Complexity and Simplicity in Fishery Management

By Barry Darby (November 2020)

Photo by Ryan Card on Unsplash.

There is a general sense that the management of our ocean resources is a difficult and complex task. Media stories, DFO assessments and conflicting reports from harvesters, producers and pundits further highlight that view. Certainly much of the science involved can seem contradictory and confusing – ocean warming, climate change, plankton, egg-to-biomass ratios, forage fish, seal predation and so many other factors.

In the midst of all this complexity, however, it’s easy to miss an aspect of fishery management that is relatively simple – the harvesting plan. Whether planning the harvest of a single species or using a more integrated ecosystem approach, it’s a matter of translating the scientific knowledge into actual practice. The purpose is to ensure that fish harvesters know what they can and cannot do.

Perhaps surprisingly, the harvesting plan itself can be quite simple – a set of straightforward rules that answer the following four questions:

  • Who can fish commercially?
  • What gear can they use (eg. hook and line, traps or pots, nets, trawls)?
  • Where can they fish (fishing zones or areas)?
  • When do the seasons open and close?

However, that is not the way DFO does harvest planning. For almost all our fisheries, the Department’s plans are based primarily on a fifth question: “How much fish should be caught?” But answering that fifth question is immensely more complicated than answering the first four.

The current system, Quota-Based Management (QBM), attempts to quantify allowable catches and use the resulting quotas to plan the harvest. However, this approach introduces complexities and contradictions which actually interfere with sustainable fishery management.

Under QBM, managers combine data from previous landings and estimates from studies and sampling, then use them to produce stock assessments, define numerical reference points and make projections. Although this approach tries to take into account the many diverse and ever-changing variables inherent in the ocean’s ecology, it is simply impossible to do so with the level of accuracy required to plan for sustainable harvesting.

Moreover, by making pre-defined maximum catch numbers the deciding factor in harvest planning, QBM prevents us from responding appropriately and in real time to the reality of the fish stock. For example, if the existing stock is in poor condition due to low food supply, catching more of them can actually help the remaining fish survive, so they can thrive and replenish the stock into the future. A quota that artificially limits the catch does the opposite.  

What is needed is a management system that can identify and respond to what is actually happening in the water. In fact, such a system – effort-based management (EBM) – is used successfully in one of our most important fisheries. For over 90 years, our lobster fishery has been remarkably successful in economic, ecological and social terms – something we should be seeking to achieve for all our harvested species. And it is managed without quotas (output controls), relying instead on regulating fishing effort (input controls.)  

EBM makes harvest planning relatively simple. Instead of making the allowable catch and the quotas derived from them the overriding priority, managers focus on the practical tools for ensuring a harvest that maximizes both sustainability and net economic returns. Real-time data and the latest scientific research are used to define answers to the first four questions: who can fish, how can they fish, where can they fish and when can they fish? Those answers constitute the harvesting plan in each case.

In a few fisheries, there may be reasons to use some output controls such as trip limits or even seasonal limits, especially during a period of transition to EBM. But the principal way we would regulate harvesting would be by controlling effort.

As explained in my proposal, Changing Course – A New Direction for Canadian Fisheries, there would be many advantages to using effort instead of quotas as the management basis for most species. Stocks would be more sustainable: regulating effort to curtail the harvest of large, fecund fish would minimize damage to the stock’s reproductive capacity. Harvests would be optimized, averting both overfishing and underfishing, and minimizing bycatch. Quality would improve and higher landed value would result. Better rules known well in advance would benefit both harvesters and processors.

No management system can be perfect, but some systems are better than others. Managing by effort will make harvest planning both simpler and more effective than the current system of quotas, and the result will a more sustainable fishery overall.

Re-examining DFO Basics

By Barry Darby (September 2020)

Photo by Gower Brown on Unsplash.

“If you always do what you’ve always done you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”

An old trite saying perhaps, but still profoundly true. DFO need to seriously consider altering two of its long-held beliefs/practices in light of obvious changes in the ecosystem and failed attempts to produce a recovery of our cod stocks.

We do not need to go back and revisit the failures of the past. There are enough current examples of continued failure. According to DFO’s stock assessments, the Northern cod stock has partially returned, but has stalled around 400kt; moreover, during the last four years, natural mortality has been 10 to 20 times as great as fishing mortality. We harvest less than 3% of the biomass annually where we used to harvest 20-30%. Despite the lessons of the 1992 moratorium on Northern cod, 3Ps cod has now entered a “critical” zone despite being in a healthy state in 2000. We are told there is no prospect for growth, and now we learn that cod are increasingly cannibalizing their own young because there are insufficient forage fish.

