The Department of Fisheries and Oceans says 2022 will be another year without fish stock surveys, as it prioritizes transition work needed to replace older vessels in an aging fleet.
The department usually does two surveys in Newfoundland and Labrador per year: one in the spring and one in the fall. However, a full survey assessment hasn't been completed since 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic hampered the 2020 survey, while vessel issues affected surveys in 2021 and spring 2022.
The scientific surveys are used to assess the health of major fish stocks and are critical in determining quotas for commercial fisheries worth hundreds of millions of dollars in Atlantic Canada.
Brian Healey, division manager of aquatic resources with DFO, says that while the surveys are "pivotal for monitoring the marine ecosystem," work is instead being put into comparative fishing — when outgoing and incoming service vessels trawl side-by-side to note performance and noise levels, which could affect data collection. The comparative fishing calibrates the vessels so the data collected remains consistent.
"What we're not doing is our standard fall survey program. We are focused on dedicated comparative fishing right now to ensure that we get the calibrations that we need between the old ships and the new ships … while the old ships are still operational and in service," Healey said Tuesday.
"It has been challenging for sure. But, you know, we are very focused on working on the comparative program right now to ensure that we can continue the time series."
Those inside the industry say DFO is falling short on their mandate and can't make the most informed decisions on future quotas due to the limited data.
Jason Spingle, secretary-treasurer of the Fish, Food & Allied Workers union, says fishers saw promising signs in the shrimp fishery in July but won't know more without a survey.
"We certainly hope that the department wouldn't say 'Well, you know, we don't have the data and we're going to lean on the side of caution,'" he said.
"These surveys, they're based on a certain time of year. So if you don't get the survey done in August for the northern gulf or in the fall, then you have to wait for the next year.… We cannot be coming back in 2023 and not having these surveys done."
Healey said he understands the concerns of people in the industry, but says it's imperative the comparative fishing work continues. All four vessels — the two outgoing vessels and two incoming vessels — are in St. John's and should be ready to set sail by the end of this week.
However, he did acknowledge the lack of a survey will likely have an impact on research in the short-term.
"Our colleagues in resource management, they would continue to use the best available scientific advice, as well as other inputs that they gather from stakeholders, socioeconomics, to make decisions," Healey said.
"We will for sure have short-term impacts and interruptions in how we do things, but we will continue to engage, provide them science advice that we have."
Spingle says he hopes to push DFO for answers about the dependability of the new vessels, given the impact on surveys since 2020.
"They'll say over time it's been pretty consistent, pretty dependable. But we seem to be running into annual problems that have given us huge concern, for sure," he said. "We've got to ask the department to really focus on this and get this corrected as soon as possible."