Nova Scotia

Atlantic mackerel moratorium jeopardizes rod-and-reel bluefin tuna fishery: fishermen

The moratorium on commercial mackerel fishing in Atlantic Canada is threatening to take a big bite out of the Maritimes' lucrative rod-and-reel bluefin tuna fishery.

Charter boat operators are seeking an exemption to be able to use mackerel as live bait

Three generations of the MacDougall family are seen with a giant bluefin tuna. Charter operator Kevin MacDougall (back right) is trying to convince DFO to let commercial fishermen use a small amount of mackerel as live bait, despite the Atlantic moratorium. (Submitted photo)

The moratorium on commercial mackerel fishing in Atlantic Canada is threatening to take a big bite out of the Maritimes' lucrative rod-and-reel bluefin tuna fishery.

With the season in Nova Scotia set to open in less than a month, fishermen in the province say their fleet risks becoming collateral damage in Canada's effort to preserve the depleted Atlantic mackerel stock.

"The amount of mackerel that I'll put on a hook is truly insignificant in the overall grand scheme of … rebuilding the mackerel stock," said Kevin MacDougall, who runs a tuna sportfishing charter from Ballantynes Cove, outside Antigonish, N.S.

"It is essentially quite minimal."

The fleet may use a relatively small amount of live mackerel, but he said not having any is a big problem.

Collateral damage from mackerel moratorium

In March the Department of Fisheries and Oceans imposed a total moratorium on commercial mackerel fishing throughout Atlantic Canada.

The commercial quota went from 8,000 metric tonnes — or 17 million pounds — in 2021 to zero.

Live mackerel is not the only bait used in the bluefin rod and reel fishery, but in some cases it is the difference between success and failure, said MacDougall.

"A lot of times the only way you're going to get the tuna to bite your hook is if you have a live mackerel on your hook," he said on a blustery day on the Ballantynes Cove wharf.

MacDougall is one of Nova Scotia's 135 commercial tuna licence holders in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The group includes about 20 who, like MacDougall, operate charters which are mostly catch and release.

They all catch tuna the same way — with a rod and reel.

Nova Scotia bluefin tuna fishermen John Gavin and Kevin MacDougall in Ballantynes Cove outside Antigonish. They say their rod-and-reel fishery poses no risk to mackerel stocks. (Paul Withers CBC)

Kites and helium-filled balloons keep mackerel on the surface

Typically a boat might use 10 to 20 mackerel per trip, kept on board in a live well. Those not used on a trip are tossed back.

The mackerel are trawled and kept on the surface by a line attached to a kite or helium-filled balloon.

The Gulf fleet and others in the Maritimes are lobbying the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to allow them up to 20 mackerel a day — the same number allowed for recreational anglers.

Chef Mark Gabrieau runs a white-tablecloth restaurant in Antigonish. He says tuna charters have a big economic impact in the area. (Paul Withers)

"We're not asking for any great amount of it but to have access to a few is very essential," said John Gavin, another charter boat operator in Ballantynes Cove.

He said the fleet takes so few mackerel, fishermen assumed it would be exempt.

"It wasn't really on our radar until the 30th of March when the closure came through. And then reality started to kick in that we wouldn't be able to use mackerel.… It's a necessity for us to have them."


The spinoffs from the charter fishery go well beyond the wharf, said chef Mark Gabrieau, who runs a white-tablecloth restaurant in Antigonish.

He points to accommodations, car rentals and other spending by well-heeled clients.

"The six weeks that this fishery is on it, in my case, brings in more sales in those six weeks than it does my other three best months," he said.

"You have to exempt them. It's simple."

A wicked tuna problem

The situation creates a dilemma for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Granting the exemption could open the door to other requests.

It's also being pressed to justify the limited conservation benefits of denying mackerel to the rod-and-reel tuna fishery, given the impact on the latter.

The department did not respond to a request for comment, which included questions about its calculations of the amount of mackerel used by the bluefin tuna fishery throughout the Maritimes.