New Brunswick

Atlantic sturgeon season approved as DFO ponders species status

A small commercial fishery for Atlantic sturgeon in the St. John River will begin as usual next month, despite a looming federal decision on whether to list the giant fish under Canada's Species at Risk Act.

Minister Gail Shea must decide if massive fish are 'threatened'

A small commercial fishery for Atlantic sturgeon in the St. John River will begin as usual next month, despite a looming federal decision on whether to list the giant fish under Canada's Species at Risk Act.

There are currently four licences to harvest Atlantic sturgeon for meat and caviar in the St. John River. Fisheries and Oceans Canada has set a quota of 350 fish, or 125 females, whichever comes first.

The commercial fishery for the Atlantic sturgeon in the St. John River usually harvests between 350 and 400 individuals per year. (Ministry of Natural Resources)
"We've just recently concluded the consultations on the potential listing of the species under the Species at Risk Act, so we're still putting together that information and finalizing our analysis in order to make a recommendation to send up the line," said David Millar, regional director of ecosystem management for DFO in the Maritimes.

"We're not expecting a decision in the immediate future, so we would not expect that to effect this season," said Millar.

Once the department's analysis of Atlantic sturgeon reaches the federal cabinet, the minister of fisheries and oceans will have nine months to make a decision. In 2011, an arms-length scientific body, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), did an assessment on the fish and determined they are at risk of extinction.

COSEWIC recommended at the time that Atlantic Sturgeon be listed as 'threatened,' a formal category under the Species at Risk Act. That would automatically close the commercial fishery and trigger the development of a recovery strategy and action plan.

The minister will have three options. She can accept the COSEWIC recommendation, reject it, "or the minister could decide to refer it back to COSEWIC if its believed there is new information that could change the assessment," said Millar.

Business as usual

All the Atlantic sturgeon harvested in the St. John River are processed at the Acadian Sturgeon and Caviar facility on the Kingston Peninsula.

Owner Cornel Ceapa is currently in Montreal trying to drum up business.

Cornel Ceapa holds caviar ready to ship at the Acadian Sturgeon and Caviar plant on the Kingston Peninsula
"I'm meeting some clients, and have events set up, like talking to students at a chef school to introduce them to sturgeon and caviar, then I'll go to Toronto and do the same things," he said.

Ceapa has already been issued tags by DFO and he expects to put his nets in the water around May 15, though he said that may be optimistic.

"We expect because of the temperature, this winter has been so cold, I do expect this to be a late season."

Ceapa said he's worried, but "cautiously optimistic" that the federal government will decide not to list Atlantic sturgeon as threatened.

"I do believe there is no reason for this listing to proceed, but of course there is always, `What if?'" he said. "As an entrepreneur you always have risks that you take and fears that you have to overcome, but we do know this population of sturgeon is not in danger."

Critics blast listing proposal

The 2011 scientific assessment from COSEWIC that triggered DFOs review of Atlantic Sturgeon found that there may be only 1,000 to 2,000 breeding sturgeon in the Maritimes, spawning in a single location on the St. John River.

It said commercial fishing poses a threat to the population, but the report contains numerous references to insufficient data, including a statement "reliable population estimates and trends in abundance for this species in Canadian waters are non-existent."

One of the scientists whose research COSEWIC used heavily in their status report is calling on DFO to reject a 'threatened listing.'

Mike Dadswell, a retired Acadia University sturgeon researcher, says the report contains errors and out-of-date information. He submitted comments during DFO's recent public consultation.

"No government fisheries agency in Canada or the United States would make an assessment concerning a commercial or angling fishery with such incorrect and out of date information," wrote Dadswell.

He argued the Atlantic Sturgeon population in the St. John River "may be increasing," due to an absence of commercial fishing between 1998 and 2008. He said the population size of up to 2,000 breeding fish used by COSEWIC is a significant underestimate, and puts the true number of around 11,500, which he says is "close to the virgin population of 11,000 adults in 1880."

Dadswell insists the small industry built around Atlantic sturgeon in New Brunswick is sustainable. Representatives of COSEWIC have told CBC that the 2011 assessment of the species was based on the best information available at the time.

When DFOs analysis makes it to the office of the fisheries minister, Millar says a notice will be published in the Canada Gazette, and the nine=month clock to make a decision will begin ticking.

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