in his paper, Changing Course, quota-based management is a form of output control, setting total allowable catches and quotas for each stock. What’s wrong with that? It’s unworkable because it imposes a supposed “solution” – TACs and quotas – without first properly identifying and analyzing the problems it’s meant to solve. In other words, it puts the cart before the horse.

When you start from the assumption that only a quota system can prevent overfishing, all the science fed into the process is analyzed through that lens and translated on that basis. The only questions asked are how much fish is there, and how much we can harvest. This can lead to massive errors in policy.

For example, if “the science” reveals a scarcity of cod, DFO applies a policy of “keeping removals as low as possible” by reducing TACs and quotas. But if the scarcity is caused by starvation due to an insufficient food supply, keeping removals low is exactly the wrong thing to do. In fact, reducing the catch will leave more fish competing for the limited food available, leading to an increase in natural mortality and perhaps in total mortality. The result – as we have been seeing in 2J3KL – is continuing stagnation of stock biomass and poor condition of the fish.

What would help in that case is the opposite policy: to relieve the pressure on the stock by increasing the catch, using selective harvest methods to target the middle-sized fish so as to allow the older, larger, fecund fish to thrive, reproduce prolifically and actually grow the stock.

The second issue is closely related. Not only does science influence policy, but the policies chosen also effectively determine what science will be done. When DFO’s overarching policy is focused on controlling the amount of fish caught, the Department will naturally develop and support the types of scientific study and analysis that help them do that. Unfortunately, that policy marginalizes other types of research which are deemed irrelevant to the quota-oriented framework.

The linkage between science and policy is not a one-way flow; it must incorporate the feedback loops that good management and good science provide. Stock assessments and data collection are only part of a whole range of reality-based scientific work. Science for sustainability needs to go well beyond the kind of quantitative material that shapes computer models and reference points; it must prioritize exploratory studies and innovative research and analysis that can inform more workable and sustainable policies.

Freed from the constraints of a policy framework that sees allowable catches and quotas as the only way to achieve sustainability, fisheries scientists could explore a full range of potential causes of a problem like decreasing stock biomass or poor condition of individual fish. The resulting scientific findings could then be used to adjust policies, regulations and harvest plans, which when implemented by harvesters would in turn provide feedback and information for corrections and improvements, and provide the basis for follow-up and related science.

That is the kind of fishery governance we need – a system based on the recognition that ends and means cannot be separated. If our fundamental goal is a sustainable marine environment and a sustainable fishery, then regulating the “whos, hows, whens and wheres” of fishing effort is far more relevant than calculating computer-modeled reference points in order to predetermine allowable harvest numbers.

In the fishery, the means largely determine what the ends will be. Our current system of quota-based management imposes a narrow definition of fishery science – one that limits our ability to see and understand what is really going on in the ocean and what we can do about it. That same quota-based system also demands a narrowing down of goals to fit numerical structures and targets – arbitrary measures of success which have in fact led to decades of failure.

But we can change this. Instead of pretending that “the science” is all-inclusive and that it automatically leads to sustainable fishery management, let’s recognize that there is no magic machine. Let’s push for a policy framework that supports and uses the whole range of relevant science. Then we will be able to develop and refine practical policies and harvest plans that respect the dynamic nature of the marine ecosystem, and honour our role as human predators in keeping it truly sustainable.

PERT Fails the Fishing Sector

By Barry Darby and Helen Forsey (June 2021)

Photo by Jeff Smith on Unsplash.

Changing Course

The small Fishery section of “The Big Reset” is profoundly disappointing. It presents a biased and superficial picture of the sector, implicitly belittling the importance of the fishery to our province’s economy and society. Of the 300-plus page PERT report, the wild fishery occupies a scant seven pages, with just two recommendations out of the total of 78 (five out of 179 if you count sub-recommendations.)

The report demonstrates a vast ignorance of and indifference to the fishery. Despite the wealth of information and ideas easily available in the public domain, the Team did not do its homework. The report’s 82-page Bibliography contains references from various organizations involved in oil and gas, hydro, and mining, but cites almost no fishery-related sources: there is nothing from the Marine Institute, the Association of Seafood Producers, the Fish Food and Allied Workers (FFAW), the Canadian Council of Professional Fish Harvesters (CCPFH), or even the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), which governs our entire fishery. Not surprisingly, then, the authors show almost no understanding of the realities of our fishery or its context – for example, the considerable difference between the economics of a processing plant and the economics (bioeconomics) of ocean harvesting.

