Atlantic fishing industry watching as decisions loom for federal fisheries minister

Federal Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray attended a seafood industry conference in Boston this week. (Paul Withers/CBC - image credit)
Federal Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray attended a seafood industry conference in Boston this week. (Paul Withers/CBC - image credit)

Big decisions that could affect fishing communities in Atlantic Canada and Quebec are looming for federal Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray after rubbing shoulders with seafood companies at North America's largest industry trade show in Boston this week.

First up, Murray will have to decide whether to extend a regional mackerel moratorium for a second year, in an effort to rebuild the depleted population.

That call has been complicated because the United States authorized a mackerel fishery in 2022 — at a reduced capacity — and will again this year. Americans are fishing the same stock before it gets to Canada.

"I was deeply concerned about the Americans' level of fishing when it was clear that this was a stock that is in crisis," Murray said at Seafood Expo North America.

"There are impacts that are on the fishery abundance that are outside of our control in Canada, and that makes it more important we act on what we do control."

Murray said no decision has been made, but with department scientists saying mackerel remains in the "critical zone" — where serious harm is occurring — there's no sign that a change is coming.

"What I'm committed to doing is working to ensure the sustainability of the stock," she said.

"The mackerel is an important part of the ecosystem. It's an important food for other, very valuable stocks and so having a sustainable mackerel abundance is important for the broader ecosystem."

Mackerel is an important food source for other species, including seals, seabirds, whales and other fish, and is also a major source of bait for the region's lobster business.

Paul Withers/CBC
Paul Withers/CBC

Return of redfish

Also at the Boston show, there has been a deep concern from Nova Scotia seafood companies that have spent millions of dollars gearing up for the return of redfish in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The stock is now estimated to be four-million tonnes.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans is expected to announce who gets to catch, and how much, this spring.

Nova Scotia's large offshore fleet held a majority of the quota before the stock collapsed in the 1990s.

Alain d'Entremont's company, Scotia Harvest, spent $14 million on a new plant outside Digby, N.S., after counting on receiving a hefty share of the quota when large-scale fishing resumes in mid-decade.

He said the entire fishing industry is watching.

"It's the principle. Not just on redfish but across all quotas. If that decision comes down as anything other than respecting historical quota shares, how can anybody invest in the fishery, expecting to get the quota that is associated with their license?" d'Entremont said.

"Those are the type of changes that have impacts throughout the industry, and for us in redfish, there's been significant investment in plants and boats."

Jan Voutier, manager of Ka'Le Bay Ltd. for Louisbourg Seafoods in Cape Breton, agrees.

Paul Withers/CBC
Paul Withers/CBC

"The banks are definitely paying attention to this because this means stability, it means investment, it means transactions for the banks and it allows us to have a very stable industry going forward," Voutier told CBC News.

Murray said she is weighing many competing interests.

"I'm looking at the elements of historical allocation certainly, but not just between provinces, but also among gear types and fleet types," she said.

"I'm also looking at how we can have this fishery as sustainable as possible. And I'm looking at where there are fishing communities that may have not historically fished this, but don't have access to the stock that they have. So there's a lot of elements to this decision and I have not made a decision yet."

Another pending quota decision is whether commercial elver, or baby eel, licence holders in the Maritimes will be compensated if a piece of the commercial quota is redistributed to Mi'kmaw groups, as part of their treaty right to earn a moderate livelihood from fishing.

Last year, 14 per cent of the quota was redistributed to the Mi'kmaq without compensation for licence holders. DFO and licence holders couldn't agree on a price to relinquish their quota voluntarily by selling a licence back to DFO, a process known as willing-buyer, willing-seller.

Murray said she still supports this process, but won't let it stand in the way of providing Indigenous access to the fishery.

"The challenge is that there is not always a willing seller at a fair market price, and in that case, I can't put aside the right to a moderate livelihood fishery for First Nations and I have to find another way forward."