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.

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.