The pro-corporate, pro-industrial, “bigger is better” bias that permeates the whole report is clearly predominant in the fishery segment. As a framework, it presents two contrasting “visions” for the future of the fishery – “a highly capitalized industrial approach with higher incomes for fewer participants,” versus “a more traditional lower capitalized industry with more plants and more seasonal work supported by EI.” This is a false dichotomy – one of those simplistic set-ups that misrepresent complex issues as either/or choices, thereby excluding from the discussion the rich diversity of possible alternatives. The authors are then able to disparage one view (in this case, the “traditional” one), leaving the other as supposedly the only option – one that fits beautifully with the PERT’s overall approach.

The report disparages the way the Employment Insurance system operates and its effect on harvesting. The relevance of this criticism at the provincial level is questionable, since EI is a federal system and harvesting policy is a federal responsibility. But in any case, fish harvesting, like tourism and agriculture, is subject to seasonal limitations, not only in NL but across the country. So of course workers will turn to EI; that’s what it’s there for.

Moreover, where EI impacts NL’s fish processing sector (provincial jurisdiction), the short employment periods result directly from DFO’s establishment of particular harvesting seasons for each species and the province’s refusal to permit multispecies processing by all fish plants. But the report does not reflect the distinctions among jurisdictions or the structural problems that arise from them.

It is unreasonable, to say the least, to imply that we should change our fishery so that EI would not be part of it. It’s not as if there aren’t sensible and informed proposals out there about what could be done to meet these challenges. Rick Williams’s book, “A Future for the Fishery – Crisis and Renewal in Canada’s Neglected Fishing Industry” (Nimbus, 2019), addresses the EI question specifically and in detail, together with an in-depth analysis of the labour market issues in the Atlantic Canadian fishery. But Williams’ book, like other pertinent sources, is not listed in PERT’s Bibliography.

Two of the five recommendations in the report’s fishery segment – rebuilding NL’s fisheries for future generations and taking the lead in research and management – fall into the motherhood category, and mainly in federal jurisdiction. Two other recommendations are mutually contradictory: one calls for increased fish processing, while the other recommends that no new processing licenses be issued.

The remaining recommendation, for equal custodianship of our marine resources with the federal government, was a rallying cry in the 1990s, but has since been largely abandoned as constitutionally unrealistic. Nonetheless, the point is well taken – the Province must indeed strengthen its voice on fisheries issues, push the federal government to listen, and demand that our experience and advice carry their due weight in DFO’s decisions.

Beyond those five, however, the report’s recommendations on the fishery are most noticeable by their absence. The authors make no recommendations at all on what appear to be some of their key points. For example, they criticize the current harvester-processor collective bargaining model, calling it “anti-competitive by nature” and claiming it ignores quality and other market considerations and can be disadvantageous to plant workers. They applaud transferable quotas and market-driven supply chains, and refer to fish auctions, yet they do not recommend anything. It would have been helpful if they had proposed more balanced and workable collective bargaining mechanisms (such as the single-desk selling used successfully in some agricultural sectors) instead of, in effect, condemning collective bargaining itself and leaving it to government to replace it with something unknown.

The report refers to better fishery management in Iceland and Norway, but again makes no recommendations. This despite the fact that Gus Etchegary of the Fishery Community Alliance met with Dame Moya and attempted to convey to her and her team the clear and feasible recommendations the group has been making publicly for months if not years. Notably, last October, they wrote to Premier Furey urging that a delegation of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians with in-depth fishery expertise visit Norway and Iceland to explore the problems with the North Atlantic fishery, discuss how they do things there, and come back to advise our governments. Surely PERT could have recommended that?

The recommendation to reinstate the threshold requirements for processing licenses is particularly baffling. “The Big Reset” is very big on privatization of government assets and activities. Fish processing is already a private sector domain, yet the report is urging the government to reassert its involvement in this business, right down to defining who can process what species, where a plant can be built, and a host of other requirements laid out in the provincial Fish Processing Licensing Act.

There are also some clear distortions of the facts. In regard to northern cod, the report states that “spawning stock biomass has dramatically declined and current values do not [reach] the minimum needed to support a commercial fishery.” However, figures for the past several years show a relatively stable estimated 400,000-tonne biomass, while annual removals barely exceed 2%. In the past we sustainably harvested 20-40% annually, and that is still the case in similar stocks in Iceland and Norway. It is obviously ridiculous to suggest that our current 2% represents overfishing.

Elsewhere, the authors confuse correlation with causality, stating that higher landed prices for snow crab were the result of “collaborative behaviour” between harvesters and processors, when it was simply that the world price went up. In regard to the labour supply, they suggest that efforts to increase employment opportunities by favouring the labour-intensive inshore fleet represents a contradiction with the use of temporary foreign workers in fish plants. But harvesting and processing are two very different labour markets, and there is no contradiction involved.

