Mackerels and data are missing
The Northwest Atlantic mackerel population has reached an all-time low this year. So much so that Fisheries and Oceans Canada has banned commercial fishing, a first in Canadian history. Many fishermen believe that better controlled fishing would protect the resource in the long term.
Blue mackerels of the Northwest Atlantic, freshly caught, characterized by black stripes on the back and a bluish gray color.
Today is March 30, 2022, the mackerel fishing season starts in 48 hours. The teams are in the final preparations to go to sea. Like every spring, mackerel migrate from North Carolina to Labrador, along the coast. But several hundred miles away, Federal Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray announces that mackerel will have to stay in the water this year for stock recovery.
A few months earlier, in Gaspésie, Camille Gagné had two careers at the same time, fishing, her passion, and processing-marketing-restoration. At the end of 2021, she decides to devote herself solely to fishing. She invests nearly a quarter of a million dollars to repair her boat and buy new equipment specific to mackerel fishing.
It is through social networks that she learns of the closure of the fishery: Clearly, this year, unfortunately, it will be a loss year for the company.
Camille Gagné is captain of the Cap Barré, the only boat anchored at the Anse-à-Valleau wharf.
Like several colleagues, this relief captain was surprised by this last-minute ban. Fishermen had heard about the dwindling stocks for years, but not to the point of imagining that it would require a fishery closure.
In Canada, there are two types of fisheries Mackerel Professionals: Commercial fishing for processing, catering, and most importantly providing bait for the nation's most lucrative fisheries, such as the crab and lobster fisheries. Because unlike some countries in Europe and Asia, mackerel is not part of a Canadian dietary habit.
In parallel, there is so-called bait fishing, when mackerel is caught directly by those who need it to bait lobster, crab or tuna.
Quota of these fisheries is shared between all the Atlantic provinces and Quebec.
In 2019, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) had already reduced the total allowable catch (TAC) by 20%, from 10,000 tonnes to 8,000 tonnes. Thanks to the recommendations of ministry scientists, the minimum size of catchable fish had also increased, to give stocks a chance to reproduce.
In 2021, the TAC was cut in half to increase to 4000 tons. That year, the ministry also set a catch limit for recreational fishing, that of amateurs, a first since 1985.
But these measures weren't enough to improve stock status, as DFO Assistant Deputy Minister of Fisheries and Ports Management Adam Burns explains: Unfortunately, it didn't not stopped [the decrease in stocks]. It is for this reason that we have stopped commercial fishing and also bait fishing this year.
Under the guise of recreational fishing, the Department writes in its Atlantic Mackerel Recovery Plan, that it is not uncommon for some recreational vessels to land more than 500 pounds of mackerel in one day without being required to declare it. […] There is a risk that the commercial mackerel fishery will continue, after its closure, under the guise of recreational fishing.
To limit the pressure on the resource, in May 2021, the ministry imposed a limit of 20 mackerel per person per day. But no catch reporting mechanism exists. Only fishing officers on the wharves can catch offenders in the act, as happened in Grande-Vallée, in the Gaspé, last summer.
In other words, the amount of mackerel landed by recreational fishing remains a gray area. And it's not the only one.
Scientist Dominique Robert, professor at the Institut des sciences de la mer at the Université du Québec à Rimouski, points out that bait fishing […] is not systematically monitored in all regions of Atlantic Canada. So there is a part of what is taken as bait that we do not know. It doesn't help much to assess the pressure on the resource.
A lobster boat passing through a school of mackerel, for example, has every right to fish a few hundreds of pounds and use them right away, in whole or in part. Thus, this mackerel will not pass through the wharf where there could be a possible verification.
While DFO has recognized for decades that mackerel landings are grossly underestimated, another issue has been identified by industry stakeholders on the gap between catch reporting standards.
Despite federal fisheries management, catch monitoring and reporting regulations vary from province to province. Some fishermen must call before returning to the wharf to declare their catches, others are monitored on board their boat with an observer at sea during fishing trips. However, there is no requirement for dockside monitoring in Quebec, for example, whereas this is the case for the majority of the Newfoundland fleet.
