Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.
First of all, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Réginald Cotton, et I am from Rivière-au-Renard in the Gaspé. I am one of the groundfishers who have been forced to fish small, temporary shrimp quotas since the moratorium.
We have provided you with the document on which we have been working for almost a year now. I am the spokesperson for the Association des capitaines-propriétaires de la Gaspésie. I represent nine mid-shore fishermen's associations from the southern gulf. I am the spokesperson for the Association des pêcheurs de la MRC Pabok, for the Regroupement des pêcheurs professionnels des Îles-de-la-Madeleine, for the Association québécoise de l'industrie de la pêche, for the Association des pêcheurs de poisson de fonds acadiens, for the Association des pêcheurs spécialistes indépendants du poisson de fond, for the Association des morutiers professionnels de la Gaspésie, for the Northern Cape Breton Fishing Vessels Association, and for the Prince Edward Island Groundfish Association. Moreover, two governments are working in partnership with us, the Government of Quebec and the Government of Nova Scotia. I represent all those groups.
I am here today because there is an important problem regarding cod in the southern gulf. There is a huge gap between what the science is saying, and what fishers are seeing and catching out at sea. The same thing happen in the northern gulf. The gulf is divided into two parts. The northern gulf is managed separately by Newfoundland and the Institut Maurice-Lamontagne. The southern gulf is managed out of Moncton.
Several years ago, things in the northern gulf changed. Newfoundland fishermen would go fishing, catch cod, and see cod. They said so to the scientists managing the northern gulf, and things improved for them.
Last week, the fishing plan for the northern gulf was announced. Fishermen will be allowed to catch 7,000 tonnes of cod. The biomass is much greater in the southern gulf, and there is talk of instituting a third moratorium. As I said earlier, the fishers and the associations that represent them are seeing a huge gap between what they see and what science perceives. We would like to close that gap and remedy the problem to some extent. We would like to harmonize the fishery in the north and south, which would mean changing certain things.
For example, let me tell you about the tool people in the southern gulf are using to inventory stock — the trawler. They use it to catch cod and inventory cod stocks. That trawler dates back to Noah's time. Even fishermen stopped using it in the 1950s because they could not get it to work. At the same time, there are other things that I will not go into since all those details are in the document we distributed.
The northern gulf stopped using that trawler several years ago. And scientists in the northern gulf say that catches in that sector have gone up fivefold. That does not mean the cod suddenly appeared — it was already there. However, because the inventorying tool works much better, it provides a better picture of what is there. I am not going to go on too long about this, since you have the document.
We are asking the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to do something to improve the data on the southern gulf. For economic reasons, DFO dropped one of the inventorying trips several years ago, so there is no longer a spring inventory. This is the gulf, and in the Gaspé the cod come in during the spring and leave during the fall. I am fairly convinced — as are all fishers and associations that I represent, even the governments I represent — that the best way of measuring cod stocks coming into the Gulf of St. Lawrence is to measure and count the fish that come in in spring.
One major criticism we have is that DFO people — the scientists in Moncton — are measuring stock in the southern gulf in August. That is when they do the inventory. I am probably the only fisher here today, and with good reason, but if you ask all Atlantic fishers, even professionals will agree with me in saying that no one has ever been able to fish for cod in August. I am 57 now, and I have been fishing since I was 16 or 17. It has always been that way. We do not know why.
We, the fishermen, think that it is probably because the cod is living the gulf in the fall in preparation for its migration. I don't know whether this cod is in another water column or in areas where we can't find it, but scientists take advantage of this time of year to take inventory of the stocks. That is one of the main reasons why these people don't have any data. Every time they go out, there are no cod.
I can draw a parallel with the salmon fishery. In our region in the Gaspé Peninsula, there are highly ranked major spawning rivers. At the end of the 1800s, when the Canadian and Quebec governments realized that the Americans were very interested in salmon from the Gaspé, they first tried to inventory the fish stocks. They started to do that inventory when the salmon fishery opened. They realized that they could not find almost any salmon because during the salmon run, the salmon are going back into the river. So when they tried to count the fry in the salmon pools, they could not find very many. It's not that they didn't find any, it's that they didn't see them.
When the light is poor, it is impossible to see the salmon on the bottom. Most of the time, salmon hide behind large rocks. They hide under large tree trunks lying on the bottom of the riverbed. They are impossible to count. Scientists realized over the years, given the great interest in salmon sports fishing, that they could count them during the salmon run. That is why this method is still used today. In most major salmon rivers in Quebec and elsewhere, the salmon are counted during the salmon run, and that is the method that is still used today.