The report’s authors are critical of DFO’s recent prohibition of controlling agreements between harvesters and processors. They claim this inhibits vertical integration, and “removes any mechanism for processors to maintain security of supply,” without which, they say, the processors have trouble accessing capital. This may be another case of conflating correlation with causality, but if that’s a problem in this time of very low interest rates and excess capital, surely it’s not up to the government to solve it. And harvesters should not have to submit to outside control in order to access operating capital.

In conclusion, the fishery segment of the report starts from a series of faulty assumptions, proceeds without reviewing a diverse range of sources or checking its facts, imposes its pro-private sector leanings and ignores alternative analyses. Shallow and biased, this report leaves the government, the fishery and the public worse off than before.

The Capelin Conundrum

By Barry Darby (June 2021)

Capelin are almost as controversial, in fishery circles, as they are essential in Newfoundland and Labrador’s marine food chain. The call in March by WWF-Canada, Oceana and the NunatuKavut Council for a ban on the capelin fishery, and the vigorous responses from the FFAW and the Association of Seafood Processors, highlight the need for a solution that everyone involved would be able to live with.

On the one hand, WWF and Oceana recommend we stop fishing the capelin stocks, whose numbers they see as being dangerously low. NunatuKavut has for several years been advocating an end to the commercial capelin fishery, citing obvious stock declines and ecosystem changes. On the other hand, the union, the processors and DFO say the fishery’s impact on the stock is minimal, and urge that the harvest continue. With important pros and cons on both sides of the argument, I want to suggest a way forward that could not only resolve the capelin conundrum but also benefit other stocks and our fishery sector as a whole.

Let’s start with the recognition that our province has a local need for these little fish to be harvested. The greatest need for capelin is as bait for other fisheries. As well, capelin is needed as part of our traditional and indigenous cultures, as food for local consumption and fertilizer for our gardens. (The best ones for fertilizer are probably the dead ones on the beach, which are already partly dehydrated.) Some capelin is also used as feed in the province’s aquaculture industry. So there are multiple reasons why I would dispute the demand for a total ban on harvesting capelin.

However, we do not have an actual need for the commercial capelin roe fishery, whose product is for export only. We could end the roe fishery and still harvest the capelin we need here in Newfoundland and Labrador. That could largely resolve the serious problems being pointed out by WWF, Oceana, NunatuKavut and also many harvesters, who see the mass removal of capelin, especially the egg-bearing females harvested for roe, as damaging to the ecosystem and to the many other species that depend on these forage fish.

Here is a way we could continue harvesting capelin to meet our own needs while protecting the stock: change the system of harvest management to one based on effort instead of on quotas. Effort-based management (EBM) controls input rather than output. For example, an effort-based capelin fishery might allow each commercial harvester to begin July 1, and harvest five or six days a week during daylight hours, using a castnet. In addition, from a date in late July and into August, any four harvesters might operate a single beach seine with a maximum length and depth. With these less “efficient” gear types, there would be no need for a quota, and harvesters could catch as much capelin as they could sell.

Such effort-based management rules would result in a number of positive outcomes, first of all for the capelin. These “slow fishing” methods could never catch all of them. Those caught by castnets would have already spawned a considerable quantity of eggs, leading to more offspring. If capelin were scarce, fewer harvesters would target them since they could earn more income elsewhere in the fishery. Since processors would not want large quantities of spent females, fewer capelin would be bought. Moreover, since capelin are already arriving at our beaches quite late in the year as compared to previously, we should do what we can to favour the survival and reproduction of earlier spawners. A delayed seining season would help accomplish this, as the capelin caught then would be late spawners that would otherwise likely produce late spawners in the following year(s).

As for the question of whether the fishery as currently conducted damages the capelin stock significantly, DFO maintains that it does not. As a short-lived species, the capelin stock is subject to wide fluctuations, depending on environmental conditions, and is unlikely to be severely impacted by the removal of a relatively small percentage of its total biomass. However, as Professor Bill Montevecchi points out in the Northeast Avalon Times, not only is the roe fishery targeting the next generation of capelin, it also ends up killing many more fish than the catch numbers indicate. Fish are discarded when purse seiners net more than they are allowed to land, or when the proportion of large females does not meet the criteria set by the processors.  

Another crucial unknown is the potential damage that the current level of capelin harvest could be doing to other species that depend on capelin abundance. Before returning to address that question, let me first challenge the assumptions behind the near-unanimous call for more capelin research.

