Nfld. & Labrador

Baker | The problem of too much fish

Prices for halibut are soaring, and there's plenty of it too. But as Fisheries Broadcast host Jamie Baker explains, the situation is far from good news.
Prices for halibut are high, but only a few people have been able to take advantage of them. (CBC )

If you've been listening to the Fisheries Broadcast lately you've been hearing about a peculiar problem: Seems there's too much fish around, and it's shagging up the fishery.

Yes, you read that correctly.

Let me explain.

The main source of the problem is halibut. Halibut is one of the few groundfish in the water that is actually worth something — on average around $3.70 per pound, compared to say, cod, which is worth about 50 cents a pound. And not only is halibut valuable, but there's apparently lots of it showing up in the last few years.

Great news, right?

Not so fast.

The way halibut is managed, only a few folks could actually fish for halibut this year on the west and south coasts; and even the ones that did had a relatively small quota. To make matters worse, the abundance of halibut has actually caused other fisheries to shut down — like turbot in the Gulf of St. Lawrence — because fishermen are getting too much halibut as by-catch instead of whatever they are fishing for.

And the worst part of all is that the rules say once you have caught a certain amount of halibut in either directed fishing or as by-catch you have to discard the rest, dead or alive. One fisherman told me he watched $4,000 worth of dead halibut go to the bottom that could've been brought ashore.

The tricky business of managing stocks

Knowing what we know about the northern cod and the discard and waste that happened there in the heyday of that fishery, there is no way we should be throwing fish overboard like that in 2013.

But you see, fish stock management is a tricky business since the moratorium.

You can get a quota reduced almost overnight, but to get one increased takes the patience of Solomon and the longevity of Methuselah.

The politicians, decision-makers and even some of the scientists of those times — rightly or wrongly — got their hind quarters figuratively booted from pillar to post over the perception that they failed to recognize and react to drops in fish stocks in the years leading up to 1992. And that perception has resulted in a system today that is ultra-conservative.

Decisions are currently made using what you often hear referred to as "the precautionary approach," which basically means following something closer to the worst-case scenario instead of the best. For the most part, the precautionary approach is one that works pretty well.

But that approach is mostly geared to ensure fish stocks don't decline, and to deal with issues that arise when they do decline.

It's not really set up to deal with sudden fish stock explosions, like we are reportedly seeing in halibut.

Don't hold your breath

Seriously, what do you do when a fish stock suddenly grows to the point they are practically wiggling up across the beaches into our front yards and scravelling at the clapboard? You can get a quota reduced almost overnight, but to get one increased takes the patience of Solomon and the longevity of Methuselah.

And even if you did get an increase in halibut in the Gulf, it likely wouldn't be an increase solely for the Newfoundland and Labrador fishermen. You see, that quota is one that is shared between a few groups, including fishermen in Quebec.

So an increase in the overall quota would mean not only would the Newfoundland and Labrador slice of the overall pie would increase, but so too would everyone else's.

No quick fix

The total allowable catch in the Gulf is currently set at 720 tonnes. Of that total, fishermen on the west coast of Newfoundland get 194.1 tonnes (about 27 per cent of the quota). The Gaspé fleet gets 262.18 tonnes, Quebec Lower North Shore and the Magdalen Islands fleets get 59.13 and 42.24 tonnes respectively, and the rest is shared up between fleets from New Brunswick, P.E.I., and Nova Scotia.

So any increase in the quota means this province would only get 27 per cent of whatever the overall increase might be, and the rest will go to harvesters in other provinces.

It's a tough situation with no easy fix.

But the word is that changes could be coming in the near future.

We've often heard people complain that there's too many fishermen and not enough fish.

Who knew that too many fish could be an even more problematic scenario?

Big rubber boots to fill

By now you may have heard that I will be replacing the irreplaceable John Furlong in the wheelhouse of The Fisheries Broadcast for the coming year.

The Fisheries Broadcast was part of the upbringing for many young gaffers from around the bay.

To be asked to join the incredibly talented and hard-working CBC Radio and Television team, and to host an iconic program like the Broadcast, now in its 63rd year on the air, is more than a privilege. It's borderline overwhelming.

The first time I sat in the chair in the studio to guest-host The Broadcast and heard that unmistakable theme song come up in my ears, I couldn't help but feel a little nostalgic (in addition to suddenly getting nervous to the point that I almost threw up all over the desk). The Fisheries Broadcast was part of the upbringing for many young gaffers from around the bay. Whether you were involved in the fishery or not, the show was part of the social consciousness, telling the story of the fishery and also of the people and the communities that participated in it.

I am honoured to follow in the footsteps of some extremely well-known and highly respected journalists: Right off the top of my head I can rattle of the names of Jim Wellman, Chris O'Neill-Yates, Jim Winter, Anne Budgell, John Murphy, Kathryn King, Wilf Dyke, Hal Andrews, Dave Quinton, Rab Carnell, Herb Davis, Kathy Porter, and of course the most recent skipper, Mr. Furlong. 

The fishing industry is a different industry that it was 30 years ago, but it's far from dead. It's actually evolving. There are surely some painful changes coming, especially it seems on the processing side of the equation; but I can tell you the business opportunities in harvesting, and the potential for proper marketing to grow the value of the fish resources around us is better than good.

No other industry directly benefits such a wide variety of people in so many areas like the fishery does. Oil may fill the government wallet, but the fishery returns go mostly into people's pockets — 20,000 of those folks directly, and many thousands more indirectly.

I can tell you that in the next year The Broadcast will continue to tell the story of the fishery, to ask the tough questions and get to the bottom of the issues just like it always has.

Full steam ahead.