Rebuilding the Atlantic Fish Stocks

Science, Nature and Man

Many people today facing the reality of dwindling fish stocks in Atlantic Canada are casting about for answers and villains.

Some people say the science has not been thorough enough. Others say the environment is to blame. The seals, foreign overfishing, dumping and discarding fish at sea, the fishing methods, the number of fishermen and boats... all have at one time or another been pointed to as a possible culprit.

With the increasing focus on the environment, some observers are now calling on DFO to study the entire ecosystem - by which they mean the oceans, the many species that inhabit them, the interrelationships between species, the interferences by man (fishing methods and pollution) and the environment itself such as currents and temperature.

Canadian scientists have been studying fish stocks since the turn of the century and have been making assessments for 20 years now. They have continually improved the process as new information and new equipment became available.

The central issue is that the abundance of fish stocks fluctuates due to natural as well as man-made causes. A great deal is known about fish, but we do not know it all. We know that each species is divided into geographic units, we know what they eat, we know what eats them, we know how many eggs are produced and we know how fast the fish grow. We have some idea of what is caught, but little on what is killed underwater by man, by other animals or perhaps by disease.

We have also looked at factors affecting life in the oceans. We have looked at ocean currents, changes in water temperature, changes in prey species, changes in predator species, at the patterns of wind when the very young fish are at the surface and at many other factors.

But it is clear that we must now expand this environmental or ecosystem approach. These expanded horizons require much more data, which is both expensive and often difficult to collect. They require much greater analytical powers, a wider range of scientific expertise, larger computers and time.

The Stocks Needing Rebuilding

The principal groundfish species of Atlantic Canada are cod, small flatfishes (plaice and flounder), redfish, haddock, pollock, turbot, halibut and silver hake. Of these, haddock on the Scotian Shelf, northern cod and northern Gulf cod are in need of rebuilding.

Northern Cod

The northern cod stock off eastern Newfoundland and Labrador is one of the most important populations of the species. It is also the mainstay of Newfoundland's inshore fishery and its offshore trawlers. The stock has increased threefold after extension of fisheries jurisdiction but stock size has now stabilized at about twice 1977 levels rather than continuing to grow.

What DFO will do about it

As a first step, we will expand studies of northern cod. We will involve the industry as never before in our scientific research. We will reach out to communities to ensure that Atlantic Canadians understand our work. We will do more research and it will be focused on priorities identified by the Harris Panel, the Hache Task Force and by fishermen.

We will introduce conservation measures regarding minimum fish size, mesh size and gear type. We will fine tune our fisheries management system to be more oriented towards rebuilding the fish stocks. We will carry out more research on grey seals to find ways to curtail population growth and/or interfere with their role in the spread of seal worms.

We will improve our fisheries information system to ensure the data we use is accurate and up to date. We will create a direct link with fishermen and the public by establishing a zenith telephone system. The Fisheries Act will be amended to provide higher penalties for those caught fishing illegally including loss of privileges. And then we will improve our monitoring and surveillance by integrating aerial, surface and dockside surveillance and increasing our patrol activities.

Scientific Research

Northern Cod

A comprehensive science program on northern cod incorporating an extension of existing research and related science initiatives will be established. An additional dedicated research vessel, capable of year-round operation in Newfoundland waters, will be chartered.

Elements of this comprehensive program include increasing the number of trawl surveys and doing them at different times of the year. This will lead to estimates of biomass which are less variable and therefore assessments will be more accurate. A winter hydroacoustic survey of the prespawning concentrations of cod offshore will contribute to a more complete estimate of the size and distribution of the spawning biomass.

Similar surveys during the summer inshore fishery will investigate local inshore abundance and will be studied in conjunction with the catches of the local fishery.

Scientists will visit inshore fishing communities to collect data, to discuss the information coming from the fishery in logbooks and purchase slips and present the information to the annual assessment meetings.

Many more stomachs of cod will be examined to document what cod eat and change from year to year and area to area.

Studies in the structure of the 2J3KL cod stock and those in adjacent areas will be intensified and more tagging will take place.

A new study will be carried out combining biology and oceanography to look at the relationship between cod spawning activities in various areas and the production of young cod.

More work will be done on cod nursery areas to identify major influences on recruitment levels and the distribution of young cod.

A major initiative includes looking at the distribution of the biomass of all species, be they predator or prey of cod, as the fundamental element of a major study on the ecosystem and its interrelationships. A number of sites will be sampled during each survey and different gear types will be used.

The impacts of trawling will also be studied in conjunction with the industry. Fishing and gear technologists will participate so that solutions to any detrimental impacts found can be addressed immediately. Trawl performance will be measured and efforts made to improve trawl deployment.

Underwater cameras and other sensors will be used to obtain direct measures of how spawning cod react to fishing gear.

Cod collected during research cruises will be analyzed for levels of contaminants.

To understand the great variation from year to year in the inshore fisheries, more oceanographic research is required. More sites will be sampled to help DFO understand the relationships of cod distribution, abundance and availability to ocean conditions. As well, fishermen with different fishing gear will be invited to participate at each site.

Remote sensing techniques will be used to collect data on the marine ecosystem such as surface temperatures and primary production.

Feeding behaviour and food consumption of seals will be studied, in association with seal censuses to investigate the impact on commercial fish stocks.

Norwegian scientists are working on the cod-capelin-marine mammal ecosystem of the Barents Sea. DFO is collaborating with them and links will be expanded and strengthened. The broader range of conditions and international perspective will improve and hasten DFO's understanding of the cod-capelin-marine mammal interactions.

University research is being increased, especially the OPEN and COPE programs. OPEN is the Ocean Production Enhancement Network in which many universities are involved including Dalhousie and Memorial. This program is studying the factors leading to the production of young fish. COPE is the Cold Ocean Production Experiment at Memorial University which is studying the biological productivity of water off Newfoundland.

Annual science seminars will be held to foster better communications among research communities and between the various disciplines and to ensure international expertise is made available to Canadian scientists.


All the surveillance and enforcement in the world will not contribute to rebuilding the fish stocks if those who break the law face fines that are considered the "cost of doing business".

The Minister will seek amendments to the Fisheries Act to provide more effective deterrents to illegal fishing.

The amendments will include fines of up to $1 million for destruction of fish habitats or damage to the environment affecting fish stocks.

In addition, the maximum fine for ticketable offences will be increased.

The amendments will also specify who has to provide information and keep records, what information is required, establish a duty to keep records and spell out how the information will be collected. This will assist DFO in getting the information that it needs to make stock assessments and to manage the fisheries on a sustainable basis.

What about foreign fishing?

When Canadians speak about foreign fishing they invariably mix up three issues - foreign overfishing outside Canada's 200-mile jurisdiction, allocations to foreigners in Canadian waters of species not fished by Canadians and the by-catch of commercially valuable species.

Foreign overfishing

Canada is very active in NAFO (Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization) limiting allocations so that fish stocks which straddle the Canadian 200-mile zone and just beyond can rebuild. At present all members but the EC (Spain and Portugal) abide by NAFO quotas. Canadian efforts are now aimed at getting the European Community to abide by NAFO quotas. As well as diplomatic efforts, Canada is carrying out a public information campaign in Europe. Although Spain and Portugal continue to overfish, the EC has reduced its unilateral quotas in the last year.

Foreign allocations in Canadian waters

The only species that Canadians will not fish for technical or commercial reasons are allocated to foreigners. This is a requirement under the Law of the Sea. Species allocated to foreign countries include silver hake and round nose grenadier.

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