The P.E.I. Fishermen's Association (P.E.I.F.A.) is calling on the provincial government to do more to support those hit hard by a ban on fishing mackerel and herring.
In March, the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans put a moratorium on commercial fishing for herring in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and mackerel across the East Coast, saying urgent action is required to allow the stocks to recover. Fishers were not pleased, and said a complete moratorium goes too far.
"This has been a devastating and direct blow for these fishers," said Molly Aylward, the association's executive director, appearing before a legislative standing committee on natural resources.
The P.E.I.F.A. represents independent core fishers who depend on the commercial herring and mackerel fishery for their main source of income, as well as lobster fishers who use the fish for bait, often fishing it themselves to keep their costs down.
"The burden of uncertainty towards the future of these fisheries weighs heavily on them, particularly with no plan in place to reopen," Aylward told the committee. Experts have said the closure, to allow stocks to recover, is likely to last more than a year.
$20K to $40K for bait
Bait availability and expense are fishers' biggest worries, she said, explaining an average expense this year for bait is between $20,000 and $40,000 per fisher. She said the cost of bait is rising as the spring lobster season tapers to an end, as local frozen supplies have continued to dwindle.
"The closures have led some to question whether there will be days in the future where some fishers are not able to secure bait for their lobster fishery," Aylward added.
The association had eight recommendations, including:
Reopen the bait fishery in a sustainable way.
Support realistic rebuilding plans for spring herring and mackerel.
Allow fish harvesters to collect more and better data on the fish stocks.
Funding and support for increased freezer and storage facilities on P.E.I.
Fishing industry representation and participation on the Federal-Provincial Bait Working Group.
Bait sourced outside Canada be regulated to protect the Gulf of St Lawrence ecosystem.
Alternative baits be regulated and researched to protect the Gulf of St Lawrence ecosystem.
Perch bait fishery development as an alternative safe bait species.
"Addressing the overpopulation of seals needs to be the primary focus of a rebuilding strategy of our small pelagic and groundfish stock in the southern Gulf of St Lawrence," Aylward said.
To that end, the association is suggesting grey and harp seals, both abundant in Atlantic Canada, be used as part of an alternative bait source or even for food.
"If this option is successful, it tackles two major issues: the lack of bait as well as an overabundance of seals," Aylward told the committee.