So, an easy way to understand what is happening in the southern part of the Gulf of St. Lawrence is to measure, as we've done in the past, the number of fish running upstream, but using modern methods.
The debate centres around this issue. Since the north has changed because of the trawler, various other things needed to be changed. Whether you are in the northern or southern part of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, even if there is an imaginary line drawn by humans, the cod don't necessarily recognize that line. We're talking about the same species, cod, in both the northern and southern part of the gulf. You can think of the Gulf of St. Lawrence as a lake. Even if it is separated into two, there is no reason to adopt such different methods in the northern and southern gulf.
That is why fishers have had a lot of questions for the past 15 years. The gap is growing exponentially year after year with scientists in the southern gulf, from Moncton. That is why we are here today. We are asking the Canadian government to closely examine this issue. Thanks to the work of scientists, Fisheries and Oceans Canada has quantitative data. But we know full well that thanks to our knowledge and our experience, we can provide it with qualitative data that is as valuable as the quantitative data provided by scientists.
Last summer, I took part in a science exchange in my region, Anse-à-Beaufils, in an old plant that had been renovated into an arts centre. Scientists and academics from all over took part in this exchange. To my great surprise, I was invited to this event as a fisherman by the Government of Quebec and the Canadian government. There were some 100 people in the room, and I was the only fisherman. I wondered what I was doing there, alongside academics with titles as long as your arm. I was a bit surprised. The exchange was on climate change.
I was the first to get questions. I was asked, first, what I thought about climate change and what I had observed at sea. I shared my observations. They all told me that I was completely right. The groundfish are the most sensitive organisms to changes or climate change.
I have been saying that since the end of the 1980s. Even at the end of the 1980s, when we were catching a lot of cod, I was telling scientists that something was happening, because we could no longer catch the cod where we used to. For years, I, my colleagues and representatives of associations have been saying that the migration pattern had changed. But, not much has changed in the southern gulf, scientifically speaking.
Mr. Chair, we are asking our government to give us a chance. In our brief, we are asking for a three-year project, with a TAC of 4,000 tonnes. You might think that 4,000 tonnes is a lot, but for the fishermen in the entire Gulf of St. Lawrence, this is not a lot. I can tell you that, with a TAC of 1,500 to 2,000 tonnes for the southern gulf, the picture will look pretty bleak.
Four thousand tonnes would be appropriate if all the fishermen went out to sea. It is easy today, every fisherman knows what he can catch, be he from the Maritimes, Quebec, the Magdalen Islands or anywhere else. If it were set at 4,000 tonnes, every fisherman would go out. We are asking the government to record and analyze each trip by each fisherman. We strongly believe that the situation would be better than with a moratorium of 2,000 or 500 tonnes.
Mr. Chair, like all those whom I represent, I believe that the worst harm done to the biomass in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence was the result of the fishery being closed.
Here's an example that I often use when I'm asked to talk about the fisheries. If someone in my family had cancer, I would isolate them in a corner and leave them there. Because they had cancer they would be left to die in peace, even if it took two or three years. Why not take a chance and try to see other doctors or get other medication? It's the same thing with regard to the fishery. We, the fishermen, are here because of our experience, just like the fishermen from Newfoundland. If fishermen from Newfoundland have convinced scientists to change some things we should do the same in the southern gulf.
What you're telling us, if I am reading you correctly, is that the scientific evidence that's in place is completely false compared to the biomass reality of the southern gulf.
I'll give you some supporting evidence for that. You may be aware that the cod fishery in 4RS was shut down in 2003 because of the lack of the resource. Well, of course the cod fishery in 2007 in 4RS, in the northern gulf, was set at 7,000 metric tonnes. So it went from zero tonnes in 2003 to 7,000 tonnes in 2007. So could somebody explain to me that if the scientific evidence that led the closure of the cod fishery was accurate, how can the cod fishery now support a 7,000 metric tonne quota in 2007?
To me there seems to be a systemic problem with DFO's scientific credibility in collecting this information and in prescribing proper commercial approaches to the harvesting of this resource. You are doing a pre-emptive strike here to prevent that same mistake from happening in the southern gulf.
