2019: A Calming of the Tempest?

“We will open the book. Its pages are blank. We are going to put words on them ourselves. The book is called opportunity and its first chapter is New Year’s Day”: American poet Edith Lovejoy Pierce.

So good Navigator readers, what final entries will you be adding to your 2019 journal, while cracking the spine on your new 2020 memoir?

What was the overall tone of your 2019? Could it be summed up by the normal terms associated with the fishery in Atlantic Canada — including adjectives such as harsh, turbulent, controversial and unpredictable? Or did the 2019 fishery have a somewhat more subdued tone this year?

Some industry observers have even used the term quiet to describe the multi-billion-dollar business this past year.

There are always tempests and upheavals in the fishery — particularly in this neck of the woods. But in the opinion of many, 2019 just seemed to have less of them, with many harvesters cautiously stating “yeah, it has been a pretty good year overall for my enterprise.”

And speaking of good, the one fishery that has been hitting on all cylinders over the last decade is the lobster industry.

Coming off record sales and international exports in 2018, there was continued optimism going into 2019 and the fishery, particularly in southwest Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, did not disappoint once again.

The shore price was one of the bright spots for lobster fishing areas (LFA) 33 and 34 fishermen this past season, with a record-setting opening price that quickly jumped to $9/pound within two weeks of the season opening. The price peaked at $11 in April and closed in the $7 range. The 2019/2020 season just opened with a shore price of $8/pound.

Fishermen in neighbouring Prince Edward Island also reported another solid year. Harvesters in LFAs 24 and 25 reported solid catches and consistent prices once again, while catches in LFA 26a were at an all-time high in 2019.

In an effort to explain the perceived explosion in lobster stocks, many scientists are pointing to climate change and warming water temperatures as part of the reason.

While many industry stakeholders have varying views on this topic, most will agree that the environment is changing — but for the better or worse is up for debate.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has reported that over the last decade, the Gulf of Maine has warmed faster than 99 per cent of the global ocean. Studies indicate that the enhanced warming is associated with a northerly shift in the Gulf Stream — noting that warming of three to four degrees Celsius is projected.

Many fishermen have also been hypothesizing that lobsters are following the cooler water and crossing the U.S. border into Canadian waters.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has reported that the waters of southwestern Nova Scotia and the Bay of Fundy have experienced significant warming trends — which seem to coincide with the remarkable rise in lobster landings over the last few seasons — with fishermen landing five times more lobster now than they did two decades ago.

DFO has reported that there is clearly a relationship between temperatures and population, but other factors are also involved in the remarkable rise in lobster landings, including a decrease in groundfish predators over the same period.

With a decade-long rise in temperatures, including record highs in 2012 and 2016, researchers at DFO laboratories in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick are now studying the impact of warmer temperatures on lobster egg production, egg quality and molt timing.

While scientists are speculating about the impact of warming water temperatures in areas such as southwest Nova Scotia, in other regions of Atlantic Canada, an opposite trend seems to be occurring.

In 2019, the news concerning Northern shrimp and snow crab seemed a little more positive for a change. Overall, while shrimp and snow crab and shrimp stocks remained low, they appeared to be leveling off — at least for now.

While scientists cannot say for sure, some are speculating that the colder than normal water off the eastern coast of Newfoundland is helping maintain the commercially valuable shrimp and crab stocks.

After years of drastic cuts, the 2019 inshore Northern shrimp quota in fishing area 6 (SFA 6) was quietly announced without much fanfare and the news was actually positive for once.

Not only did inshore fishermen hang on to their quota levels from 2018, but there was a slight bump.

DFO announced that the total allowable catch (TAC) in SFA 6 would be increased by 2.6 per cent to 8,960 tonnes to maintain a 10 per cent exploitation rate. SFA 6, off the northeast coast of Newfoundland, is the only shrimp fishing area in that region where inshore harvesters are permitted to catch shrimp.

In 2018, DFO imposed a 16 per cent cut to the inshore Northern shrimp quota in fishing area 6 — meaning the TAC for SFA 6 went from 10,700 tonnes in 2017 to 8,730 tonnes in 2018.

DFO said the reduction was needed to achieve a 10 per cent exploitation rate.

The cuts in SFA 6 have been dramatic over the last few years. In 2017, the TAC was cut by 63 per cent — from 27,825 tonnes in 2016 to 10,400 tonnes. In 2015, the TAC was 48,196 tonnes.

Further good news for SFA 6 fishermen involved this year’s price — that increased to a minimum price of $1.78/pound. This represents an 18 per cent increase over the 2018 price and the highest minimum price ever for the spring shrimp fishery. The 2018 price was $1.46/pound, up from the 2017 level of $1.25.

