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Taking Stock of the Stocks

In just a matter of weeks, fishermen in this region will once again be taking to the water for what will hopefully be another lucrative lobster season.

For more than a decade now, lobster catches in southwest Nova Scotia have been good — some would even call them great. Many veteran fishermen claim that lobster stocks in this region are currently in the best shape they have ever seen.

However, not too long ago, the term overfishing seemed to dominate the fishery, both domestically and internationally.

These days, it is not a commonly heard word anymore in fish management circles. In case you have a short memory, overfishing is defined as stock having a harvest rate higher than the rate that produces its maximum sustainable yield.

Starting in the 1980s, as once sustainable fisheries started failing around the globe, fingers started to be pointed. Such and such a fishery was being overfished by such and such a group or country. The blame game was on.

As a result of such extreme measures as the 1992 cod moratorium, fisheries management became more of a priority and governments started to take the issue more seriously.

Over the last few decades, management organizations have started to closely monitor the health of fish stocks, notably which ones are categorized as overfished.

Each year, the U.S.-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) releases the Status of U.S. Fisheries Report outlining the status of 461 managed stocks or stock complexes in the U.S. The annual report is meant to determine which stocks are subject to overfishing, are overfished, or are rebuilt to sustainable levels.

The 2019 report contained the status of several commercial stocks that are also valuable on this side of the border.

Most importantly, there was no mention of lobster at all — so all seems good on that front — both off the coast of Maine and conversely off our shores. So far, so good — for now.

And speaking of positive news, NOAA recently removed Gulf of Maine yellowtail flounder from the overfished list.

Additionally, another once overfished groundfish species has been labelled as rebuilt. The American plaice, a right-eyed species of flounder native to the Gulf of Maine, has now recovered to the point where expanded market opportunities can follow as catch limits are increased.

The American plaice stock was rebuilt after 15 years under a NOAA-initiated rebuilding plan. During this time, the stock size more than tripled and will result in a 96 per cent increase in catch levels in 2020 compared to 2019. Although not as highly prized as some of the other groundfish species, this mild white fish, also called dab, is poised to become a new favourite of seafood consumers looking for sustainable sources of lean, healthy protein.

However, there are still a number of commercial stocks in the Gulf of Maine/Georges Bank region that are listed as overfished. This list includes Atlantic cod, windowpane flounder, witch flounder, thorny skate, Atlantic halibut, Atlantic salmon, ocean pout, Atlantic wolffish, winter flounder, red hake and white hake.

While it is obvious that NOAA is primarily concerned with U.S.-based fish stocks, it is important that industry stakeholders in this region keep tabs on what that organization is reporting. Despite an imaginary line drawn through the middle of it, the Gulf of Maine is a shared body of water and commercially-valuable fish species don’t know or care if they are in American or Canadian waters.

As a result, it is more important than ever that local harvesters and processors not only closely collaborate with our own Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), but with our neighbours and competitors to the south.