Of course we need to do more research, but the research needed takes time, and we cannot afford to wait before making decisions. Action is required now, not in 2022 or 2023.

More fundamentally, as NunatuKavut President Todd Russell asks, “What are we doing that extra science for, and what are we doing it on?” WWF, Oceana, FFAW, ASP and DFO all seem to be assuming that the research is needed to answer the question of how much capelin can or should be harvested – in other words, to define a Total Allowable Catch and the corresponding quotas. But that question cannot be answered by more research on the capelin stock – for two reasons.

First, as anyone familiar with stock assessments knows, those assessments come with a built-in 20-25% margin of error. Secondly, there is no scientific consensus as to what percentage of a given stock should be harvested. Without knowing those two critical pieces of information, it is simply impossible to set an accurate TAC.

For striking evidence of this impossibility, look at the history of cod stocks. Nearly 30 years after the moratorium, and 65 years after DFO took charge of our fisheries, their stock assessment for 2J3KL cod still has an error rate of around 25%, calculated on the basis of their own data. As for the correct percentage of the 2J3KL stock to harvest, in recent years DFO has set a TAC of just 2-3%, when historically we have safely harvested 15-30% annually, Iceland harvests 26%, and the Barents Sea harvest is at 40%. The math is clear: for a stock of 400 kts, the “correct” harvest amounts could turn out to be as low as 6 kts (2% of 300 kts) or as high as 200 kts (40% of 500 kts.) How much use is that for planning sustainability?

In order to arrive at a TAC in such an impossible situation, DFO uses a system that fishery managers have labeled a “Precautionary Approach Framework” (not to be confused with the very different “Precautionary Principle” as understood by conservationists.) The “PA Framework” is implemented by taking stock data from some earlier time period, setting certain percentages as dividing lines between “healthy”, “cautious” and “critical” categories, and then applying computer models and formulas to the latest stock assessment figures to come up with a TAC.

Again, how much use is that for planning sustainability? We have seen the unfortunate results with cod and other stocks. Yet it is that same framework that WWF is now proposing for managing capelin.

The idea that the capelin problem can be solved by more research and a “Precautionary Approach Framework” is thus pure poppycock. Capelin research must not continue the futile pursuit of a Total Allowable Catch; it has to be focused on solving the real and ongoing questions around capelin in the marine environment, the food chain, and our Atlantic fishery.

A major one of those questions, as noted earlier, is about the potential damage that the continuing capelin fishery could be doing to other species that depend on them for food. In order to best utilize and preserve the existing capelin stock, we should consider a more innovative approach: harvest more of the capelin’s greatest predator – cod. Cod consume many, many more capelin than we harvest, and they are able to intercept the spawners on their way to beaches and other spawning grounds long before we humans deploy our seines. With many cod already starving, harvesting some of them would help relieve environmental pressures on the stocks of both species.

Here we come back to effort-based management. A cod harvest based on effort would focus on taking the younger adults, those in the 45-70 cm range, by using mainly baited gear such as handlines, longlines, pots and traps. Removing 15-20% of the cod stock in this way would allow more capelin to reach their spawning grounds and improve the prospects for producing more capelin biomass in the coming years.

Besides enabling us to wisely harvest many more cod than we currently do, the increased selective harvest under this effort-based system would also benefit the cod stocks. With fewer cod competing for the available food, the remaining ones would be healthier, produce more eggs and more viable ones, and grow a core biomass of BOFFFs (big, old, fat, fecund, females) so that the cod stock itself would be able to rebuild over time when conditions were right. Harvesters, processors, and coastal communities would also benefit. Increasing the cod harvest, even to just 15% of the biomass, would supply five more plants the size of Arnold’s Cove.

According to DFO’s data, 30-50% or more of our cod biomass could be currently dying of starvation. When we consider that, the decision is staring us in the face. Let’s catch more of those cod before they die – and leave more capelin in the water to spawn their next generations and keep replenishing the food chain.

The solution to the capelin conundrum is neither an outright ban nor a continuation of the status quo. Instead of being forced to choose sides in a false “either/or” framing of the issue, we have the opportunity to make a third choice – to apply effort-based management to capelin and cod, and to the marine ecosystem that they – and we – are part of.

NunatuKavut’s Todd Russell calls for “the political will to make a management decision that is in the best interests of the capelin, of other fish species, of the ecosystem generally, and at the end of the day, the best decision for fishers and harvesters.”

That works for me.

When Is a Plan Not a Plan?

A Response to DFO’s Cod Rebuilding Plan (December 2020)

By Barry Darby and Helen Forsey (March 2021)

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash.

