World Wildlife Fund-Canada is calling for a halt to the commercial capelin fishery in Newfoundland and Labrador, while the fisheries union and the association representing the province's seafood producers say it's unreasonable to stop fishing a stock that hasn't been adequately assessed.
This week, WWF-Canada issued a release saying it wants the fishing of the "collapsed capelin stocks" to cease, citing a 2020 assessment from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada that put capelin at just four per cent of its levels in the 1990s, and projected declines at 90 per cent.
Victoria Neville, who works on habitat restoration for WWF-Canada, said DFO's spring survey of capelin couldn't be completed, and the organization wants fishers to stop taking the essential stock out of the water.
"We're talking about a fish species that we actually require for the rebuilding of a variety of other stocks and species … and so with this fish being, for so many reasons, important for other species, we think it's important that it is managed with a precautionary approach framework being implemented," Neville said.
It always comes back to saying harvesters are not doing enough. - Keith Sullivan
"Unless that is implemented, then we're simply not able to determine if the fishery is sustainable."
A precautionary approach would see capelin stock categorized as either healthy, cautious, or critical — an approach that isn't currently being used because there is not enough data to establish what quantities of the biomass would fall under what category.
Neville said WWF-Canada thinks that until those levels can be established, the best thing to do for the capelin stock is to stop fishing, in the hopes that a standard can be established similar to regulations in Iceland and Norway where, if there is a noted decline in the stock, the fishery will be halted until the biomass recovers.
"Right now, what we're asking for is that that same tool," Neville told CBC's The Broadcast.
Capelin is an essential forage fish for the ecosystem, with other marine life like char, turbot and cod, as well as baleen whales and seabirds, feeding on capelin. Without healthy capelin stocks, WWF-Canada said, there is a significant threat to biodiversity.
"The consumption of capelin supports a whole plethora of populations on the Newfoundland and Labrador shelf, and that is exactly what it should be allowed to do," Neville said.
'Disappointing to hear'
While there are some in the province who do not support a capelin fishery, the Fish, Food & Allied Workers union is siding with those in favour of continuing to fish capelin.
FFAW president Keith Sullivan said WWF-Canada's call for cancelling the capelin fishery this year is "irresponsible," considering the assessment of the biomass is underway.
"The assessment is just ongoing now. We don't have the latest scientific information, and I'm not sure what the WWF were thinking," Sullivan said.
"I think it's kind of irresponsible timing just to throw this out there when we know we're gonna have more information in the coming days on capelin, so that was disappointing to hear."
Sullivan said the FFAW has long called for more research into capelin, along with other species, to have reliable science to steer policy, but fishers "really just don't get the support from DFO," he said.
A dedicated survey on capelin was promised a few years ago, Sullivan added, but that hasn't happened yet.
Taking a closer look at capelin should incorporate all factors, including environment, predation, as well as fishing; Sullivan said the seal population, for instance, is a big factor in capelin populations.
To talk about seals, they're an important component in that question as well, but it's not something that we can immediately manage — like our own activity. - Victoria Neville
"But nobody seems to be looking at the real problem, and that's really frustrating for people who are fishing," Sullivan said.
"It always comes back to saying harvesters are not doing enough or not presenting the issues correctly, but in the end we really need to identify what's the main reason that the fish are disappearing, and in a lot of cases we just have to look at the top of the food chain."
Sullivan said FFAW members are better equipped than ever to assist with gathering more data, and just need the support from federal and provincial departments, as well as DFO, to help play a part in answering the questions about what he said is an under-researched vital biomass.
'That's not good science'
Derek Butler, the executive director of the Association of Seafood Producers, agrees.
"Shouldn't we understand better what's going on, get the additional fall survey, get the full stock area covered, before we say to harvesters and plant workers and plants and communities, 'Stop the fishery?'" Butler said.
"The public policy approach of 'we've got to do something' is not good public policy if what you're doing doesn't produce any results. And there's nothing to show that the level of fishery removal, if that was taken out of the equation, would have any impact on the abundance of capelin."
Butler said fishers take an "insignificant proportion of the biomass" of capelin, but they do have a vested interest in the fishery's sustainability.
He said he's "not on the same page at all" with WWF-Canada's suggestion that the fishery should be stopped as a first step; rather, Butler said there needs to be more scientific data gathered.
"We know we need more science, we know the abundance might not have been what it was in the '70s or '80s, but there are a number of ways we can address issues in capelin, and the heavy hand of telling the one sector of people that derive livelihoods from this that 'we need to park you' with no evidence that any parking of the fishery is going to produce the consequence that they intend, is too much," he said.
"That's not good science and we don't think that this is the appropriate response."
Neville, meanwhile, agreed the province needs a gold-standard for research on capelin, but until that happens, WWF-Canada thinks steps within our control should be taken.
"The precautionary approach framework is what we want to get to, and it's just in the interim that we need to be precautionary," she said.
"We don't know the impacts that we're having on the stocks. And to talk about seals, they're an important component in that question as well, but it's not something that we can immediately manage — like our own activity."