'We're doing everything right': Clearwater defends its lobster fishery

The company offered media a tour this week on board its 40-metre offshore lobster vessel, the Randell Dominaux, at its home port in Shelburne.

Company has an important eco-sustainability certification at stake

With a fisheries conviction in the news and an important eco-sustainability certification at stake, Halifax-based Clearwater Seafoods is defending the way it conducts its offshore Canadian lobster fishery.

Clearwater allowed media to tour its offshore lobster vessel, the Randell Dominaux, in Shelburne. (CBC)
The company offered media a tour this week on board its 40-metre offshore lobster vessel, the Randell Dominaux, at its home port in Shelburne.

"This is, I think, a model fishery," said Capt. Randall Scott in a wheelhouse interview. "We're doing everything right."

To support the claim, Clearwater released statistics showing a 50 per cent cut in the number of traps deployed and vertical lines in the water since 2013.

Deployed traps fell to 5,200 from 10,200 in 2018, while buoy lines — running from bottom to surface — have dropped to 104 from 204.

"Less lines means less risk to whales and less risk of entanglement," said Christine Penney, Clearwater's vice-president.

Fewer traps needed

Clearwater was recently cited for a fisheries conviction but Capt. Randall Scott says the company is "doing everything right." (CBC)
Thanks to positioning technology, the Randell Dominaux targets highest catch-rate areas allowing it to catch the company's 720-tonne quota with fewer traps.

Clearwater holds all licences in Canada's offshore Lobster Fishing Area 41. The boundary begins 50 miles from shore to Canada's 200-mile limit. In practice, the fishery takes place off southern Nova Scotia.

The offshore quota accounts for 15 per cent of Clearwater's lobster sales, but one per cent of total Canadian landings.

Citing a recent Fisheries Department science document, Clearwater said the accidental catch of non-lobster species dropped by 83 per cent between 2008 and 2016 — down to 21 tonnes from 128 tonnes.

"We are making improvements," said Penney.

'Gross violation' in lobster fishery

Clearwater was convicted last fall for storing 3,800 unbaited lobster traps on the ocean floor. The company blames "unforeseen" issues including weather. (CBC)
Clearwater was convicted last fall for storing 3,800 unbaited lobster traps on the ocean floor over a two-month period in the fall of 2017.

The September 2018 guilty plea was made public by CBC News in January.

The incident was described in court as a "gross violation" of Canada's so-called 72-hour soak rule — a fishery regulation requiring gear to be tended every 72 hours.

Worse, the Crown said, Clearwater ignored warnings issued in 2016 from the Department of Fisheries to stop the practice.

"We no longer store gear on the bottom. That's been stopped for a couple of years," said Capt. Scott.

72-hour rule unresolved

He said DFO was aware of the practice for 30 years and did not object until 2016, when the department issued a directive to stop storing traps at sea. The directive followed a two-year "compliance review," that included a boarding at sea by DFO conservation and protection fishery officers.

Both Scott and Penney insisted Clearwater complied and said the episodes in 2017 leading to the conviction were the result of "unforeseen" issues involving mechanical breakdown, spare parts or weather.

"They highlighted concerns around the historical practice of storing gear at sea in 2016, and we have addressed that and stopped that practice. So for us, this is an ongoing dialogue with DFO," said Penney.

DFO is considering amending the rule, but insists Clearwater follow it until any changes are made.

"It's widely known in the fishery that it's not practical for the offshore fishery to stay in that 72-hour rule. It's an outdated rule," said Scott.

In fact, he admitted the company is still non-compliant with an estimated average of five days between tending the 4,300 traps in the water today.

CBC kicked off wharf

In January, the Shelburne Port manager ordered CBC to leave the wharf on Clearwater's orders, the same day it was revealed Clearwater had been convicted of a "gross violation" in the lobster fishery. (CBC)
The company's public relations outreach in Shelburne was different from the reception it gave CBC News in January, the day it revealed Clearwater had been convicted of the "gross violation" in the lobster fishery.

Randell Dominaux crewmen told CBC not to take pictures of the boat and the Shelburne Port manager ordered CBC off the wharf on the orders of Clearwater.

The increased scrutiny of the fishery also includes an audit by the influential Marine Stewardship Council.

On Feb. 15, the seafood sustainability certification body said a third-party audit of Clearwater's offshore lobster fishery was being moved ahead by two months and would include a review of the conviction.

Clearwater said it asked for the audit to be moved up and is confident it will confirm the offshore lobster fishery is sustainably managed.

The audit will be carried out by Acoura, a company that has consistently certified the Clearwater fishery as sustainable.

Results will be released publicly in June.

At stake is the MSC eco-friendly label currently displayed on Clearwater's packaging.

About the Author

Paul Withers

Reporter

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.