Nova Scotia

Fishermen relieved Atlantic bluefin tuna dodges endangered species label

Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans has rejected advice to list the Atlantic Bluefin tuna as an endangered species.

Species-at-risk designation would have 'significant socioeconomic cost,' says DFO

Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans will not list Atlantic Bluefin tuna as an endangered species. (CBC)

Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans has rejected advice to list the Atlantic bluefin tuna as an endangered species.

The long-awaited recommendation should preserve the region's $10-million bluefin tuna fishery, industry representatives say.

The department says western Atlantic bluefin tuna stocks have been rebuilding since 2011, when the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada said tuna should be listed as an endangered species under federal species-at-risk legislation.

Fisherman 'very relieved'

That would have made it illegal to kill, harm or capture the giant fish.

Glenn MacKenzie of the Gulf Nova Scotia Tuna Association said he was "very relieved."

He's one of 135 commercial tuna fishermen who fish from the Nova Scotia side of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. 

"The science proves that the stock is becoming healthier, more abundant and sustainable," MacKenzie said Monday.

'Significant socioeconomic cost'

On Monday, the federal government announced 12 aquatic species it would be listing as species-at-risk, including loggerhead sea turtle, two populations of leatherback sea turtle and two populations of beluga whales.

In Atlantic Canada, there are 645 commercial licences to fish bluefin tuna and another 57 for bluefin sport fishing charter operations. All were threatened by an endangered species designation.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans warned a species-at-risk designation "would result in a significant socioeconomic cost" for commercial fisheries.

'Increasing year upon year'

Lost landed value is estimated to be worth an annual $6.6 million to $8.7 million, lost profit up to $2.6 million and lost charter business an another $1.9 million.

"From the fishing industries perspective, it's not a species that is at risk," industry gear supplier Troy Atkinson said.

"We've seen nothing but numbers increasing year upon year upon year."

Quotas could change

In its analysis posted in the Canada Gazette Saturday, DFO said the original recommendation was made based on data up to 2009.

"However, since that time, the status of the western stock of Atlantic bluefin tuna has improved significantly," the report said.

DFO said the biomass is expected to continue to increase under current catches, which are set at 2,000 tonnes in 2016. Canada's share is about 450 tonnes.

DFO also noted a species-at-risk listing "is not expected to have a positive impact on the species" since the international commission that manages western Atlantic bluefin stocks could allocate the Canadian portion to other countries.

'End up being worse'

That's a point brought up by industry representatives, including Atkinson.

"They may utilize it in a less well-managed fishery than we have here in Canada, so it could also end up being worse," said Atkinson.

He's also president of the Nova Scotia Swordfishmen's Association, members of which hold licences to land tuna as a bycatch.

'Maintaining the status quo'

But critics such as Heather Grant of Halifax-based Ecology Action Centre argue DFO has not done a good job managing the tuna stocks.

Under the current allowable catch, there is only a 50 per cent chance the stocks will stabilize or increase, she said.

"It really looks like they are going to be maintaining the status quo, in terms of what they are willing to do, and we don't think that's acceptable," Grant said.

The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas will reassess the stock next month. A review of the total allowable catch is expected in November.

Meanwhile, members of the public have 30 days to comment on DFO's recommendation that bluefin tuna not be listed as a species-at-risk.


Paul Withers


Paul Withers is an award-winning journalist whose career started in the 1970s as a cartoonist. He has been covering Nova Scotia politics for more than 20 years.