As for the all-important snow crab fishery, fishermen were more than relieved when the 2019 quota was only cut by nine per cent. Technical stock sessions held by DFO over the winter pointed to crab quota cuts of 30 per cent, possibly even up to 70 per cent in certain areas.

However, in March, hundreds of FFAW-Unifor members took to the streets of St. John’s to protest the rumored, major cuts to snow crab quotas — especially in the key fishing area of 3K. In light of the actual TAC, the union labelled its actions as a significant victory for both fish harvesters and plant workers.

This represented the smallest decrease in Newfoundland crab quotas since 2015, when the quota was over 50,000 tonnes.

Another boost to the 2019 crab fishery was the price fishermen received for their catch.

In 2019, the Newfoundland and Labrador Price Setting Panel sided with the harvesters, represented by the FFAW and set the price at a record $5.38/pound for crab with a four-inch carapace and up. The processors, represented by the Association of Seafood Producers (ASP) had argued for $4.95/pound.

Despite the constant closures and disruptions caused by DFO’s ongoing protection plans for Atlantic right whales, the 2019 season was also good for snow crab fishermen in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Crab quotas there increased in almost all areas of the Gulf, but principally in area 12 which covers the all-important Southern Gulf, near the Gaspé and Caraquet regions.

Last year’s quota was 24,613 tonnes, down substantially from the record levels of 2017, when the TAC was 43,822 tonnes. However, good recruitment pushed the quota up again to 32,480 tonnes.

As is the case every year, the state of the once iconic cod stocks always seems to garner its share of attention.

While the Northern cod stock off eastern Newfoundland normally gets most of the headlines, concerns surfaced in early 2019 about the future of the groundfish in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence (SGSL).

A study, entitled Continued decline of a collapsed population of Atlantic cod due to predation-driven Allee effects1, predicted that “based on current grey seal abundance and Atlantic cod productivity, our projections indicate that there is a high probability that Atlantic cod will be locally extinct in the SGSL by mid-century, even in the absence of fishing… We estimate the natural mortality due to grey seals is 48 per cent a year so just about 90 per cent natural mortality is grey seal predation. At that level of natural mortality, the stock can’t persist and will just continue to decline.”

And speaking of Northern cod, in 2019, the soap opera that is the 2J3KL cod fishery continued.

In 2018, after several years of cautious growth, the commercial Northern cod catch limits were reduced by 25 per cent to under 10,000 tonnes by DFO.

The reduction did not come as a real shock to anyone following DFO’s earlier announcement that 2J3KL cod had experienced a 29 per cent single-year decline in spawning stock biomass (SSB).

In 2018, the 29 per cent single-year decline in spawning stock biomass lead to a catch limit reduction in the stewardship fishery to 9,500 metric tonnes, a 25 per cent reduction relative to 2017. In fact, total reported landings in 2018 were only 9,269 tonnes compared to 13,452 tonnes in 2017.

However, skip ahead a year and the plot changed yet again.

This past spring, DFO reported that the SSB for 2J3KL cod had returned to its level of two years ago, about 48 per cent of the critical level needed for a healthy fishery or 398,000 tonnes. In fact, DFO actually revised its 2018 stock projection. The department reported that the 2018 SSB had been revised from 315,000 tonnes to 383,000 tonnes and is anticipated to further increase in 2020.

As a result of this biomass improvement, DFO announced that the 2019 stewardship fishery catches had been increased to 12,350 tonnes, a 30 per cent increase relative to 2018.

In other groundfish news, the new star on the block, Gulf of St. Lawrence redfish continued to impress.

In fact, 2019 estimates had the Unit 1 stock at more than three million tonnes, an increase of 20 per cent in one year.

Under moratorium since the 1990s, surprisingly in 2011, 2012 and 2013 scientists started seeing very large year classes of redfish coming in during test trawls. In 2019, redfish was accounting for 80 per cent of everything that was captured.

This is great news if you are a harvester or processor attempting to get in on this potential bonanza in a few years — not so good if you are a Gulf shrimp.

“Redfish are really dominating the bottom ecosystem of the Gulf. We know they’re eating Northern shrimp. We know that Northern shrimp is going down. We also need to realize Northern shrimp started going down before this redfish increase. We’ve seen shrimp going down for multiple years, but obviously the presence of redfish eating a bunch of them can just exacerbate their decline. We’re also seeing slower growth with turbot who have a similar diet so we’re looking at what could be the competition interaction between those two species,” scientists explained.

