Group calls for 75% cut to mackerel catch in region

·3 min read

A conservation group in the Atlantic region is calling for the amount of mackerel fishermen can catch to be reduced dramatically to help stocks rebuild.

Mackerel is a key source of bait in the region's mutlimillion dollar lobster fishing industry, and without enough of it fishermen are turning to alternative sources like a new bait sausage being developed in the region, as well as bait from Japan and Iceland. Other traditional bait such as herring has also been depleted. Mackerel is also an important food source for birds, whales and other fish.

"We're worried it's going to continue to decline," said Katie Schleit with Oceans North, adding mackerel have been in DFO's critical zone since 2011. Oceans North is a conservation group with offices in Ottawa, Halifax, Winnipeg and Canada's North.

In 2019 and 2020 the Atlantic quota was 8,000 tonnes. DFO will be making a decision in the spring on the quota for the next two years.

We're going to have to take a break on fishing. — Katie Schleit, Oceans North

Oceans North believes the catch should be reduced to 2,000 tonnes maximum a year for the next two years to help the mackerel repopulate.

"Right now there's only a 50 per cent chance we'll see some growth in the stock, and in order to see recovery there needs to be less fishing of mackerel," Schleit said.

Oceans North commissioned a study on the economic benefit of allowing the stock to rebuild, which Schleit said found a $54 million benefit to reducing catch to rebuild rather than continuing to fish at current levels.

"We're kind of at a point of no return right now according to the science, showing that existing catch levels are going to further drive the stock into decline. So, nobody wants to see that.... We're going to have to take a break on fishing."

The mackerel fishery is worth $10 million, with 20 per cent of the fish being caught by P.E.I. fishermen.

What fishermen are saying

P.E.I. Fishermen's Association marine biologist Melanie Giffin said commercial fishermen believe at current fishing levels, the mackerel population still has a chance to grow — it will just happen a little more slowly.

"The 8,000- tonne level was a level that still allowed growth, but seemed to be something that the commercial harvesters could live with for now in terms of actually making a living — in terms of looking at how we could rebuild but also still maintain a viable fishery," Giffin said.

The goal is to promote rebuilding of this stock while allowing limited participation in the fishery. — DFO spokesperson

She said even if the catch is reduced to 2,000 tonnes, there is still a chance stocks will not rebuild.

"We're dealing with a lot of unknowns -— one of the biggest unknowns we have is the fact that we share this stock with the Americans."

Giffin said U.S. fishermen follow different rules: they do not have a minimum size, and they are permitted to catch more mackerel.

The federal Department of Fisheries said it will be assessing the state of the stocks this coming winter, and will announce the quota this spring for the next two years, after consultations with stakeholders including the Atlantic Mackerel Advisory Committee.

In an email to CBC News, DFO pointed out the minimum size of mackerel permitted to be landed has been gradually increased to a size that more mackerel — about 50 per cent — are mature enough to reproduce. The department has also frozen the number of mackerel licences.

It also noted the 2019-2020 quota was a 20 per cent reduction from the previous quota.

"The goal is to promote rebuilding of this stock while allowing limited participation in the fishery," it said.

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