For years there have been calls for DFO to develop a “Rebuilding Plan” for our Northern Cod stocks. Leaving aside the larger question of whether it is even possible for humans to “rebuild” wild stocks, we want to look at what the Department finally came up with just before Christmas to supposedly satisfy those calls.

The federal “Rebuilding Plan” as presented by DFO begins with four overviews – a biological synopsis, an overview of cod fishery, stock status and projections, and socio-economic and cultural importance. These four sections occupy over half of the document. It then briefly lists “Management Issues”, with one paragraph each on natural mortality, fishing mortality, the recreational food fishery and incidental catch – almost entirely without supporting numbers. The three-paragraph section that follows, “Objectives,” names one short-term and one long-term objective, expressed in general terms and without timelines, which it states are impossible to set. The seventh section, “Management Measures”, finally gives some idea of their actual intentions, which we will assess below. The document closes with brief notes on access and allocation, shared stewardship, compliance and evaluation.

The Oxford Dictionary defines a plan as “a detailed proposal for doing or achieving something.” Presumably those pressing DFO to come up with a plan for rebuilding the cod stocks were looking for an actual proposal detailing what the Department intended to do. What they got instead was a 6000-word justification for continuing the same policies that have been failing spectacularly for decades, decorated with some ill-defined targets and some new bells and whistles in the form of graphs and quadratic equations.

Surely a rebuilding plan has to include actions, not just desired outcomes. Although one might question the idea of humans “rebuilding” a natural growth process in a wild environment, we can take actions that will encourage such processes by removing obstacles and helping create better conditions for that growth to occur.

I have a garden, for which I make plans each winter. Right now I am pondering what to do about my carrots, which failed to grow well last year. The actions I plan to take to help rebuild my carrot crop will include vigorous weeding to reduce competition and discourage pests. Fishery action equivalent: allow fish harvesters and others to hunt seals, and for a longer period (and see if demand follows supply.) I will feed and water my carrots so that they get all the nourishment they need. Fishery action equivalent: reduce the effort on the caplin stock so that more can spawn and more food is available for the cod. Finally, I will drastically thin my carrots when they are small to allow the remaining ones to grow. Fishery action equivalent for 2J3KL; use passive, selective gear (handlines, long lines, cod pots and traps) to harvest 40-80 kt of cod annually rather than the current 10-12 kt, so as to catch a greater proportion of smaller and middle-sized fish and leave the larger, more productive fish to thrive and reproduce.

The Cod Rebuilding Plan has been rightly criticized for being “vague” and lacking detail, and for having been produced and sprung on us without proper consultation. But it’s not just vague and arbitrary; some of its elements defy common sense. As Jim Baird pointed out on the Broadcast, if seals are harvesting 30-some percent more cod than we are, then why does the plan focus on reducing our harvest while ignoring the seals? And if our caplin fishery is taking 20,000 tonnes of food out of cods’ mouths while cod are starving, why are we not planning to suspend the commercial caplin harvest to help the cod stocks recover? Shouldn’t a rebuilding plan be sensible?

Moreover, as a scientific document, the so-called Plan is sorely lacking in scientific rigour. For one thing, it regularly omits or obscures clear quantitative facts, even facts that are readily available. The Plan’s biological synopsis, for example, states that “Evidence suggests that predation pressure is not a major driver of 2J3KL cod population dynamics, but rather that population has been primarily driven by food availability (especially capelin), and by fishery removals.” No actual numbers are given; words are used instead, and the words are deceptive. DFO’s own recent stock assessments show natural mortality (M) as being ten to twenty times as high as fishing mortality (F). Clumping fishery removals and scarce food availability together in this way as primary drivers of cod populations is thus misleading at best.

That is only one example of the places in the document where numbers would make (or break) the argument. The fishery overview section does cite numerous quantitative facts regarding harvest rules, landings, TACs, recreational and indigenous fisheries, but gives zero figures on the context – the size of the stock during the periods discussed. Numbers would likewise have been useful to compare predation with food availability factors, to back up the brief discussion of natural mortality in the “management issues” section, and to at least set a framework for the plan’s targets and timelines. In this context I am tempted to agree with nineteenth-century British scientist Lord Kelvin’s assertion that when you cannot express something like this in numbers, it is not science.

The section on “management measures,” gets rather short shrift, comprising only 15% of the document and coming near the end. However, it is the only one that deals with action of any kind. The first and most detailed measure listed – and the key to implementing the entire “plan” – is the “Harvest Decision Rule (HDR)”, designed to “provide structure around the inter-annual landings change” for the stock. Translation: Keep removals as low as possible.