I want to put something to you. In the proposed new fisheries act, the powers of the minister are limited. You are here to implore the minister to use his existing powers to set quotas as he sees fit, and to have those decisions unchallenged by any court. Under the new fisheries act, the minister would actually have the requirement to follow scientific advice, as it exists, whether or not that scientific advice is responsible, reasonable, or meets the test of common sense. That requirement is in the proposed bill before Parliament today. If he doesn't follow that advice, various environmental organizations can challenge the decision of the minister in a federal court and create an injunction against the prosecution of the fishery.
Is the answer to the southern gulf's problem simply to pass the new fisheries act and to let ports decide what is appropriate or inappropriate, or would you rather have a minister with the ability to make judgments based not only on scientific evidence as it exists, but also on the evidence brought forward by fishermen from organizations that you represent, evidence that is not necessarily scientific-based, but based on generations of experience of being on the water?
Yes or no?
We wanted a political decision to be made to somewhat counter the scientific tendency. Immediately after having drafted the document, we went to meet with the scientists in Moncton, directly on the ground. It was, in a way, on enemy ground. We explained our approach to them. We told them that we were calling for a political decision, because we disagreed with them on their analysis of the health of the biomass. They listened to our demands, our point of view. Nevertheless, they disagree with us because they do not recognize fishers' qualitative assessment. They adhere strictly to a quantitative approach.
And yet, we know full well that from a scientific perspective, the quantitative approach accounts for neither socio-cultural and socio-economic components nor the impact felt by coastal communities. The impact is felt not only in the Gaspé, but also in Newfoundland. Not too long ago, we spoke about the disastrous consequences of the first moratorium in 1992 on fishing communities. In our area, we experienced the same situation as in the Maritime provinces. Villages were literally emptied of their inhabitants. In normal times, generations of young people would have decided on a career in the fishing industry because it is a culture, a world unto itself, a life that is completely foreign to that in the major centres. But all that has changed.
To some extent, that is what we are blaming scientists for, and that is why we went to Moncton to share our point of view with them. We told them that we would not do things in a clandestine manner. We tried convincing them to take part in a partnership project. Given that scientists' reading of the health of the biomass is in complete opposition to that of the fishing industry, which is really based on a qualitative assessment, we asked them to eventually assist us in conceiving a partnership project.
We have to realize that a partnership program involving the fishing industry and scientists is necessary, and that we can make a yearly assessment, and then changes. During the meeting, we told them that if they supported our approach, i.e., 4,000 tonnes over three years, the partnership program would allow us to clearly assess the health of the biomass. We also told them that if, at the end of the four-year assessment period, we also came to the conclusion that the health of the biomass was deteriorating, we would truly respect the precautionary approach and sustainable development strategy.
I did read an article where a scientist stated that seals in the Gulf of the St. Lawrence ate 40,000 metric tonnes of cod.
I believe that what fishermen are looking for is a point of no return. That is why we are here today. Four thousand tonnes of cod in the south of the Gulf of the St. Lawrence is a drop in the ocean. It is not true that we will destroy the resource by taking 4,000 tonnes of cod.
I'm going to explain something to you. In the northern part of the gulf, at 7,000 tonnes, the harvesting rate versus the total biomass is about 20%. In the southern part of the gulf, at 4,000 tonnes, the harvesting rate would be about 2 or 3%. So we can't understand.
The scientists who will appear after us will probably tell you that in the southern part of the gulf there are no more large codfish. We know why they can no longer find any large codfish: it is because of the gear they are using. As I explained a little earlier, in the southern part of the gulf at present, zone 4T2 is closed, because people cannot fish flounder due to an overabundance of cod. They are using 170 square mesh size to fish flounder. But they are catching too much cod in comparison with their flounder catch. They are catching cod because there is cod. We are not asking for 50,000 tonnes, we asking for 4,000 tonnes, to understand.
Here is our question to the department: Can we give ourselves one last chance to work together? Let's work together for three years to develop a program that takes science into account. We need these people, because we are not scientists. But I fully believe that scientists also need our contribution, our knowledge and expertise. When I have a toothache, I go to the dentist, not to a barber shop. So people who are working in the fishery should turn to the fishermen.
Just to quote one of my colleagues, I hate when politicians drive a wedge between fishermen and scientists. I tell you, there's a fair bit of self-loathing going on here in this room right now, I guess, if that's the case.
I'd like to ask you a question, Mr. Bevan, based on your own previous experience. DFO has had a track record of actually listening to fishermen when they present evidence that opposes a scientific point of view. And in fact there are numerous examples in recent history, current fisheries management plans, whereby that advice received from fishermen has been well-founded.