In other sectors of the fishery, 2019 did not exactly turn out to be one to remember — especially in the region’s aquaculture industry.

The Newfoundland and Labrador aquaculture industry is still trying to recover following a massive die-off of 2.6 million farmed salmon on the province’s south coast.


In late September, news broke of an extensive Atlantic salmon mortality at several Northern Harvest Sea Farms facilities. The company, which is owned by international aquaculture giant Mowi, said the salmon pens were exposed to high water temperatures over an 11-to-13-day period, causing low oxygen conditions that resulted in fish dying. The affected sites were located in the vicinity of the Coast of Bays and Fortune Bay.

The company said two million fish died from a prolonged period of high-water temperatures that it reported to government on September 3 and another 600,000 fish that may have been weakened by the temperature event died later.

As a result of the massive die-off, totaling approximately 5,000 tonnes of biomass, the provincial department of Fisheries and Land Resources suspended the related Mowi Canada East’s licenses in mid-October.

As is always the case each year, there were plenty of notable developments on the fisheries policy, political and labour fronts.

Following the Trudeau government’s October re-election, albeit a minority, many industry stakeholders appeared pleased when Nova Scotia’s own Bernadette Jordan was appointed the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans.

Jordan represents the Nova Scotia riding of South Shore – St. Margaret’s and has previously served as Minister for Rural Economic Development and as the Chair of the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans. All eyes will be on her going forward as she takes on this most thorny of portfolios. She will immediately be facing such contentious issues as marine protected areas (MPAs), Atlantic right whales, quota allocations and joint management.

In other news out of Ottawa this past year, a federal appeals court ruled that DFO acted properly in taking the license of Labrador fisherman Kirby Elson, after he refused to terminate a controlling agreement he had made with Quinlan Brothers Ltd. and Labrador Sea Products.

Lonnie Snow photo

This was deemed a significant ruling for DFO because, for the first time, it explicitly says controlling agreements are prohibited under the terms of the fleet separation policy.

If you look down through the list of industry highlights for 2019, the persistence award, if that’s even a thing, should arguably go to the Federation of Independent Sea Harvesters of Newfoundland and Labrador (FISH-NL).

Despite the fledgling labour organization nearly folding on several occasions throughout its three-year existence, due to a lack of funding, the Ryan Cleary-led organization persevered.

At the first week of November, FISH-NL said it was still far short of getting 4,000 inshore fishermen to sign union cards. It needed at least 4,000 signed cards (representing 40 per cent of the 10,000 inshore harvesters the FFAW-Unifor claims exist) to trigger a vote for them to choose which union they want to represent them. It looked like FISH-NL was about to finally rollover and admit defeat.

But in a move few saw coming, Cleary announced FISH-NL was extending its membership drive to reach more inshore harvesters.

“We always knew a time extension was available if we needed. We need the extra time based on the unique challenges associated with collecting membership cards over a 90-day timeline from thousands of inshore harvesters spread out over a massive geographical area, as was the case 22 years ago. In order to make sure all inshore harvesters have the opportunity to decide their future we have decided to go with an extension.”

To the chagrin of the FFAW, it was quite the chess move on behalf of Cleary.

However, things did not go as planned and time finally ran out on FISH-NL.

On Dec. 3, the upstart labour organization announced it had finally decided to end its attempt at an application for certification and the intention was to dissolve FISH-NL.

“We’re ending our membership drive and we won’t be filing an application for certification with the province’s Labour Relations Board. FISH-NL has collected more cards than in 2016 when we presented 2,372 to the Labour Relations Board, but our total number of cards is still far fewer than the 4,000-mark set by the board to trigger the vote. I’ve yet to meet an inshore harvester who believes there are 10,000 fishermen on the water today in Newfoundland and Labrador. No one believes that, because there aren’t. And so, we don’t have 4,000 cards.”

But have we heard that last of Cleary and FISH-NL? Hard to say. His parting words to his followers were “The status quo may be working for a few who are making a fortune, but it’s not working for the vast majority of harvesters who are not, for the dozens and dozens of fishing communities that are fading away. I commend all those who continue the fight, please know that there’s still fight in me — I’m as ready to go as ever.”

So loyal readers, 2019 was quite the year. More good than bad last year? Some could certainly argue that assumption, but one thing is for sure, it was not boring.

So, what will transpire in 2020? Let’s insert another deep quote here, this one from American author Melody Beattie, about what’s ahead on the fisheries horizon.

“The new year stands before us, like a chapter in a book, waiting to be written.”

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