P.E.I. fishermen concerned mackerel fishery won't open in 2023

Last March the Department of Fisheries and Oceans put a moratorium on commercial fishing for mackerel across the East Coast. (CBC - image credit)
Last March the Department of Fisheries and Oceans put a moratorium on commercial fishing for mackerel across the East Coast. (CBC - image credit)

P.E.I. fishermen are worried they won't be able to fish mackerel to use for bait this spring.

Last March, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans put a moratorium on commercial fishing for mackerel across the East Coast. At the time, DFO said mackerel stocks were low and needed time to recover.

Some fishermen say it's impacting landings, and that not being able to fish their own mackerel for bait is hurting business.

"With the U.S. fishing, I mean, they already issued their quota for the year and here we are not knowing yet, but you know, what we don't catch they're gonna catch and it's actually worse for the fishery," said Trevor Barlow, lobster fisherman and co-chair of the mackerel committee with the P.E.I. Fishermen's Association.

"They don't have as restricted of a fishery as we do.They don't have minimum size, so they can take fish a couple inches long if they want and then we have to buy it for bait. We got no choice."

Tony Davis/CBC
Tony Davis/CBC

Mackerel is used as bait for lobster and halibut among other fisheries.

At a legislative standing committee last year, representatives from PEIFA told provincial MLAs fishermen spent between $20,000 and $40,000 on bait during the 2022 spring fishing season.

"We paid, you know, record prices for bait. And you couldn't always get what you wanted for bait and it did affect landings to a certain degree also," Barlow said.

"We can only import food-grade fish to use as bait and, as we all know, the world is starved for food and we have to compete to get bait."

The PEIFA is calling for an end to the mackerel moratorium.

"Last year a lot of fishers on the Island had their bait stored from the previous year already. So, the concerns we were hearing were really related to what was coming up in 2023," Melanie Giffin, marine biologist and program planner for the PEIFA.

Tony Davis/CBC
Tony Davis/CBC

Now, a lot of that mackerel stock fishers had is depleting quickly, Giffin said.

Last November, several fishing associations made recommendations to the federal standing committee on fisheries and oceans. The main recommendation they put forward was to allow a target of 10 per cent of mackerel biomass to be fished.

Climate change is having an effect on the life cycle of mackerel, Giffin said.

"We know there is a bit of an offset of timing for the larvae and the food for the larvae of the mackerel in Canada. So, I think there is still more work to be done on the science side," she said.

"I think that opening that fishery and allowing that 10 per cent of the biomass would allow for more of those samples to come in and maybe more data to be collected."

Robert Short/CBC
Robert Short/CBC

However other groups are urging DFO to keep the mackerel fishery closed due to population decline.

"We're really concerned about the mackerel stock. It's been at or below the critical levels for the last 10 years," said Katie Schleit, fisheries director for Oceans North. The organization supports marine conservation and climate action.

"Not only are we deep within the critical zone, where we don't want to be, but we're also not seeing a lot of hope in the coming years in terms of stock rebuilding," Schleit said.

Giffin said she thinks more research needs to be done.

"There is always that delicate balance between the science and what is being seen, and what is being taken out of the water. So we have improved the reporting over the last few years to better understand the total removals in the mackerel fishery," she said.

"No one wants to see that over-fished. You know, fishers don't want that either. It's sustainability into the future. It is a delicate balance, I just think at this point we are not reaching that balance properly."

Decision not yet made

DFO told CBC a decision has not yet been made on the spring mackerel fishery.

"A decision will be made following the completion of the scientific and consultation processes," officials with the department said in an email.

"We will continue to make fisheries management decisions using the best available science for the long-term health of Canada's fisheries."