There are two major aspects of the DFO harvest management system that must be reexamined and then altered. The first is the reliance on a model that attempts to categorize a stock into “healthy”, “cautious”, and “critical” zones, based on the state of cod stocks as they existed decades ago. In 2J3KL these baselines are from the 1980s; in the case of 3PS the model is now based on data going back to 1959.

A remarkable international report, entitled Rebuilding Marine Life, was published in the scientific journal Nature in April. The product of several years’ work by a group of fifteen scientists from around the world, including two Canadians, it is a comprehensive review of all of the scientific literature on the world’s oceans. It represents the most complete, recent and authoritative scientific summary of the situation of the oceans today, and we should all heed its findings and recommendations.

The following quote is from the section “Potential for Rebuilding”:
Efforts to rebuild marine life cannot aim to return the ocean to any particular past reference point. Our records of marine life are too fragmented to compose a robust baseline and the ocean has changed considerably and in some cases irreversibly.

Simply put, climate change and human activity have affected the entire ecosystem of this planet. Evidence abounds that we cannot depend on past information, especially past practices, to guide our harvesting policies into an uncertain future. Temperatures are warming, carbon in the atmosphere is increasing, ocean plastics are increasing, many fish stocks both here and around the world are stagnant or declining, and over-fishing continues. Yet DFO continues to use past-based models of management despite the mounting evidence that they fail.

A second key element of DFO harvesting policy is to “Keep removals as low as possible“. This is presumably intended to lead to a larger biomass, so as to produce more eggs and therefore more young. But the policy flies in the face of DFO’s own data. The stalled recovery of 2J3KL cod has been attributed to serious weaknesses in the biological food chain that cod depend on to survive. Cod mortality is high because of a high predator/prey ratio, to the point that the fish are eating more of their own young.

This information seems to indicate that the problem is about food supply and not about the spawning stock biomass. That is true. But it is also about the number of eggs that are spawned. When food supply is limited, mortality may be proportionally greater among the larger, more fecund members of the stock. Observations suggest that in a “race for the bait,” these older fish lose out to their smaller, more nimble relatives; moreover, the larger cod do not tend to forage in the shallower or upper waters where caplin congregate.

Abundance and scarcity are relative, not absolute terms. A stock’s abundance is not determined by the particular biomass it reaches in some modeled mathematical calculation. For harvesting purposes, a stock can be considered abundant when its available food supply would not support an increase in the biomass. DFO reports and harvester observations indicate that this is the case in 2020 in 2J3KL.

When fish are abundant we should be fishing them – removing large quantities of the younger adults so that the predator/prey ratio is improved, and the older more fecund members of the stock are able to not only survive but also to be healthy, which in turn means they produce more eggs and also more viable ones.

How should we put this knowledge into practice? Certainly not by harvesting primarily with gillnets, since they deliberately target the larger fish – the “reproductive capital” of our resource. Instead, we should be increasing our harvesting pressure (effort) on the smaller adults (45-70cm). 450 years of history tells us that we can successfully do this with handlines, cod traps and longlines. Those gear types catch proportionally smaller fish than otter trawls and gillnets. In a 2017 study by Montevecchi and Rouxel, cod pots also show great promise in regard to their ability to screen out larger fish from harvest.

Increasing the use of those gear types would result in increased landings, with increased incomes in both harvesting and processing. More importantly from a sustainability point of view, it would improve the health of the stock, since decreasing its overall numbers and biomass increases the average size and health of the remaining individual fish. It would also actually enhance future growth by increasing the viable egg mass, since large fish can produce as much as ten times as many eggs/kilogram as young, first-time spawners.

A good manager I knew always told his staff, “Come to me any time with any problem you have, but bring a solution as well if you can.” Let’s try to follow that advice. We have major problems in our fishery, problems that have been endlessly documented by hundreds of experts. My suggestions above are only a part of a more complete solution, details of which are contained in my paper Changing Course, A New Direction for Canadian Fisheries. The complete proposal can be found here on my website.

Indigenous Realities and Fishery Policy

By Helen Forsey

Photo by Ali Kazal on Unsplash.

As Barry’s co-conspirator on Changing Course, I am pleased to contribute a posting to the Articles page of his website.

We are all becoming more aware these days of the presence and importance of indigenous peoples, not only in our history but now, in our present-day society. Indigenous people were the first fish harvesters in our waters, and they continue to be harvesters today. Although these facts are not highlighted in the Changing Course proposal, they are very relevant to current discussions about our fisheries. I want to focus on two major aspects of this relevance.

First of all, adjacency and tradition provide coastal people, indigenous and otherwise, with common-sense use rights to harvest the ocean’s riches. With the recent long-overdue acknowledgement of indigenous identity and rights, and the gradual societal move towards reconciliation, indigenous harvesters are rightly reclaiming their place in the fishery. The importance of including them and their communities in policy and programming has been recognized, at least in part, in the updated Fisheries Act, the Minister’s mandate letter and DFO’s official documents.

