Shrinking shrimp catch sparks worry for one of Eastern Canada's most important fisheries

Commercial fishermen brought in roughly 30 per cent fewer shrimp between 2015 and 2016. The drop is a source of anxiety for those who depend shrimp, on one of Eastern Canada’s three most important fisheries.

Northern shrimp population sees 50 per cent drop over last 10 years

Sylvain Bujold has never before seen such a poor catch during his two decades of shrimp fishing off the coast of Matane, on Quebec's Gaspé peninsula. (Radio-Canada)

In his 20 years as a shrimp fisherman, Sylvain Bujold says 2017 has been the most difficult season yet. The fishing boat captain in Matane, Que. is bringing in half the yield he would normally expect.

"It's almost at the point where you wonder whether it's worth going out," he said. "The catch isn't there."

The northern shrimp population in the Gulf of St. Lawrence has dropped by 50 per cent in the past 10 years, according to Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Commercial fishermen brought in roughly 30 per cent fewer shrimp between 2015 and 2016.

The drop is a source of anxiety for those who depend shrimp, on one of Eastern Canada's three most important fisheries, along with the lobster and snow crab fisheries.

In 2014, the shrimp fishery brought in $489 million.

Warming waters, redfish possible causes

While the exact portrait of what is happening with shrimp stocks may be complex, the warming temperatures of the Gulf of St. Lawrence have been fingered as a potential problem for northern shrimp, a cold-water-loving shrimp species found in the northwest Atlantic.

Canadian commercial fishermen saw a 30 per cent drop in the number of shrimp they caught between 2015 and 2016, a worrying decrease for those who rely on the shellfish for their livelihood. (Radio-Canada)
Another factor is the increasing number of redfish, also known as the ocean perch, a species that prefers warmer temperatures.

Redfish compete with the shrimp for food when they are young, and feed on them when they are older.

End of shrimp fishery 'a possibility,' researcher says

Université du Québec à Rimouski biology professor Piero Calosi said the recent drop in northern shrimp stocks is an anomaly that could last several years.

However, he added it could also indicate a future trend.

"We have a very important signal of what could happen to the fisheries of shrimp and other fisheries in 50 years or 60 years," said Calosi.

It is not easy to predict what will happen and several scenarios need to be studied, he said, including whether the shrimp fishery could eventually come to an end.

"For sure, we have to consider it as a possibility," he said.

Piero Calosi, a biology professor at Université du Québec à Rimouski, will begin a multi-year research project this September on the global viability of the northern shrimp. He said many scenarios will have to be considered, including the possibility that the fishery could end. (Kim Garritty/CBC)
The shrimp population could also be pushed further north. Already, shrimp-fishing boats no longer operate in the southern range of the species along Nova Scotia and Maine.

It is possible shrimp could go extinct in these southernmost areas, said Calosi, whose work focuses on the impact of ocean temperature changes on marine life.

Lessons from the cod fishery collapse

This September, Calosi and a team of researchers from the university will start a three- to four-year project on the global viability of the northern shrimp fishery.

One aspect the project will study is the economic and social impact that changes to the fish stocks could have on the communities that depend on them.  

The impact of the 1992 moratorium on cod fishery in Newfoundland offers a lesson in how seriously the subject needs to be treated, Calosi said.

The loss of the cod fishery and the nearly 40, 000 jobs associated with it forced Newfoundland to explore other types of fish that could be harvested.

"We have to consider that that's a possible scenario," he said. "It's a scenario that needs to be vigorously investigated."

Back in Matane, Nicolas Chouinard, president of the local shrimp fishermen's association, is already thinking about the collapse of Newfoundland's cod fishery when he looks at what their catches of late.

"We are starting to worry about what will happen in the years to come," he said.

With files from Radio-Canada's Jean-François Deschênes