HomeOpinionA History of the Gulf Redfish Fishery

A History of the Gulf Redfish Fishery

“The rebound of redfish stocks is a true success story and shows how conservation efforts are critical to maintaining fisheries,” quoted former federal Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray.

When Newfoundland and Labrador entered Confederation in 1949, it enabled Canada to declare the Gulf of St. Lawrence as inland waters because it was now enclosed on all sides by Canadian territory. Until then, it was open to foreign fishing nations.

In relation to redfish, the province of Newfoundland and Labrador has a history going back to the 1950s and 1960s when trawlers from Harbour Grace and St. John’s fished on the southern Grand Banks. Trawlers from Burin also fished redfish on the Grand Banks and in Hermitage Bay.

At the same time, trawlers from Burgeo, Ramea and Gaultois fished the Gulf of St. Lawrence stocks, mainly because of its close proximity, good fishing success and market development.

John Penny & Sons in Ramea celebrated 100 years of operation in 1956 and developed from a salt fish operation into a fully integrated frozen fish operation. It also established Caribou Fisheries as a marketing company in the U.S.A. that was incorporated in 1956.

Redfish and cod were the main species processed. The company also had its own cargo vessel, the MV Rameaux, to transport frozen fish to the U.S.A.

Gaultois Fisheries was established in 1952 by H.B. Clyde Lake and vessels fishing from there fished redfish in Hermitage Bay and the Gulf during the 1950s and 1960s and up until closure in the 1990s.

Burgeo had its first fish processing operation in 1942. The operation was purchased by H.B. Clyde Lake and came under the name of Burgeo Fish Industries in the late 1950s. Redfish and cod were the main species harvested. The company had its own cargo vessel, the MV Swivel, to transport frozen fish from Burgeo and Gaultois to the U.S.A.

Newfoundland inshore fishers also caught redfish in 4R, 3Pn and 3Ps. However, the catches were usually incidental to cod except maybe in Hermitage Bay.

In 1962, the marketing of fish from all three processing plants came under Caribou Fisheries because that company had built up a good reputation, especially in the U.S.A., with its own labelling and packaging. A new cargo vessel was also built in Collingwood, Ontario, the MV Caribou Reefer, to transport fish products to the U.S.A. markets.

At about this time, Caribou Fisheries was the world leader in the marketing of ocean perch products (ocean perch was used in marketing and not redfish). It was also at this time that Caribou Fisheries worked with the large Gorton’s company in the U.S.A., introducing tripolyphosphates (phosphate salts) into the processing of ocean perch. This became a standard in the fish processing industry and is also used today on other processed food items such as chicken. The phosphate salts eliminate much of the drip associated with thawing the product before cooking.

The workforce at the three processing plants in 1974 consisted of 520 with 14 trawlers, six at Burgeo and four each at Ramea and Gaultois. That year, total landings by offshore trawlers amounted to 45 million lbs. Burgeo alone had fish landings of 13.5 million lbs. and six million lbs. were ocean perch. Previously, in the late 1950s and during the 1960s, ocean perch landings predominated because stocks were in better shape. However, beginning in the mid-1960s, trawler captains were indicating that more and more small redfish were being encountered and this was evident by observing the landings at the plants. Therefore, the CPUE (catch per unit effort) was decreasing. The Gulf redfish fishery was not closed until 1995.

The final nail in the coffin for Gulf redfish came when DFO Development Branch decided to develop a mid-water trawl to catch redfish.

The reason was based on the biology of redfish. It so happens that redfish ascend in the water column during nocturnal hours to feed and therefore bottom trawls that were conventionally used were ineffective during the night. This meant that redfish could only be harvested mainly during daylight hours.

When mid-water trawls were developed, bumper catches were recorded, but as expected the good catches did not last. This along with the incidence of much more small redfish led to quicker demise of redfish stocks and wiped out the larger spawning biomass.

Redfish are viviparous (bear live young) unlike most fishes that lay eggs. It was very common to see small larval redfish among catches of redfish by trawlers during late spring and early summer. Because they do bear live young, they do not produce as many potential offspring as egg laying fish species. Redfish are slow growing as well, so it takes many years for stocks to grow and recover as is known from the Gulf experience.

In the 1960s, the species Sebastes faciatus (Acadian) was not used at all and wasn’t adopted by the North American scientific community until the early 1980s. Scientists were aware of the name but generally considered it to be a shallower water species found in the south and west part of the Gulf adjacent to Acadia.

One of the reasons was the similarity between Sebastes mentella and Sebastes fasciatus. As a result, Sebastes mentella, known as deep water redfish, was the scientific name used along with Sebastes marinus, a species usually found at intermediate depths and distinguishable by a yellow or gold marking on the lower mid-exterior. For some reason, this latter species doesn’t appear to be included anymore. The vast majority of the harvested fish in the fifties and sixties were Sebastes mentella.

Redfish specimens were landed in Burgeo in the early 1960s from the Gulf that weighed over 20 lbs with a measurement of over 30 inches. DFO redfish scientist Sandy Sandeman visited Burgeo to examine the large specimens. Large redfish were also used by Caribou Fisheries in marketing. They were over 45 years old.

It has been demonstrated that by removing most of the larger redfish, the major spawning biomass is greatly reduced and that has a tremendous effect on the sustainability of any fish stock. The same applies to many stock species, including cod.

Regulations usually set large size-limits on nets, inshore and offshore, to permit smaller fish to pass through the meshes. This protects the smaller fish but reduces the biomass of larger fish. Therefore, other methods like effective TACs and quotas have to be applied on the whole of the stock to allow larger fish to propagate and ensure that enough smaller fish survive to grow and become spawners. If not, closures come into play as we have also evidenced.

High-grading by harvesting vessels (catching small fish and returning them to the ocean in order to make catches of larger fish) has taken place over the years too, and that further diminishes the spawning biomass. This practice also destroys a lot of fish because much of what is returned to the ocean do not survive and is especially true for redfish. In a biological sense, it is not wasted but becomes food for other species. However, that is not the best scenario for fisheries management in dealing with a renewable resource.


Gordon Snow

Ottawa, ON