The HDR involves a complex theoretical calculation, based on equally theoretical “reference points”, arbitrary percentages and the postulated relationships between them. It is presented in a graph showing a gentle S-shaped curve, with points along it from which fishery managers can derive the answer to the question: What will be the Total Allowable Catch for the year?

In DFO’s current system, where quotas are the basis for all harvest management decisions, the TAC is the central and indispensable figure from which all the corresponding quota allocations are derived. Setting the annual TAC is a perennial problem, requiring knowledge of the stock biomass and a choice as to how much of it should be harvested. The estimated size of the 2J3KL cod stock for the last four years has varied between 300 and 500 kt., and there is no consensus on an appropriate harvest percentage. Historically in Newfoundland, Norway and Iceland, annual catch rates have ranged successfully between 10 to 40%. Given this variability, coupled with uncertainty around predation, climate, food supply (capelin) and other factors, it is clearly impossible to obtain any reasonably reliable number for a TAC. We could call it an unknown known.

The creation of a complex mathematical process that will spit out an answer when supplied with hypothetical numbers will not make the answer any more known. But that is what the HDR is supposed to do. It represents a variation on the old theme of Maximum Sustainable Yields and related attempts by DFO over the years to predict the unpredictable and use it as the basis for their entire harvest policy. And it is no more viable than the efforts that preceded it.

Also under “management measures”, however, is the one hopeful part of the document – a list of several effort-related restrictions around gear types, bycatch, and marine conservation areas, as well as monitoring. The restrictions cited are relatively modest and most have already been in place for some time. But in addressing the “who, how when and where” of harvesting, they point towards the kind of change that could actually lead to a rebuilding of our cod stocks.

In conclusion, DFO’s Christmas cod rebuilding plan leaves much to be desired. Paraphrasing Lord Kelvin again, it may represent the beginning of knowledge, but the knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind. What we need instead is a science-based action plan that would shift the focus of harvest management from imposing TACs and quotas to regulating fishing effort. Let’s push for that.

Do Fish Carry Passports (and Does it Matter)?

By Helen Forsey (January 2021)

Photo by SGR on Unsplash.

Fish and other marine life have inhabited the rich waters off the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador literally from time immemorial – millions of years before humans even appeared on the planet. Fish were around when the continental collisions formed the Island of Newfoundland; fish provided sustenance for the ancient ancestors of Inuit and First Nations peoples; fish drew Europeans to our shores 500 years ago – barely a moment in geological time.

So a mere 70 years ago, on the eve of April Fools, 1949, when Newfoundlanders and Labradorians like my father inadvertently “performed the monstrous and unnatural feat of becoming native-born Canadians,” the fish would not have noticed.

But that fateful date nonetheless marked an irreversible turning point for the fish as well, whether they were aware of it or not. When Newfoundland agreed to the federal government’s take-over, the fishery was already changing dramatically, with rapid advances in harvest and processing technologies, ever-larger vessels with increasing range and power, and the ongoing unequal contest between small coastal communities and profit-hungry corporations. After Confederation, the decades that followed saw the near-destruction of the cod fishery and the “fishing down” of many of our other stocks. Today, those processes continue, enabled – now as then – by the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, DFO.

This ongoing disaster, some would say, is being not just enabled, but actively aided and abetted by DFO. Certainly the Department bears the largest share of responsibility for what is happening. After all, the feds are in charge of the entire wild fishery – research, planning, management, costs and revenues, harbours, environment, safety and more. Though this theoretically leaves processing, marketing and harvester certification to the Province, overlap and complexities limit provincial jurisdiction even in those domains. Moreover, federal jurisdiction generally trumps provincial when things like trade agreement restrictions, environmental regulation, foreign ownership, corporate concentration, or food safety are involved.

It doesn’t help that the province’s turn-and-turn-about governing parties have apparently given up on the fishery, choosing instead to focus on hydro and offshore oil – two bets that they are now obviously losing big-time. The government’s downgrading of the fishery’s importance to the province has been reflected over the past several years in the changes in the name of the corresponding ministry: from “Fisheries and Aquaculture” to “Fisheries and Land Resources” to the present “Fisheries, Agriculture and Forestry.” This puts what once was (and still should be) the mainstay of Newfoundland and Labrador’s society way down the priority list, tucked in with a struggling forest industry and a small but valiant farming sector. Meanwhile, the fish – and our fishing communities – continue to struggle for survival.

