Canada is extending the life of its two aging offshore fisheries science vessels on the East Coast as the Canadian Coast Guard struggles to bring their replacements into service.
The transition has floundered because of breakdowns, unplanned maintenance and refits on both new and old fisheries science vessels. In response, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) has now postponed the planned retirement of 40-year-old CCGS Alfred Needler on Dec.31 and 34-year-old CCGS Teleost set for March 2023.
"Given technical difficulties, both vessels will be kept operational to complete the comparative fishing surveys," DFO spokesperson Kat Hallett said in a statement to CBC News.
The trawl surveys carried out by Needler and Teleost have helped scientists estimate the abundance and distribution of fish species in Atlantic Canada for decades.
DFO considers comparative fishing a "mission critical" milestone when new fisheries science survey ships are brought into service. It involves the old and new vessels repeatedly fishing side by side over wide areas.
The differences between each vessel's trawl performance are calibrated to ensure continuity in DFO's data — key to tracking long term changes in the ecosystem.
The region's large seafood companies welcomed the decision to complete comparative fishing.
"From our perspective, it's very good news. This is something that we've been asking for for quite some," said Kris Vascotto, executive director of the Atlantic Groundfish Council.
Vascotto and others in industry have been critical of the failure of DFO to deliver science trawl surveys used in the stock assessments that determine commercial quotas.
But comparative fishing, they say, is critical to ensuring long term ocean sustainability.
"Its importance cannot be overstated," Vascotto said.
"It allows us to take the information that was collected by older vessels far into the past and look at it in the same light as we're collecting information today, especially as the ocean out there continues to change.
"The importance of this is to make sure we have the right level of removals, that we have the right targets to rebuild stocks to and to have a positive and sustainable future for oceans."
DFO had said for months there was no money in the budget to keep Needler and Teleost operational given the delivery of replacements CCGS Jacques Cartier in 2019, stationed in Dartmouth, N.S., and CCGS John Cabot in 2021, stationed in St. John's.
DFO has not responded to questions about how much it will cost to keep the older ships at sea.
Needler will undergo a refit in January and continue operations until June, DFO said.
There is no set retirement for Teleost after March.
Cartier and Cabot were among the first built under the National Shipbuilding Program, along with CCGS John Franklin which is stationed in British Columbia. The three offshore fisheries science vessels cost $788 million.
In order to complete comparative fishing, DFO has sacrificed the multi-species survey off Newfoundland and Labrador this fall "to preserve the survey time series. This approach will impact our assessments in the near term but ensures data collected in the past will continue to inform science advice in the future," Hallett said.
The comparative fishing research off Newfoundland and Labrador began in late September, but has not gone smoothly.
"There have been interruptions at various points for unplanned repairs,' said Hallett.
In the meantime, CCGS Cartier will enter a two-month refit in December according to the Canadian Coast Guard maintenance schedule.
The ship recently completed another refit in August. That refit was extended nearly two months and the cost increased from $306,095 to $822,300.
More maintenence ahead
The ship entered the Canadian Maritime Engineering facility in Pictou, N.S., for planned maintenance that included replacing bearings in a stern propeller tube that allowed the propeller to turn smoothly. The bearing problem is common to all three of the newer fisheries science ships.
DFO has not responded to questions about why CCGS Cartier is entering refit a little over three months after the last one.
Telesot is also scheduled for a two-month refit in January and February.
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