Nfld. & Labrador

As dead mackerel wash ashore in western Newfoundland, fisherman says quotas are too low

Skipper Michael Joyce of Lark Harbour says it's frustrating that fishermen were not permitted to catch any of the fish last season.

Skipper Michael Joyce says fish littering the shore indicates stocks higher than expected

Michael Joyce, skipper of the Polly B., figures mackerel stocks are higher than what DFO's assessments indicate. (Troy Turner/CBC)

A Lark Harbour fisherman says it's frustrating to see thousands of mackerel wash up dead on local shores, while fishermen were not permitted to catch any of the fish last season.

"The fish is there — it's a sin," Michael Joyce told CBC News. "We could have made a good living this year — the processors, the fishermen, the plant workers. And instead, we're here (in January) and watching fish come up on our shorelines that we couldn't catch this year."

Joyce has been skipper of the Polly B. since 2006. Before that, he fished on other boats. Over the past 15 years, he's watched as the quotas for mackerel have decreased.

In 2005, the total allowable commercial catch in Canada was 55,000 tonnes for all of Atlantic Canada. In 2019, the quota was only 8,000 tonnes. This meant all the allowable catch was caught by the time the fish migrated as far north as western Newfoundland.

Gulls and crows have made quick work of many of the fish washing ashore near Corner Brook. (Troy Turner/CBC)

In October, Joyce said, there was a boatload of mackerel just offshore from where he docks his boat in Frenchman's Cove. However, he couldn't fish them as the quota had been filled in the Maritimes.

Couple that with the thousands of dead fish found last week, and he says it's evident mackerel stocks are not as low as predicted, and he says the Department of Fisheries and Oceans needs to take a serious look at the quota.

"I definitely think it should be a lot bigger quota than what we've got," he said. "Eight-thousand tonnes is a joke for all the provinces. There's mackerel coming to our doorstep. It's washing up on our beaches."

Joyce said he's not suggesting the quota go back to what it was 20 years ago, nor does he want to see the species jeopardized. He feels there is room to increase it, however, and allow the harvesters of Newfoundland and Labrador to catch mackerel.

He hopes future DFO decision-making around the quotas will include input from the fishermen in the area.

"It's time they start looking at stuff different — whatever formulas and stuff, they got to do something different," Joyce said.

DFO scientist Andrew Smith says, despite the fish washing ashore in western Newfoundland, mackerel stocks are not at healthy levels. (Radio-Canada)

'Stock is not there'

Andrew Smith, a stock assessment biologist for Atlantic mackerel with DFO, says the input of harvesters is an important part of studying fish stocks, but he said the scientific data doesn't support the idea that stocks are higher than estimated.

"The stock is not there," Smith said. "There's been very low biomass in the past couple of years, there's been very low recruitment — that's new fish coming into the population."

Mackerel can live up to 20 years, said Smith. However, of all the recent studies on the fish, he said, DFO has found very few older than six or seven years.

The last stock assessment for the northwest Atlantic mackerel was in March. At the time, it was found to be in what DFO calls a "critical zone," meaning stocks are very low. He said it's too early to tell what the 2020 quotas will be.

The Riverside Drive area of Corner Brook is where hundreds of mackerel have washed ashore. (Troy Turner/CBC)

Smith says he's seen dead fish in other regions as well, with instances when the mackerel have been stuck in cold columns of water by the ice. The fish normally swim in water about 7 C and are unable to survive in colder temperatures, he said.

Given mackerel have been found as far north as Hopedale, Labrador, in 2019, he said it's possible many fish took longer to migrate south and didn't get past the icy waters of western Newfoundland.

"It could be, as foraging offshore during a nice warm summer they went further aboard and when coming back for their southerly migration they got stuck in a little patch of warm water that increasingly shrunk. But this is just a guess based on previous documentation of similar occurrences."

Smith cautions against eating the fish washed ashore, due to the risk of scombroid poisoning, an illness that can result from eating spoiled fish.

Dead mackerel have been washing ashore near Corner Brook for the past week. (Troy Turner/CBC)

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