Nova Scotia

COVID-19 prompts ban on at-sea observers from Canadian fishing vessels

The federal government has temporarily set aside its requirement for at-sea observers in Canadian commercial fisheries because of COVID-19.

'Observers are a really important part of our fishing system,' says rep for Ecology Action Centre

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans says the at-sea monitoring program poses a public health risk for both observers and crews on board. (Canadian Press)

The federal government has temporarily set aside its requirement for at-sea observers in Canadian commercial fisheries because of COVID-19.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) says the at-sea monitoring program poses a public health risk for both observers and crews on board.

An order immediately suspending at-sea observer coverage was signed by federal Fisheries and Oceans Minister Bernadette Jordan on April 2 and will remain in effect for 45 days.

Some inshore fisheries in Canada do not require at-sea observers, but they are now routinely present on larger vessels as a licensing condition in many Canadian fisheries.

Fishing companies pick up the cost of the observers, who collect scientific data and monitor fishing activity and compliance with the rules.

Observer coverage is also seen as a litmus test for eco-certifications, which tell consumers a fishery is environmentally sustainable.

"As of today, we're still trying to understand what the full impact of this is going to be," said Albert Moore, general manager of Javitech Atlantic. "The impact is huge, but it's really hard to gauge how huge it will be."

The Nova Scotia company employs 50 at-sea observers who monitor multiple, high-value fisheries throughout Atlantic Canada, including lobster, snow crab, scallop, shrimp, tuna and swordfish.

Moore said the order caught his company and others in the industry off guard.

Moore said on smaller vessels, observers and fishing crews operate largely on trust that no one had travelled or was exposed to the coronavirus.

'We felt quite safe'

On bigger boats, he said there is far more screening.

"The companies were on top of this right from the start," Moore said. "There was prescreening set up in the various ports.

"Everybody going aboard was checked. There's daily checks that are done on everybody. There's rooms for quarantine set up on board. We felt quite safe going on there in all honesty."

Similar step taken around the world

The decision is no surprise to Jay Lugar, head of fisheries and outreach for the Marine Stewardship Council, the London-based non-profit that's one of the world's best known eco-certifiers.

"Many fishery management agencies around the world, including DFO in Canada, have waived or altered their requirements for at-sea observers," Lugar said in an email to CBC News.

Last week, MSC pressed pause on all audits and certifications for six months in light of COVID-19.

That means Canadian fisheries with the MSC label will keep their endorsement, even with the at-sea observer program on hold.

'We support the government's decision,' says environmental group

A Canadian environmental group says Ottawa made the right call.

For now, DFO will have to rely on log books and landings data, said Shannon Arnold of the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax.

"Observers are a really important part of our fishing system," she said. "They provide all sorts of science and research that needs to be done to make sure that we can assess what fishing is happening and whether fishing is happening sustainably out there.

"We hope that as soon as it's safe, the government will make it a priority to make sure they budget for that and support fleets be able to have them again. But right now, you know, health is paramount and we support the government's decision here."

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