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Redfish Re-opening – Getting it Wrong

By Barry Darby and Helen Forsey

The recent announcement of the re-opening of the redfish fishery in the Gulf of St. Lawrence is of crucial importance on multiple levels — economic, ecological and political. In order to take advantage of this opportunity that nature is offering, we need to get it right.

Unfortunately, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and many informed commentators are getting it wrong.

Since the early evidence of a redfish population explosion five years ago, harvesters have been looking forward to the chance to build a renewed fishery on the basis of this long-lived and periodically abundant fish. In 2019, the stock was estimated at 4,300 kilotonnes, but recent estimates put the current size of the stock at about 2,500 kt — a whopping 42 per cent decline, despite there having been no fishery. The loss of those 1.8 million tonnes of fish could be attributed to “natural mortality” — a misleading catch-all term used when nobody knows the explanation, covering everything from inadequate food supply to predation and from climate change to illegal fishing. The redfish stock that remains, however, is still huge — about six times the estimated current relatively stable biomass of cod in 2J3KL.

Now, despite all the unknowns, the Minister and her Redfish Advisory Committee are tasked with determining a total allowable catch (TAC) — itself a highly dubious basis for decision-making amid the complex realities of fishery management. And too often, the problem is being presented to the public as a contest between provinces for shares of whatever that TAC turns out to be.

Naturally, harvesters and processors from all five provinces involved are clamouring for a “fair share” of this natural bounty. But now confusion reigns. The day after the January 26th reopening announcement, DFO’s media department sent out a table depicting “Redfish fishery quota allocation (2024 estimated; 1993 historic and 2024–1993) by province.” They note that the table’s projections are estimated and subject to change, but they nonetheless then proceed to compare apples and oranges — their estimated percentages for 2024 with the actual historical percentages from 1993 — and get even that wrong.

The DFO table puts a minus sign for Nova Scotia’s percentage-point difference from the 1993 share, when the actual difference needs a plus sign, same as the other provinces. According to the figures in the table:

Nova Scotia got 27.2 per cent in 1993, and is expected to get 33 per cent in 2024. That is 5.8 percentage points more.

Similarly, Newfoundland and Labrador got 17 per cent in 1993, and expects 19 per cent in 2024. That is two percentage points more.

Yet the DFO table shows a difference of “-5.8” (minus 5.8) for Nova Scotia and “+2.0” (plus 2.0) for N.L.

This simple but highly significant arithmetical error leads to the mistaken conclusion that whereas all the other provinces gain share, Nova Scotia is losing. This is nonsense. The reverse would be nonsense as well. Yet the mistaken table has already been widely cited as authoritative, and is adding to the misplaced inter-provincial hostility.

Blaming Nova Scotia for getting the lion’s share of allocations, or blaming Newfoundland and Labrador for wanting more, is just falling into the trap of “divide and conquer.” Harvesters and coastal people everywhere should be able to make a living and have a life without constant struggle. The dispute over the respective percentages of TAC allocated to different provinces is a red herring.

The fishery’s true inequities are between the people who try to make a living from the sea and the rapacious industrial entities that seek to maximize their profits; between the survival and well-being of marine ecosystems and coastal communities and the short-sighted selfish interests of corporations and governments. So the current DFO plan to continue allocating more than half the redfish harvest to the offshore sector with its big industrial factory-freezer trawlers — that plan is inequitable, unfair and unsustainable.

Meanwhile, back on shore in N.L., neither the government nor the media appear to understand the unique biology of redfish — a long-lived and slow-growing species, living 50 to 75 years but only reaching a maximum length of 50 cm. Normal cycles for redfish stocks appear to be years of low recruitment, interrupted occasionally by one or more particularly large year classes, which in turn may grow to become a huge biomass. To speak of the redfish “collapse” in 1995, and refer to the subsequent rebuilding as a result of a moratorium, may well be inaccurate. Instead it could be largely a matter of understanding the natural cycles of this species, and then managing the fishing accordingly.

With proper management, good monitoring and sustainable gear, the current redfish stock could be harvested over many years. But we are off to a very late start, due to the lack of foresight and common sense by both federal and provincial governments.

DFO failed to reopen the redfish fishery soon after the stock reached its peak four years ago. Since then over one and a half million tonnes of redfish have apparently died, perhaps because of a shortage of food. A major part of the diet of full-grown redfish is shrimp, and this same four-year time period saw the recent decline in shrimp biomass in the Gulf. If we had had ecosystem-based management and had fished with appropriate gear, we might have harvested many of those redfish and at the same time helped to maintain the shrimp stock.

Provincial government policies have prevented N.L.’s processing sector from gearing up to process a massively increased redfish harvest for the benefit of our coastal communities. Markets could have been developed for whole fish of a smaller size, for which there is potential demand in many cultures. But the provincial decision-makers clung to the notion that only large fillets of redfish are marketable. The few redfish caught since 2018 in the experimental fishery — which was supposed to help develop markets — was mostly sold cheaply for lobster bait. Another opportunity wasted.

The real problem with the redfish fishery — and with most of our other fisheries as well — is the way the whole thing is envisaged and framed. The current quota-based system favours large-scale, capital-intensive industrial fishing, worsening the inequities, threatening sustainability, and increasing the damage to marine ecosystems, coastal communities and the planet itself. In order to enhance sustainability, we need to focus on how fishing is done and managed, not on how many tonnes of biomass we end up catching.

It’s high time for that paradigm shift.

Barry Darby is a retired fisherman and educator from Burin, N.L., who has done extensive research on the economics and sustainability of the fish harvesting sector. Helen Forsey is a writer with a background in agriculture, environment and public policy. Their website is www.barrydarby.com.

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