DFO reviewing cod quota policy after report says it may encourage dangerous fishing

A Transportation Safety Board report says some DFO policies may put pressure on harvesters to hit the water no matter how bad the weather is.

Report comes from investigation into the deaths of four men who were fishing in bad weather

Jacqueline Perry is a regional director of fisheries management for DFO's Newfoundland and Labrador region. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

Fisheries and Oceans Canada said it will be taking a long, hard look at its regulations after a report said a few of the department's policies could be putting pressure on harvesters to fish in dangerous conditions.

The report was issued in late November by the Transportation Safety Board after an investigation into the death of four fishermen from Shea Heights whose boat went down in the waters off Cape Spear.

"We share the concern that rules that we may be developing, although in consultation with harvesters, are potentially contributing to risky situations and putting lives at risk," said Jacqueline Perry, a DFO regional director of fisheries management.

Eugene Walsh, his son Keith Walsh, grandson Keith Walsh Jr. and family friend Bill Humby died last fall when their fishing vessel sank off Cape Spear. (Terry Ryan)

The men were fishing in high winds and two-meter waves and, according to the report, they may have been out there because they felt certain DFO policies gave them no other choice.

DFO had originally declined to provide specific remarks about the report's findings, saying it was still reviewing the document.

Now the department is ready to speak.

"We will take very seriously the transportation safety board's recommendations and factor that into our decision making as we prepare for the 2018 fishery," said Perry.

'People are still dying'

The report highlights two policies in particular: the one-week quota for the cod fishery and the requirement that harvesters empty their traps within 48 hours of setting them.

The one-week quota allows harvesters to catch a set amount of fish each week. If that fish isn't caught, the harvester can't make up the loss by catching more the next week.

Jason Sullivan is a fisherman and FISH-NL’s captain of the under 40-foot fleet. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

"Guys who may need that income are being forced out in weather they shouldn't be out in," said Jason Sullivan, a fisherman and FISH-NL's captain of the under 40-foot fleet. "I know I'd put myself at a lot of risk trying to feed my kids."

I'm just disappointed that people are still dying because of these policies that have no business being in the fishery.- Jason Sullivan

As for the requirement that traps be hauled within 48 hours of being set, the report said DFO offers exceptions, but that the department doesn't communicate this well enough.

"There's got to be more exceptions and more clarity around it," Sullivan agrees, saying in some cases, it can take a harvester nearly 48 hours to get out to their traps and back in good weather.

"I'm just disappointed that people are still dying because of these policies that have no business being in the fishery."

Pressure is always there

DFO will be reviewing the report and taking its recommendations to heart as the department does its seasonal analysis in preparation for next year's fishery, said Perry.

She said they will look at the one-week quota system, but that pressure to fish in dangerous weather happens with many other systems.

Crew in Triton, NL, load their cod catch into bins. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

Before the weekly limit was in place, cod harvesters used to have just three weeks to catch 5,000 pounds of fish, she said.

"So you can imagine the motivation to get out during those three weeks was intense, regardless of the weather conditions," she said.

Perry said DFO will announce whether they've changed the quota management in the spring.

"It takes a while," she said. "Some years are more controversial than others depending on how divergent views are, and views are divergent."