Fisherman Darrell Countway stands on the dock beside his boat the Hailey and Hannah in the community of West Dover outside Halifax and fumes about the fish getting away.
"It's not fair," he says. "It's mackerel season and the mackerel are swimming by our coast and the Department of Fisheries has shut us down. And we only have like a two- to three-week window to catch our share.''
This week, Countway and other fishermen in the St. Margarets Bay area were forced to tie up when they wanted to be on the water.
The is where the fish show up first when they migrate northward into Canadian waters. Countway spent weeks getting his mackerel trap gear into place in preparation.
But on Sunday, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans shut down all mackerel fishing in the Maritimes until it sets a region-wide quota — known as the total allowable catch.
On Wednesday night, Countway and others held a physically distanced protest in West Dover. They want DFO to lift the order and set the quota now. Mackerel are primarily caught as bait for other fisheries.
"It's not only my livelihood, but the livelihoods of everybody else that make a living off of mackerel. It also concerns the lobster fishery, the halibut fishery, the crab fishery, because without any mackerel caught on our coast, we won't be able to fish because there's no bait for anything else," he said.
Conflict over health of population
But environmentalist Katie Schleit of Oceans North has very different advice for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. She said the depleted stock needs protecting.
The number of mackerel old enough to spawn is at the lowest level ever recorded in Atlantic Canadian waters, according to an assessment released earlier this year by the department.
"The only solution is to shut down the commercial fishery. That's the thing that's going to allow the best chance at recovery for this population," she said.
Fishermen have disputed dire scientific assessments from DFO.
Some claim scientists have mistimed measuring spawning levels in the Gulf of St Lawrence, or that DFO has entirely missed spawning off Newfoundland.
That's Countway's response when challenged about the scientific assessments.
"That's where they're doing their experiments now is in the Gulf, where most of the mackerel are not even going to the Gulf to spawn. Where they're headed, they're going right to Newfoundland," he said.
'All options on the table'
But DFO stands behind its science. Spokesperson Barre Campbell said in a statement to CBC News the 2021 Atlantic mackerel stock assessment showed "the stock is declining further into the critical zone, and the number of spawning fish is at the lowest level ever observed."
"Fishing is identified as a key driver of stock dynamics," Campbell said.
The department said most commercial fisheries have yet to begin in 2021 and it is still finalizing plans for the Atlantic mackerel, which is considered a single stock.
"All options remain on the table, recognizing the stock's status. At this time, the most prudent management choice is to cease any directed commercial fisheries for Atlantic mackerel until a management approach, including a total allowable catch, is determined," Campbell said.
The quota for mackerel in 2020 was 8,000 tonnes.
Any decision to reduce the quota is complicated because it could disproportionately affect fishermen in Newfoundland and Labrador, where mackerel are last to arrive.
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