I can think of one example, on the northeast coast of Newfoundland, where scientific evidence presented to DFO, and by DFO to the minister, did not support an opening of a commercial cod fishery, or for that matter, to put it in a different tone, a test fishery or whatever. But the current minister made a decision to open that fishery, and in fact there does not appear to be any significant serious decline in those stocks. In fact the status quo seems to be prevailing.
We've had the situation in the northern gulf, where in 2002 we went from a quota of several thousand tonnes to a moratorium, and now just last year, three years later, we've gone to a situation where there is actually a very healthy fishery being prosecuted. In fact, DFO will be contemplating an increase in the resource.
Would you agree to this committee that there are problems with DFO science, that this advice is not necessarily well-founded?
In fact, in the northern gulf circumstance we know that the Alfred Needler, the DFO scientific vessel that was conducting those surveys, was actually out of commission for a long period of time, which actually brought us to the point where we imposed a moratorium in the northern gulf. The Alfred Needler was not in actual fact being.... The level of test fisheries that were being conducted was marginal, and in fact they were negatively affected by breakdowns and I believe a fire and the nets were getting snagged and so on.
Is the issue here one where either a lack of resources or difficulties within the scientific process can indeed be affecting the actual result of the scientific analysis and conclusions at the other end?
The science isn't perfect. There's always uncertainty. That's why we have a range in the advice that we get, and there are probabilities and so on and so forth.
I would say, however, simply put, that we don't see a fundamental problem with the science. I think in the northern gulf as well as the southern gulf--let's put it in context--those fisheries were 60,000 tonnes throughout the whole first half of the 20th century. They supported a 20,000- to 40,000-tonne fishery and then peaked out at 100,000 tonnes, with 60,000 tonnes for a long period in the second half of the century.
That's the context in which we're looking at these stocks. They're well below their historic range. The northern gulf was low, and the risk of continuing to fish on that at the time was such that it would pre-empt a rapid rebuilding of the stock. Even where we are now with better productivity, the fishery that we have, in order to respond to the demands of the fishermen, is one that will impede the rate of recovery but not stop the recovery. In the southern gulf, we haven't seen that.
I know we heard from some fishermen today. There are many others in the southern gulf who don't share the view that you heard earlier, who do understand that the southern gulf cod stock is in serious trouble, that the trajectory in that stock is down, and that the productivity there is not comparable to that of a totally separate population that exists in the north.
It's not perfect. We don't have something that can give us the degree of precision that sometimes is being sought. It will happen. We will have growth at 4,000 tonnes, and—
Absolutely not. Absolutely not.
I believe science is doing its job and provides us with the best information possible under the circumstances, within the limits. You cannot expect.... There is nobody in the business of fish management around the world who has perfect advice, perfect information. It simply doesn't exist.
We have to take decisions in the face of uncertainty and we need to deal with risk management. In the north, there is less risk now than there was in the past. Therefore, we can have a fishery.
I'm not sure, in retrospect, that the decisions in the past were right or wrong. I can't make that kind of conclusion. I think people come to those decisions based on their own experience. But we're way, way below the potential on both these stocks. We have a fishery that in the north is a shadow of its former self. We have decided, as a group--that's the fishermen and managers, etc.--to cap it off, to take advantage of the potential growth now, and not to take a less risky approach and let it grow bigger so that we can have a bigger income in the future. We have decided that. That is a joint decision. The fishermen have decided that's what they want to do.
In the south, we have high, high risk. If we take the wrong decisions in the south, we are not going to come back. We are going to be like 4VW, where there's not any growth possible and where we're looking at a situation in which we can't see a future fishery because the stock keeps continuing to decline. So the question we have before us is which path do we want to take?
It's easy to say spend a few more million bucks and find more fish. That's not a realistic approach. No amount of money will remove uncertainty. All of us have to make decisions in the face of uncertainty and we have to make decisions based on the risk that we're facing.
In some fisheries, we can take decisions that don't follow the advice exactly, because the risks are low and the consequences of them being wrong are minimal. In other fisheries--and I'd argue that the southern gulf is one of them--if we make an error, it won't be losing a few million dollars today, it will be wiping out the potential to ever rebuild a stock that used to support a multi-million-dollar fishery. That's simply not responsible. We need to take those kinds of considerations into our decision-making process.