But there is a second aspect of this issue that is every bit as important – the wealth of ecological knowledge and understanding built into traditional indigenous cultures. Many of the reality-based insights that generations of outport people in Newfoundland and Labrador developed through centuries of traditional inshore fishing resemble the traditional knowledge of indigenous coastal societies. Yet the wisdom of both has been largely neglected or explicitly rejected by the rapacious corporate-dominated industrial fishery under the management of DFO, leading to the disastrous failures cited in Changing Course.

Long before Europeans discovered the rich fishing grounds along the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador, a wide range of fish, seabirds and marine mammals were traditionally harvested by Beothuk, Mi’kmaq and Inuit. Their fisheries included salmon, caplin, cod, flounder, char, herring, lobster, scallops, mussels, and clams. Indigenous harvesters learned the peculiarities of each location, the marks and the tides, read the signals from the birds and other species, built stone weirs and small seaworthy craft, and became experts with fish spears, hooks and nets. Although the inheritors of those traditions across Canada have been robbed of some of their priceless heritage by colonialism and capitalism, their knowledge and skills are beginning to be recognized and recovered.

And they had better be. At this critical time for our oceans and our planet, we need understandings that can complement Western science, fill the gaps and counteract the errors in what we’ve been doing. In our struggle to change course and avert further ecological and economic disaster, we urgently need the wisdom and experience of indigenous societies, wisdom that has evolved through centuries of living sustainably in the places they – and now also the rest of us – inhabit.

Barry and I have been reading the book “Changing Tides” by Alejandro Frid, a fisheries ecologist working with indigenous nations on BC’s Central Coast. Frid’s bringing together of Western science and indigenous knowledge and culture is an eye-opener for me, validating and throwing new light on many of Barry’s observations. The BC coast, unlike Newfoundland and Labrador, was densely populated by First Nations peoples, and as Frid points out, their civilizations flourished without destroying the marine environment and the sometimes fragile fish stocks that were staples in their diets. Colonization and industrial fisheries came later to that coast – within living memory in some places – and the attitudes and understandings that enabled that sustainability are still there. Within this holistic context, Frid and his indigenous colleagues are drawing on traditional knowledge as well as the evolving science to rebuild ecological and social balance.

All of this must inform our approach as we work towards a new paradigm for Canada’s fishery policy. It is DFO that must ensure that this happens, since it is DFO that is ultimately tasked with managing our fisheries and protecting the marine environment. Indigenous harvesters and their communities must be fully involved in developing and implementing innovation projects and training programs, and their participation in the fishery facilitated. They must have their input taken seriously, and sustainable indigenous fishery practices must be integrated into DFO policy, training and implementation.

The history of Canada’s relations with indigenous peoples is rife with examples of racism, ignorance, exclusion and tokenism – and the fishery sector is no exception. Things are improving, but we have a long way to go. The major shift proposed in Changing Course provides the opportunity to put in practice all that has been learned through generations of hard work, observation, creativity and resilience in fishing outports and indigenous coastal communities. Let’s take advantage of that opportunity.

We Know Better

By Barry Darby

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash.

The Quota-based management system involves many assumptions and practices that we know – or should know – are false. Here are some examples.

1. Basic animal husbandry teaches us that when we harvest from a flock or herd, we select and harvest the young, and preserve the older productive members to regenerate the stock. Yet in harvesting Northern Cod, we mainly use either gillnets, which select the older, more fecund fish, or otter trawls, which harvest indiscriminately.

This ignores what should be the obvious lesson – a lesson that people in the outports already knew long ago. In the early 1960s, as a teenaged harvester, I was fishing with nylon gillnets, which were new on the scene at that time. I was told repeatedly by older harvesters that we could not continue to catch the “mother” fish, which gillnets catch most effectively, and still expect a sustainable fishery. Yet we continue.

2. Lobster presents a very different picture. A key aspect of our lobster harvest management is the incorporation of the lessons from the previous paragraph – protecting the mature spawning biomass. Reports on CBC in January and February 2020 indicate that in the past five years, our lobster harvest has doubled in size and tripled in value, and the stocks remain healthy. This success was accomplished without a “rebuilding plan” in the DFO toolkit, and without quotas (see, Section B2).

3. We know that high quality fish produce greater economic and social returns. Yet our current cod harvesting rules, under quota management, favour gillnets over long lines. The 2018 stock assessment shows the result: approximately 40% of our catch was grade B or lower, with a net economic loss to harvesters and our rural society of three to four million dollars.

