Looking Beneath the Surface

In the fishery, we are always concerned about what is going on underneath the surface of the ocean.

Looking at the surface can provide helpful information but what is below the surface is what really matters.

Beneath that surface is the part of the ocean ecosystem the fishery depends on. The different fish resources we harvest, the food for those fish and predators who compete with us to catch them are all down there somewhere. So is the fishing gear we use to catch them and even the parts of vessel hulls that displace enough water to keep them afloat. A lot of important things happen underneath the surface of the ocean.

Unfortunately for us, it is hard to see — and understand — what is going on underneath the ocean surface. And the deeper we go, the harder it is to understand.

We spend a lot of money on research to help us understand the ocean, the ecosystem that depends on it and the specific fish resources we harvest. We also spend a lot of money on various electronic gadgetry to help us “see” what is down there, so we can direct our fishing effort to the right places and at the right times.

Nevertheless, despite the investment and the effort, it is pretty clear there is a lot we don’t understand, because the ocean is huge in both area and depth and we can’t possibly know what is going on everywhere. And we can’t possibly understand the complex interrelationships among the different variables that affect what we do.

For a long time, we tried to manage fish resources based on species and stocks but that didn’t really work very well. We are now trying to expand our understanding of how the ecosystem works, so we can broaden our knowledge of the variables that affect the different fish species and stocks. But climate change is playing havoc with the ecosystem, so we also need to expand our research to take that into account, as well.

Climate change is affecting winds, currents and water temperatures, all of which impact on fish habitat and food supply. And, of course, we shouldn’t forget changes in the ocean caused by human activity — seismic activity, plastic waste, pollution and overfishing of stocks, causing imbalances in the ecosystem.

As I have said in this column many times before, I am a firm believer in the idea that it’s not what you know that gets you in trouble, but the things you think you know but you don’t. Many people think they understand something, but their understanding is superficial, at best, and that can get them into a lot of trouble.

Nine-tenths of an iceberg is underwater, so what you see above the surface is literally the tip of the iceberg. It doesn’t pay to get too close, because what lies below the surface can be dangerous.

The Dutch graphic artist, M. C. Escher (you can look him up), specialized in playing tricks with people’s minds. In his pictures, your first impression of what you are seeing is not what is really there. Many politicians and celebrities with high public profiles are concerned about “image” — how they are perceived by the public. But the public image is often quite different from the reality of the person behind it. It is always a good idea to look beyond the surface, to see the reality.

In our present situation, it is very easy for people who are on the ocean a lot to think they know what is going on in the ocean but they really don’t — and can’t. Everyone involved in ocean activities of one kind or another has some knowledge but that knowledge is only a piece in a much larger puzzle. Quite likely, no one really understands the whole picture.

According to the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), “The ocean takes up about 71 per cent of Earth’s space, yet a whopping 95 per cent of that ocean is completely unexplored.”

Not only that but things seem to be changing at a fairly rapid pace. What you knew 10 years ago is probably not as helpful today as it was then. Instead of thinking we know everything we need to know, we should probably focus more on creating an ongoing flow of information so we can detect significant changes and make adjustments as they are needed.

DFO has a substantial group of people involved in doing just that. Researchers from universities and other organizations are also gathering information on an ongoing basis about a whole range of issues. The Ocean Frontier Institute is a collaboration of Memorial University, Dalhousie University and the University of Prince Edward Island that is focused on better understanding the ocean. And the recently announced industry-led Ocean SuperCluster has some ambitious plans for deploying new technologies to gather a lot of information more inexpensively than in the past.

Nevertheless, a lot of work must be done to improve our understanding of the ocean and ongoing influences on it from climate change and human activity.

There continues to be a lot of uncertainty and that translates into a lot of risk. If we make the wrong decisions now, future generations will pay a heavy price because of it. It is a time to be cautious, not bold and aggressive.

The irony is that if you look at what is going on at a superficial level, things seem to be a lot better than they really are.

In 2017, Canada’s exports of fish products were valued at $6.9 billion, a record. Of that, lobster accounted for $2.1 billion, snow crab $1.0 billion and salmon $0.9 billion — a total of $4.0 billion. These were record-high levels, driven by increasing prices and favourable currency exchange rates.

But underneath the surface, things were not as good as that would make them appear.

Apart from lobster, where catches have increased significantly in recent years, catches of other species have been at record lows in recent years — even lower than they were after moratoriums were imposed on harvesting most groundfish species during the early 1990s.

The outward appearance is one thing; the underlying reality is another.

In 1990, total Canadian fish landings, not including lobster, were 1,550,428 metric tonnes, but they were only 741,356 tonnes in 2016, less than half the level in 1990. The saving grace was that those fewer tonnes were worth a lot more money.

Even that may not last. Harvest tonnage is real.

For the industry to have a bright future, it must be at least sustainable. Ideally, we would like to see room for resources to expand. A commonly-used definition of sustainability is to meet the needs of the present while also allowing future generations to meet their needs, as well.

When the industry depends on prices and exchange rates to make up for decreased landings, it is not sustainable. Prices and exchange rates fluctuate, as we have seen many times in the past. They can easily turn against us and can do so quickly. However, that is what much of our industry is depending on today.

Recently, there has been a series of bad news stories about what is going on underneath the surface.

The Northern cod resource that was rebuilding, actually decreased in the latest scientific assessment. Part of the problem may be less plankton in the water to provide food for the ecosystem. Harp seals are way more abundant than they were, so they are competing with Northern cod for food and even eating them in substantial quantities.

Cod may disappear from the Gulf of St. Lawrence by 2050, because of predation by grey seals. Coldwater shrimp and snow crab resources have been shrinking, leading to drastic cuts in quotas.

On the other hand, there have been promising signs related to haddock, halibut, redfish and some flatfish species. These may be the species the industry depends on in the future. But the opportunities they offer are very different from those presented by lobster, crab, shrimp or scallops. Markets for those species are much more competitive and a lot more work is needed to catch and process them. And that will be a challenge for an industry with a shrinking workforce.

How can anyone considering an investment in a new boat, new fishing gear, plant renovations or new processing equipment feel comfortable making a decision in this environment? Will there be enough stability in the industry over the lifetime of the new assets to provide a return that justifies the investment?

There are no easy answers to those questions. All we can do is keep adding to our knowledge until the picture comes into focus. And that is likely to take a while.

Robert Verge

Managing Director of the Canadian Centre for Fisheries Innovation — Newfoundland

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