The smell of smoked herring is a familiar scent along the shores of the island of Havre aux Maisons, part of the Magdalen Islands, where the Fumoir d'antan has been smoking the fish since 1942, but the tradition won't be able to continue this summer.
It's the first time the company's flagship smokehouse will be out of operation since the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) announced last month it would be suspending springtime herring and mackerel fisheries along the coastal waters of Quebec and Atlantic provinces until at least 2023.
"There will be no smoke in the smokehouse this year," co-owner Benoit Arseneau said in an interview with Radio-Canada.
The ministry has said urgent actions had to be taken to ensure diminishing stocks have a chance to recover.
The industrial smokehouse in Pointe-Basse that smoked the herring using traditional methods is the last standing in the Magdalen Islands, which Arseneau says was once home to 40 others at the peak of the trade in the 1950s.
"People were worried we might be closing. We aren't closing, but we will have a product that will be out of stock for a few years," Arseneau said.
The spring herring is the only fish that they continue to smoke in their founding smokehouse — more modern methods are used for the 20 other species of fish they smoke.
Herring fisheries will still be permitted during the fall season, but Arseneau said the autumn season supply is too fatty to produce the type of jerky that made the Magdalen company famous. Importing the fish also isn't a possibility, since they only smoke fresh fish.
The company usually smokes about 20,000 kilograms of spring herring each year, which represents 20 per cent of their sales, Arseneau said.
The DFO has taken measures over the years to replenish the species. For herring, it implemented daily catch limits, minimum mesh hole size in nets, and put limits on the overall size and number of nets.
The federal ministry will continue to evaluate stocks of herring and mackerel and could resume commercial fishing after 2023 if the stock is sustainable enough to fish, Federal Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray has said.
"We used to smoke 10 million pounds of herring with 2,500 people working in the smokehouses," Arseneau said. "Most of the Madelinots over 70 were among those working in the smokehouses."
"Smoked herring from the Islands was what dried salt cod was in the Gaspé."
Since 2003, the family business has had to turn to the Maritime provinces like New Brunswick to find fresh herring due to declining stocks in the archipelago.
The diminishing fish population stems from the fishing industry's dependence on herring as bait for crab and lobster fishing, Arseneau said. According to him, commercial fishing for food should be prioritized over its use as bait.
"Products we could be eating are literally going to feed crabs and lobsters," he said. "It's irresponsible."