Lobster landings data released by DFO show complex picture

·3 min read
A woman holds two lobsters as Cheryl Maloney, a member of the Sipekne'katik First Nation, sells them outside the legislature in Halifax on Friday, Oct. 16, 2020.  (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press - image credit)
A woman holds two lobsters as Cheryl Maloney, a member of the Sipekne'katik First Nation, sells them outside the legislature in Halifax on Friday, Oct. 16, 2020. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press - image credit)

When Minister of Fisheries Bernadette Jordan announced the federal government intends to authorize a moderate livelihood fishery within the existing commercial season, conserving lobster stocks was a key part of her message.

"Lobster stocks are healthy on the East Coast and have remained that way in part because my department works to monitor biomass and determine appropriate fishing limits and practices year after year," the minister said in a statement.

Both Mi'kmaw fishers and people who work in the commercial fishing industry say conservation is a key concern. Some in the commercial fishing industry have pointed to declining lobster catches as evidence of potential harm to the fishery.

The Bay of Fundy Inshore Fishermen's Association has said it has concerns about the amount of lobster being landed in St. Marys Bay, which it says has declined 68 per cent since 2016.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada released data showing a decline from the record highs in 2015-16. However, an examination of the 18 years of data shows a nuanced picture.

Rising and falling catches

Over the entire LFA 34, lobster landings rose significantly overall between 2002 and 2015.

After 2015, landings in the lobster fishing area declined. Landings in 2020 were still greater than in 2002, and close to the 18-year average for landing weights.

The amount of lobster landed in St. Marys Bay peaked in 2012-13, fluctuated until 2016-17, and then declined. Landings in 2020 were about half of the 18-year average.

A row of lobster traps is shown on a wharf in Miminegash, P.E.I.
A row of lobster traps is shown on a wharf in Miminegash, P.E.I. (Travis Kingdon/CBC)

However in St. Marys Bay, the number of boats fishing and the number of days fished also declined significantly between 2018-20. The number of days fished in 2020 was also about half of the 18-year average.

In a note accompanying DFO's data release in December 2020, its science section acknowledged landings have decreased in St. Marys Bay, "but not by a rate that falls outside the bounds observed across the LFA."

Additional data released

CBC requested data on lobster landings for every port in LFA 34 and 33 from Fisheries and Oceans Canada for the years 2002 to 2020, under access to information laws.

DFO agreed to release some of the data but would not release it all due to privacy concerns. This meant not every port in LFA 34 and LFA 33 was represented in the numbers released to CBC, and some of the ports had incomplete information.

Because the port-by-port data released to CBC was incomplete, the totals will not match officially reported DFO statistics, and shouldn't be interpreted as such.

However, it is clear that lobster landings in LFA 33 were similar to LFA 34 in that they increased between 2002 and 2015 and declined following 2015.

Available data from ports on St. Marys Bay, where Sipekne'katik First Nation began its moderate livelihood fishery last year, showed the same general trend as the LFAs. So did some other ports around LFA 34 and 33.

Landings don't tell whole picture

The amount of lobster caught or "landed" is one of three measurements that DFO uses to assess the health of lobster stocks.

The other two are the catch per unit of effort, and independent surveys conducted each year that involve DFO representatives catching and recording lobster.

"Using landings as the sole indicator of biomass for lobster stocks has risks," DFO wrote in its 2018 stock status assessment of lobster in LFA 34, suggesting that relying on landings alone could provide an inaccurate picture of the health of the stock.

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