For me, all this raises the question of citizenship for the fish in our adjacent waters. Are they Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, or Canadians, or both? If they’re citizens of this province, shouldn’t the provincial government be taking some responsibility for them – or at least showing some interest? When asked recently about the controversy over the caplin harvest, Premier Furey reportedly brushed off the question, saying, “Sounds like a federal issue.” That sounds to me like a politician evading responsibility by playing jurisdictional ping-pong. But Dr. Furey is now the premier of this province, and there is nothing more important to the cultural and economic survival of Newfoundland and Labrador than the fishery.

The waters the fish inhabit are not just Canadian waters, and nor are the fish just Canadian fish. Let’s look at the caplin more closely through this lens of piscine citizenship. Admittedly, the little silver fish can be considered Canadian while swimming in the ocean, at least within the accepted international 200-mile limit. However, once they roll on our beaches, they switch jurisdictions, performing “the monstrous and unnatural feat” of becoming Newfoundlanders and Labradorians with their dying gasp. At that moment they and their eggs are transformed into simply another “land resource” for the Province to do with as it wishes.

Perhaps that’s why the caplin have been delaying their arrival longer and longer into the summer. Perhaps citizenship is a major political issue for them, with continual debates on aquatic social media and fierce divisions during their pre-spawning aggregations. Maybe the caplin leadership wants to ensure that the next generation will be seen as loyally Canadian, hoping DFO will then pay attention to their plight and end the decades of neglect and abuse. But many of those at the eelgrass roots may want their offspring to be spawned in Newfoundland and Labrador, in the hope that the Province will finally take charge and allow their youth a more natural life, not one ended prematurely by a rapacious commercial harvest. (Is that why caplin colouring sometimes shows tints of pink, white and green, but never maple-leaf red?)

Of course, maybe neither caplin nor cod give a flying flick of the tail about their citizenship. They may not care – but we should. Dual citizenship ought to confer the advantages of both jurisdictions. We need to demand that our national and provincial governments start taking their shared responsibility for the fishery seriously and taking real action, not only for the survival of the fish stocks and other marine life, but also for the well-being of the human communities that live in symbiosis with the sea.

What might that look like? On the federal level, we need a paradigm shift in the approach to fishery management, particularly in regard to harvesting. The idea of replacing the current quota system with one based on fishing effort was initially seen as wildly radical and unrealistic, but it now appears to be gaining some traction among informed people fed up with the endless litany of mismanagement, buck-passing and denial that we see so much of in DFO. Harvesters, coastal communities and the fish stocks themselves would benefit in multiple ways from a transition to effort-based management instead of the current slavish adherence to a quota-based approach that clearly doesn’t work.

Meanwhile, our provincial government still seems to be trying to compensate for its relative powerlessness on the water by imposing the wrong kind of control wherever it can on land. For years it has been micro-managing the processing, marketing and farming of fish in ways that favour the big corporations at the expense of the rest of us. That has to stop. As well, the Province must end public subsidies and investments in processing and aquaculture companies, actively discourage transshipment of whole fish for processing elsewhere, remove bureaucratic barriers to the local construction or expansion of processing facilities, stop obstructing direct fish sales by harvesters to consumers, and encourage fishery co-operatives and community-based initiatives.

All of us here in Newfoundland and Labrador need to echo the call by Gus Etchegary, Shane Mahoney and others, and push our provincial leaders to kick their bad habit of leaving the fishery to the feds. The Premier, cabinet and all provincial parties should unite to confront the federal government and demand long-overdue action on the fishery. Newfoundlanders and Labradorians – especially harvesters and their communities – must be directly involved in developing and implementing the necessary measures to restore the incredibly rich renewable resource that Canada took over from us decades ago, and ensure that its benefits flow to those who work and live from it.

As for our fellow dual citizens – the piscine variety – well, they will sink or swim according to how well we humans fulfill our obligations to restore a prosperous and sustainable fishery off our shores.

Redfish, Bonanza or Boondoggle

By Barry Darby (October 2020)

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash.

The history of Newfoundland and Labrador is replete with stories of our people’s ability to deal with hardship. Stories of disasters and bravery form the basis of how resilient we know ourselves to be.

What is less celebrated is the catalogue of historical events where we have failed to transform our great advantages, opportunities and natural wealth into sustainable economic and societal growth. In fact, we have often been quite adept at “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory”.

Our forest industry, which once employed thousands, is now a shadow of its former self. The Churchill Falls hydro-electric complex was built on time and within budget, but its benefits have flowed to others. Offshore oil has precipitated us into a situation where we are now the most indebted province in Canada. And we have witnessed the near-destruction of one of the greatest fish stocks in the world.