In Quebec and Newfoundland, on the other hand, fishermen fill out a logbook. But this is not the case in Prince Edward Island and part of New Brunswick. As explained by Ghislain Collin, president of the Regroupement des pêcheurs pélagiques du sud de la Gaspésie, they declare the catches they have in their plant. But the fisherman who lands at the wharf, then takes his fish home, it is his.
Ghislain Collin, lobster fisherman and president of the Regroupement pelagic fishermen from southern Gaspésie
Mr. Collin finds it hard to understand why all fishermen are not subject to the same rules when it comes to declaring their catches, when even the scientists of the ministry already recommended, more than 20 years ago, a book of Mandatory edge [for] all anglers, including bait anglers.
These differences lead to misunderstanding and even tension between anglers.
According to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, these provincial differences are historic. But he announces, through media relationist Kariane Charron, that in collaboration with fisheries participants, DFO will assess the risks and management requirements of the Atlantic mackerel fishery, examine the effectiveness of the current fisheries monitoring and reporting program, and will make necessary changes to support sustainable fishing practices.
However, Ghislain Collin claims to have already raised the question with the ministry, without response. His association of pelagic fishermen was not invited to the last annual advisory committee on mackerel organized by DFO. Other associations of commercial fishermen also deplore not having been consulted, such as that of the owner-captains of Gaspésie, the Maritime Fishermen's Union or the Coalition of Atlantic and Quebec Fishing Organizations.
< p class="e-p">Overfishing is the main cause of mackerel decline. Many fishermen believe that the management of this fishery should be more equitable and sustainable for the resource.
Captain Camille Gagné explains that at the height of the fishing season in Quebec, fishermen commercial are allowed to fish with 200 hooks on a line. This is a technique that Lauréat Lelièvre fisherman also appreciates, for its efficiency and less pressure on the resource.
This enthusiast has long fished lobster. He hoped to spend his last years at sea fishing only for mackerel. He too was surprised by this last-minute closure. He is convinced, like Camille Gagné and many fishermen and scientists, that well-controlled fishing would protect the resource in the long term.
Lelièvre winner, captain of the Fish and fisherman in Gaspésie for over 45 years. He shows one of the hooks of his fishing line, assembled with his own hands during the winter.
Hook and line fishermen share the same quota as much larger boats, mainly based in Newfoundland, which fish with seines, a kind of large floating circular net. In one night, a seiner can catch up to 300 tonnes of mackerel. Three hundred tons a night, that's three years of my fishing, said M. Lelièvre, annoyed. And in a net, how do you want to respect the size of the little ones that have to be put back in the water? They are already dead.
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The consequences of the closure of the mackerel fishery are also being felt by some crabbers and lobster fishers who have had to bring in their bait at high prices from abroad, from Spain, Iceland or the United States, with who we share the same stocks. Deputy Minister Adam Burns assures his side that he wants to help lobster and crab fishermen, so that they are no longer dependent on mackerel. For several years, the department has been working with industry and provincial governments to find alternative baits. But currently, nothing is planned to compensate mackerel fishermen.
The future is uncertain for the recovery of the mackerel population and its fishery. The department is awaiting the results of the next stock assessment, released over the winter, before deciding on the next commercial fishing season. But according to scientist Dominique Robert, in addition to overfishing and predation by gray seals and bluefin tuna, the survival rate of larvae has been low for years.
Normally in fish, most of the larvae die. For mackerel, the researcher indicates that we are talking about more than 99% mortality […] Then, there are certain years when the mortality is lower. There is then a strong recruitment, so many young fish will go to join the adult stock and reinforce it, he specifies.
But it takes three or four years before the mackerel reach their breeding size and are available for commercial fishing. In other words, the current one-year suspension of fishing will not have a quick effect, even if this year was a good year for mackerel recruitment, explains Dominique Robert. You have to be patient. […] It's about getting a good year and you could see a recovery in three or four years by then.
Camille Gagne also remains hopeful. For her, uncertainty is the essence of fishing. As for Lauréat Lelièvre, he confides that, if he were to have a second life, he would still be a fisherman. We have it all on the water. Every day, there's something new.
The report by Carine Monat and Luc Rhéaume is broadcast on the show La Semaine verte Saturday, October 22 at 5 p.m., as well as Sunday, October 23 at 12:30 p.m. on ICI TÉLÉ and at 8 p.m. on ICI RDI.