Nova Scotia

Spawning-age mackerel at record lows in Atlantic Canada

Another grim picture of mackerel, a fish in or near the critical zone for a decade, has been released. The 2015 class that supported the commercial fishery is now almost all gone.

The last large class that supported the commercial fishery is now almost all gone

DFO's latest assessment of Atlantic Canada's mackerel population paints a grim picture. (Jean-Pierre Muller/AFP/Getty Images)

The number of mackerel old enough to spawn is at the lowest level ever recorded in Atlantic Canadian waters, according to a new assessment from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

The information is expected to be shared with industry, environmentalists and other stakeholders at a meeting Tuesday of the Atlantic Mackerel Advisory Committee.

Scientists say the popular bait and recreational fish has been in or near the critical zone, where serious harm is occurring, for a decade.

Big class that sustained fishery nearly all gone

The last big class of mackerel to reach reproductive age occurred in 2015. Four years later, they made up 75 per cent of commercial landings.

Now they're almost all gone.

Scientists believe just seven per cent of the class is still alive.

"There is no sign of any notable recruitment event in recent years," according to the assessment.

Fishery concentrated on fish 2-5 years old

The commercial fishery is concentrated on mackerel between two and five years old, of which 56 per cent are removed by fishing.

Very few — less than one per cent — live beyond age five, said the assessment.

Katie Schleit, an environmentalist with the conservation group Oceans North, said there has long been concern about the status of the mackerel stock and high catch levels.

"DFO needs to seriously restrict fishing pressure to promote recovery," said Schleit. "We are removing these important forage fish from the ecosystem not to eat, but to put in the lobster traps. It's time that DFO also considers new solutions to promote alternative sources of bait."

Projections for rebuilding

The assessment suggests the brakes need to be put on the fishery to allow more older, bigger spawners to survive.

The total allowable catch covers all of Atlantic Canada. It was 8,000 tonnes last year, and 7,772 tonnes were landed.

"According to the precautionary approach, removals from all sources should be as low as possible to allow rebuilding. Rebuilding the stock will also require rebuilding the age structure of the stock which has been eroded by overexploitation," the assessment said.

A graph showing the latest Spawning Stock Biomass (SSB) of the northern contingent of Atlantic mackerel. It hit the lowest value ever observed, 58% of the Lower Reference Point (LRP), in 2020. (Fisheries & Oceans Canada)

The research also includes projections on the likelihood of mackerel getting out of the critical zone by 2023.

Those vary depending on the quota and the number of mackerel reaching age two when they are old enough to spawn, which is known as recruitment.

With a quota of 10,000 tonnes, there is a 29 per cent probability the stock will exit the critical zone. The probability rises to 58 per cent if there is no fishing.

2021 quota not yet known

The 2021 quota is expected to be released by DFO in a month or two.

It is a competitive quota available to whoever catches it first — an advantage for fishermen in the Maritimes where mackerel first appear after moving northward from overwintering in U.S. waters.

Landings were valued at $6.7 million in 2019, which is down from $10 million in each of the previous two years.

Some in the industry have disputed DFO assessments in the past.

They claim mackerel are more numerous, especially in Newfoundland and Labrador, and argue the department has underestimated spawning by mistiming its surveys of eggs in the main spawning ground in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.