Why Do We Fish?

In last month’s column, I asked the question, how should we define success in the fishery in Atlantic Canada?”

I went on to suggest we need to reconsider what it takes to be successful, because what we have been doing hasn’t been working. This month, I will continue with that overall theme, by asking the related question, “why do we fish?”

Maybe the answer seems obvious — we fish to catch fish, the more the better. But that is neither the right answer nor a good one. Fishing to catch fish has caused overfishing of fish stocks around the world, but it has been especially damaging here in Atlantic Canada.

The better answer is that we fish to earn incomes and returns on the substantial investment required in a fishing enterprise. As I have said in this column many times before, we only intentionally harvest fish we can sell. In other words, we fish because there is a market willing to pay us for what we catch. If there is no market, we won’t make the investment or spend the time required to go fishing. And the markets we have access to determine the value we get.

David Greening Photo

So, let’s think about this idea a bit further.

If we fish to generate revenue, earn incomes and get a return on our investment, it seems obvious that catching more fish will generate more revenue, higher incomes and better returns on investment. And indeed, that is the case. But it is not the only — or best — way we can achieve those objectives.

Figure 1: Fish Landings, Canada

Figure 1 shows Canadian fish landings from 1990 to 2015. Total landings in 2015 were less than half the total in 1990, even though lobster landings are at record levels. That indicates we don’t really have the option of catching more, except maybe in the lobster fishery. Catches of all other species have been decreasing.

From 1990 to 1995, landings were mainly groundfish species, largely cod, but there have been moratoriums on fishing many of those species and stocks for over two decades. After those moratoriums were imposed, landings reached a low point in 1995, but landings in 2015 were below the total for 1995, despite the increased landings of lobster. As this indicates, landings of just about every other important commercial fish species have been decreasing.

After the moratoriums, our industry began to focus on fishing shellfish species — notably, crab, shrimp and lobster, all of which increased in abundance in the absence of groundfish. But shellfish landings peaked in 2004 and have been decreasing ever since.

Figure 2: Fish Landings, N.L.

Figure 2 shows fish landings in Newfoundland and Labrador from 1990 to 2016. It provides a similar picture to that in Figure 1, but peak shellfish landings occurred a little later. And the subsequent decline has been more drastic for shrimp than crab.

Because landings have not been increasing, the idea of increasing revenues, incomes and returns on investment by catching more fish doesn’t really work for the industry as a whole. Some fishers may be able to increase their landings but that means others have to take less.

In the effort to increase catches, most fishing enterprises have invested in new technologies for finding and catching fish. But again, earning returns on the additional investment is difficult when everyone is doing more or less the same thing and there aren’t more fish to catch. Investment increases but the return on investment goes down. It’s an arms race no one can win.

Figure 3: No. Licensed Fishing Vessels, N.L.

Figure 3 shows that the number of licensed fishing vessels in Newfoundland and Labrador has decreased dramatically since the moratoriums. Decreasing landings have made it increasingly difficult for fishing enterprises to make ends meet, so many have left the industry in search of better opportunities elsewhere. Is it any wonder young people do not see a future for themselves in the industry?

If catching more fish is not the answer, the only other option is to work on getting more value per fish. That is something Iceland has been doing very well at and we need to do it, too. It is not something we have been good at, historically.

As I have discussed in previous columns, we have often sold our products for lower prices than those obtained by our competitors for similar products. That was true in the saltfish era and it continued as we switched to producing mainly frozen block products from groundfish.

Getting more value per fish means we have to do things differently. We have to catch the right fish at the right time, handle them well to preserve their quality and sell our products into high-value markets. Again, that is not something we have been good at. We have often harvested fish in poor condition, handled them poorly and had to settle for selling our products in low-value markets.

Over the past few months, the Canadian Centre for Fisheries Innovation (CCFI) has been working with a group of harvesters fishing bluefin tuna in N.L.

Bluefin tuna are a migratory species that come into N.L. waters to feed for a period of the year when feed is abundant and water temperatures are suitable. The right bluefin sold in the right market — usually for consumption as sashimi (very fresh raw meat) in Japan — can attract extremely high prices. But fish that do not meet those demanding standards must be sold for other uses in lower-value markets.

Earlier this year, we were approached by a broker who arranges sales of tuna caught in N.L., because he was concerned that the N.L. fish were being sold for low prices — much lower than bluefin caught in the Maritime provinces. He asked us to help him and the fishers obtain more value for their fish.

That request has led to a number of things.

One was a manual we developed to show harvesters the proper methods for catching and handling the fish to increase their value. Those methods have been in use in tuna fisheries elsewhere for a long time, but not in N.L., contributing to the low values.

But we have learned a few other things, as well. Bluefin tuna landed in N.L. are known to be much larger than those caught elsewhere, including the Maritimes. The fact that they are larger means they are older and often affected by conditions typical of old age, not usually found in younger fish. Those conditions reduce their market value.

Fishers in the Maritimes catch smaller fish, but they are much more valuable, because they can be sold in higher-value markets. It’s a good illustration that a larger quantity doesn’t necessarily translate into higher revenue or better incomes.

As we have been trying to understand why tuna landed in N.L. are larger, we have found that at least some harvesters based in the province are using larger hooks — older hooks that have not been commercially available for a considerable period of time. They have been handed down from one generation to another and cared for as treasured assets, in the belief they are one of the keys to success in fishing bluefin tuna.

But it appears the opposite may be the case. Larger hooks seem likely to be catching larger fish that are not as valuable in the market.

It is a real lesson in why we fish.

If we are fishing to generate revenue, earn incomes and obtain returns on investment, it is often better to obtain more value per fish than to catch more or bigger fish.

As I have said in this column before, something I have repeatedly found to be true is that it’s not what you know that gets you in trouble; it’s the things you think you know but you don’t. Our industry is no longer about catching more fish. More fish are simply not available to us.

We will be more successful and have better incomes if we focus on increasing the value of each fish we catch. But that won’t happen without thinking about how to do it and putting in extra work to catch the right fish at the right time and take care of them well, once they are caught.

“Good enough” is not really good enough anymore. The future of the industry depends on doing better.


Managing Director of the Canadian Centre for Fisheries Innovation — Newfoundland

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