Grand Manan Fishermen’s Association reacts to herring fishery closure

Submitted photo Weir fishing off Grand Manan Island.

GRAND MANAN – “Today, the Minister of Fisheries, Oceans [DFO] and the Canadian Coast Guard, the Honourable Joyce Murray, announced there would be no directed commercial or bait fishing for southern Gulf spring herring and a closure of the Atlantic mackerel commercial and bait fisheries in Atlantic Canada and Quebec,” said a March 30 press release. It went on to say fish stock was in the “critical zone” and that “Urgent action must be taken in the short-term to give these stocks a chance to recover and ensure the long-term sustainability and prosperity of East Coast fisheries.”

The Grand Manan Fishermen’s Association (GMFA) is in the Maritimes fishing region. Melanie Sonnenberg has been with the organization since 1982, starting just after it began. The executive director says the announcement for southern Gulf region spring herring is “not surprising.

“A lot of dialogue went on over the winter,” she says. Sonnenberg says there are “Huge implications when we unpack what is in the notice.” If herring catch is affected, serious consequences would be experienced by lobster fishermen if they, “can’t access bait. It’s a huge issue,” Sonnenberg says. Sonnenberg has heard other things can replace herring as lobster bait, but she says, “in the 40 years I’ve been around the industry there have been a lot of solutions. Some work with some success, but there is never anything quite as successful as herring, although some folks prefer mackerel.”

Some aspects of the current dire situation in fish stock statistics are troubling to Sonnenberg. With reductions in quotas over the years, “We don’t understand why fish stocks are so low, why there is no rebound,” Sonnenberg says. “I am certain that with what little I do know about fish stocks, that there are a multitude of factors, not the fishing efforts totally.” However, it is “easy to target fishermen,” Sonnenberg says, as they are “something it [DFO] can control, it is tangible.”

This holds especially true in comparison to other factors which may be impacting the low numbers of pelagic stock (fish in the water column, but not near the bottom of the ocean or the shore). “Something like seals we need to take a serious look at,” she says. “They can eat a lot of fish and crack a school down.”

There are a variety of factors to consider, including climate and more. “The outside pressures on the ocean also need to be addressed and sometimes they are being pushed to the side because there is no set way to build outside influences into a stock assessment,” Sonnenberg ads.

DFO informed The Saint Croix Courier via email that “No Mackerel landings were reported during this period [2020, 2021] for Maritimes Region harvesters with New Brunswick homeports. Commercial herring landings for Maritimes Region harvesters with New Brunswick homeports were as follows: (in kilograms) 2020: 17,910,005; 2021: 14,575,067. “The Department,” the email continued, “has not yet made a decision regarding the total allowable catch for SWNS [Southwest Nova Scotia]/Bay of Fundy herring for the 2022 season.”

Herring is fished in a variety of ways, including large herring seiners and weir fishing. The DFO website explains “SWNB [Southwest New Brunswick] migrant juvenile weir fishery does not have a quota. They are instead managed by the number of licences and area available for setting gear.” Sonnenberg explains there “is catch monitoring that each weir is required to participate in.”

The 200 members of the GMFA are multi-licenced. “We have we have anywhere from 15-25 active [herring] weirs in a season,” Sonnenberg writes in an e-mail. GMFA members fish “lobster, scallop, groundfish and herring. Multi-license is an important component of why the fishery has been successful in southern New Brunswick,” Sonnenberg says.

Importantly, according to Sonnenberg, fish harvester’s information has not been used in scientific assessments to date, even though “we work in the wheelhouse, and we see stuff,” Sonnenberg says the members she knows are well positioned to give insight. “They have,” she says, “a wealth of knowledge.

“They’re out there every day, taking water temperatures, wind, information about their catches, location, quality and more.” Yet this experience is a resource that is more than underused. “It’s not used at all. It’s discouraging,” Sonnenberg states.

Sonnenberg would like to work with the DFO to see “how can we capture that [knowledge] in a meaningful way. It seems,” she says, “the system has yet to be invented” to incorporate scientific data and fish harvesters’ first-hand observations.

“I think the need for government people to better understand the fishery by visiting and going to weirs and going on some fishing trips with seiners is the beginning,” Sonnenberg writes. “Then what is being seen can be shared with from the water level rather than by phone or on computer screen,” she says.

No date is set yet for the upcoming Scotia Fundy Herring Advisory Committee meeting to discuss Maritime region fish management with DFO with catch decisions following some time after. Sonnenberg does not want to jump to conclusions about how the meeting will go. “I would not want to pre-judge the outcome at this point,” she writes, “I think we need to have the meeting and see what the department puts on the table.” Sonnenberg says, “our input may be about state of the stock and monitoring of the catch.”

Another vital factor that needs to enter any conversation about fishing, Sonnenberg says, are the “little understood or recognized” contributions of the fishing community. “These are small- to medium-sized business entities, independent owner-operators. They give donations to rinks and hockey teams, and all that makes a community. These people are generous, beyond generous,” Sonnenberg says.

The fish harvesters are also committed to making improvements in their profession and practises, Sonnenberg says.

“At the end of the day, we fish. We take product out of the water. We want to do it sustainably.”