Fall fish stock surveys will not take place as DFO works to bring new research vessels online

The Canadian Coast Guard Offshore Fisheries Science Vessel CCGS Jacques Cartier, pictured here in Nova Scotia, is in St. John’s preparing for a comparative fishery. The exercise means that a fall stock survey will not be carried out. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans says 2022 will be another year without fish stock surveys as it prioritizes transition work needed to replace older vessels in an aging fleet.

The department usually conducts two surveys in Newfoundland and Labrador per year: one in the spring and one in the fall. However, a full survey assessment has not been completed since 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic hampered the 2020 survey, while vessel issues affected surveys in 2021 and spring 2022.

Scientific surveys are used to assess the health of major fish stocks and are essential in determining quotas for commercial fisheries worth hundreds of millions of dollars in Atlantic Canada.

Brian Healey, division chief of aquatic resources at DFO, says that while surveys are “essential for monitoring the marine ecosystem”, the work is instead devoted to comparative fishing – when outgoing and incoming service vessels trawl side by side to note performance and noise levels, which could affect data collection. Comparative fishing calibrates vessels so that the data collected remains consistent.

“What we are not doing is our standard fall survey program. We are currently focusing on dedicated comparative fishing to ensure we are getting the calibrations we need between old vessels and new vessels. …while the old ships are still operational and in service,” Healey said Tuesday.

“It’s been tough, for sure. But, you know, we’re very focused on working on the comparative program right now to make sure we can continue the time series.”

Industry players say DFO is not living up to its mandate and cannot make the most informed decisions on future quotas due to limited data.

Jason Spingle, secretary-treasurer of the Fish, Food & Allied Workers union, says fishermen saw promising signs in the shrimp fishery in July, but won’t know more without an investigation.

“We certainly hope the department doesn’t say, ‘Well, you know, we don’t have the data and we’re going to lean on the side of caution,'” he said.

“These surveys are based on a certain time of year. So if you don’t do the survey in August for the northern gulf or in the fall, you have to wait until next year.…We can’t to be back in 2023 and not have these investigations done.”

The Fish, Food & Allied Workers union says that without a fall survey, DFO will not have the information it needs for quotas in 2023. (Google Maps)

Healey said he understands the concerns of people in the industry, but says it is imperative that the comparative fishing work continues. All four ships — the two outbound ships and the two inbound ships — are in St. John’s and should be ready to sail by the end of this week.

However, he acknowledged that the lack of investigation will likely impact research in the short term.

“Our colleagues in resource management, they would continue to use the best available scientific advice, as well as other input they gather from stakeholders, socio-economics, to make decisions,” Healey said.

“We will definitely have some short-term impacts and disruptions in the way we do things, but we will continue to engage, to provide them with the scientific advice that we have.”

Spingle says he hopes to push DFO to get answers about the reliability of new vessels, given the impact on surveys since 2020.

“They’ll say over time it’s been pretty consistent, pretty reliable. But we seem to be having some yearly issues that we’re very concerned about,” he said. “We need to ask the department to really focus on this and fix this as soon as possible.”

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