4. We know, or should know, that there are significant differences between gear that attract their prey – hook and line and baited pots – versus fishing gear that pursue it – otter trawls, purse seines, and (practically speaking) gillnets. When forage fish are in low supply, fish are hungry, and prey-attracting gear help ensure sustainability by catching mainly hungry fish, leaving more food for those that remain. Yet except for lobster, our regulations seldom reflect that understanding.

5. Soak time is the length of time that gear is in the water and effectively fishing. Longlines have an effective soak time of 1-4 hours, while gillnets have a 24h soak time per set – a much longer soak time, which seriously reduces quality and increases bycatch. These are important differences, yet for many policy purposes, the two gear types are not considered separately.

6. We know that different fishing gears cannot co-exist on the same fishing ground, and there has been some policy recognition of that fact. DFO now excludes otter trawls from areas where gillnets are allowed, since allowing otter trawls on a ground effectively excludes all other gear types. But the same principle applies to gillnets and longlines. Yet the rules generally allow both, thus effectively excluding long lines.

7. We should be making the most of our resources. Again in the early 1960s, observing a brand new stern trawler arriving at Burin fish plant fully loaded with 500,000 lbs, I heard an older fisherman say, “There’s enough fish there to keep four or five families for a year, and all they’re getting is two weeks wages.” Moreover, these large trawlers have a heavy carbon footprint, damage the ocean floor, contribute to the accumulation of ocean plastics, and are extremely inefficient in overall economic terms. Yet DFO policies continue to effectively favour otter trawls over all other fishing gear.

8. Every animal stock has a tendency to grow. Studies show that an individual cod will double in mass in three or four years, or 25-35% per year. In addition, in the way we measure biomass, a new year class is added every year. Despite this potential growth, recent DFO stock assessments show that the cod stock in 2J3KL has remained stuck below 400kt. We harvest about 2.5% of it annually, (10,000 metric tones), while natural mortality is close to 40% (160,000 metric tones). The stock assessments also point out that a significant factor in this high natural mortality is the lack of caplin. Yet our policy is still to “keep removals (of cod) at the lowest possible levels,” treating harvesting as the key factor and ignoring the caplin. Surely there are other policy conclusions that should be considered.

All these examples show that current fishery management system is ignoring known facts and continuing to follow paths to failure. That has to change.

The Beginning – “The Lobster Model”

By Barry Darby

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash.

All my life on this island of Newfoundland, the fisheries, the ocean and our particular society have been a part of my thinking, my interest, and my activities. However, it was only after my retirement that I began to commit my ideas to paper.

My first public writing was a letter to the St. John’s Telegram on March 20, 2013 where I introduced the idea of the “lobster model”.

My family was involved in lobster canning at the turn of the last century. There were no harvesting regulations, and by 1924 lobster stocks were seriously depleted. The Dominion government closed the fishery for three years, and put regulations in place for when it reopened in 1927. Those harvesting regulations have changed little since that time, and the lobster fishery has been a success every year for the past 90 years.

This successful fishery is an effort-managed system, not a quota-based one. It is based on a few core principles:

  • Control the effort, both in number of harvesters and type of gear
  • Require live release of the young
  • Protect the spawning biomass, and
  • Have no quotas!

Imagine instituting a management plan for the hopefully returning cod that could last successfully for 90 years – like the one our forefathers created for lobster.  Let’s call it “The Lobster Model.”

A follow-up letter described the “lobster model” in some detail, highlighting the principles that are fundamental to my proposal Changing Course.  In the full paper, much has been added, and new concepts introduced, including a focus on net economic return, the real meaning of the “precautionary approach”, the idea of “use rights” for all citizens. The concept of success has been expanded to embrace the sustainability of not only the fish but also of the community and the ecosystem itself.

That first 2013 letter to the Telegram went on to list many inconsistencies in our present-day practices – inconsistencies that all pointed to the need for major changes.

The recent news of fish plant closures; talk of importing foreign workers; annual halibut quotas being caught in a single day while other fishermen lose their lives fishing halibut in the dead of winter; limited cod quotas despite catch rates higher than in past years when fish were deemed to be plentiful – those headlines and others like them indicate there is a serious problem with the management of fish harvesting in this province.

As Bill Barry stated on the Broadcast last October “I don’t think I’ll see in my lifetime a change in the regulatory system that would allow us to harvest the riches of the ocean in a rational efficient manner.”

I choose to be more optimistic. The contradictions I noted in 2013 persist today, along with new ones, but we must view them as a wake-up call. As I state in Changing Course, “anomalies in a paradigm are evidence of the need for a paradigm shift”. With the example of the Lobster Model, we can make Effort-Based Management that new paradigm.