The ocean has been our history, and now it is presenting us with a possible new bonanza. A massive stock of redfish (ocean perch) has grown in areas 1 and 2, comprising the Gulf of St Lawrence and the wedge of ocean between Nova Scotia and the south coast of Newfoundland. Newspapers and scientific reports describe this stock as “unprecedented,” “massive” and “healthy”. For the adjacent provinces this could be a godsend.

The current size of the redfish stock is staggering. It has never been recorded so high. Individual redfish are long-lived and slow-growing, living 50 to 75 years but only reaching a maximum length of 50 cm. The two main species, deepwater redfish and Acadian redfish, now have an estimated biomass of over 5000 kilotonnes – 12 times the size of the 2J3KL cod stock which is still one of the largest cod stocks in the world. The deepwater redfish biomass has recently been growing rapidly at about 20% per year, from 2500 kt a few years ago to 4300 kt today. With a 10% annual harvest rate we could easily predict a harvest of 400 kt for each of the next 20-30 years just from the present stock, even without counting new recruits.

What could this mean for the fishing industry and our coastal communities? To put it into perspective, the IceWater plant in Arnold’s Cove, with nearly 200 employees, processes cod year round; it utilizes 6-8 kt annually and has capacity for 10 kt. To handle the kind of redfish harvest we can expect in the coming years, we will need 40 plants the size of the one in Arnold’s Cove – an increase that would generate some 8000 new full-time jobs in the coastal communities abutting the redfish stock.

In terms of harvesting, 400 kt equals about 880 million pounds of fish. With a 70% harvesting efficiency and a price of 50 cents a pound, this could result in a total net harvesting income of over 300 million dollars annually, translating into another 8000 harvesters earning an average of $40,000 to $50 000 a year. In addition, this harvest would utilize some of our now underutilized near-shore vessels, and require some new ones, boosting the prospects for local shipyards.

All this represents an amazing opportunity for our coastal communities – an ecologically and economically sustainable bonanza that could continue creating prosperity indefinitely – if only we handle it right.

But will we? The question must be asked. Are those in charge capable of managing such good fortune? Or will they fail us, as so many have in the past when presented with golden opportunities?

Let’s explore how our provincial and federal leaders risk turning this bonanza into another mismanaged fiasco.

First of all, they might to do too little, too slowly. The urgency is biological. A population can collapse if it outgrows its food supply, and for redfish, the main food is shrimp. If redfish consume their own weight annually (a very conservative estimate), the current stock needs a yearly supply of 4000-5000 kt of shrimp – many times the annual quota for our commercial shrimp fishery. The redfish may not yet be at the limit of this finite food supply, but that limit is fast approaching. Without measures to dramatically increase the harvest, the stock could collapse.

Similarly for processing. With huge harvests on the horizon, it would be disastrous to prevent, delay, or limit the required expansion of processing capacity until it is too late. The necessary construction, retooling and labour market preparations will take two to three years, so planning for this expansion should begin immediately in order to be ready.

Failure to start making these changes soon enough could trigger a third blunder.  A couple of years from now, DFO might belatedly realize that the redfish stock will collapse unless we harvest large quantities. Without adequate scaling-up of harvesting and processing, the Department might then award quota to entities that would lease foreign factory-freezer trawlers with foreign crews to harvest the resource. Internationally there are large fleets of vessels ready to take advantage of such a situation, depriving us of the tremendous benefits we could reap from this windfall.

A fourth way we could bungle this opportunity – less disastrous but a costly blunder nonetheless – would be for DFO to give the bulk of the redfish quota to new or existing entrepreneurs to build new large freezer trawlers such as the Calvert. This would provide some Canadian harvesting jobs, but it would further overcapitalize our fleet, and if the vessels were not built here, we would miss out on those shipyard jobs and other benefits to our economy. As for processing, it’s an open question where the harvest from those vessels would go. Massive vessels require massive plants with massive workforces and infrastructure – which is not what we have or need in Atlantic Canada. Moreover, exporting fish whole usually brings a lower price, and the profits seldom accrue to harvesters or coastal communities.

The above scenarios are just some of the ways we could botch up or at least seriously diminish the potential economic bonanza from our fabulous redfish stock. There are probably other ways we could do it wrong as well.

So let’s make sure we do it right. Let’s ask DFO to be very transparent about what its harvesting plans are for this redfish stock for at least the next five years.  Let’s ensure our provincial governments plan the necessary expansion of processing facilities. Let’s demand to be involved throughout the whole process. And let’s pressure our elected leaders to take the necessary actions that will optimize the net economic return while at the same time ensuring the sustainability of the stock.

The size and age of this resource could provide thousands of workers with a lifetime of employment just from the stock that already exists. With the possibility of further recruitment in the next decades, this fishery could last forever.