Thank you very much for inviting us. We're very pleased to be here to talk about the lobster fishery in Atlantic Canada and Quebec. It is our largest fishery by participation, as well as by exports and its economic contribution to Canada's fishery.
We understand that the committee wanted to ask some questions around lobsters, specifically around the health of the stocks, and generally about lobster and, potentially, other issues. We're pleased to answer any and all questions to the best of our ability.
I'm joined today by two of my colleagues from Fisheries and Oceans. On my left is Nadia Bouffard. Nadia is the director general for fisheries and aboriginal policy in the program policy sector. On my right is Adam Burns, the director of resource management in the Atlantic region in the ecosystems and fisheries management sector. I'm Kevin Stringer, the assistant deputy minister for ecosystems and oceans science. You have fisheries management, policy, and science here. So hopefully we can address the various questions.
I will, as I said, make a few brief remarks about lobster, about the health of the fishery, and about what we know about the fishery. I'll start with some very basic facts that can provide a bit of grounding.
There are many things that we do know about lobster and there are many things that we are studying still, which I'd be happy to talk about later on. But you do need to know a number of things.
American lobster is unique to the northwest Atlantic Ocean. It occurs from southern Labrador to North Carolina. Some of the things we do know that are really important to help us manage this fishery are that mature lobsters make seasonal movements to shallow waters in the springtime and summer to moult, to reproduce and hatch eggs, and return to deeper waters in the fall and winter. These movements typically amount to a few kilometres. However, longer seasonal movements occur in the Gulf of Maine, the Bay of Fundy, and offshore regions in the Scotian Shelf amounting to tens or hundreds of kilometres. Fishing area 40 is considered to be a bit of an incubation ground. We have that closed and we believe that it actually helps populate some of the other fisheries. These movement patterns are affected by bottom topography, depth, water temperature, and other matters. They have two parts of their life cycle. Again, these are things that are crucial for us to help manage the fishery.
First is a planktonic phase, which follows the hatching of eggs. It happens late May through September depending on where in Atlantic Canada. The larvae go through a free swimming period for three to 10 weeks—which is important, because they're not on the bottom at the beginning—depending on the environmental conditions, mostly the water temperature. It ends when they settle on the bottom. What is important to note is that natural mortality is highest during these first few weeks of the lobster's life due to predation and currents. The currents may carry the larvae to unfavourable habitats. So, predation, storms, climate change, and other things have an impact, particularly in the early stages of the lobster's life.
Then there's the benthic phase. The newly settled lobster progresses through several stages before reaching adulthood of four to 10 years. It's usually eight years in most parts of Atlantic Canada. A lobster has to survive eight years to reach maturity and to the point where it is recruited into the fishery. That's a long period of time. Predation is highest when it's small. It mostly hides out and comes out more and more as it gets older and moults more. Natural mortality is high due to predation mostly when they first develop in the benthic phase and as they emerge as juveniles from their first shelters.
I have just a couple of other points around this, again related to how we manage the fisheries. There's information to support the management of fisheries. Lobsters grow through moulting. They moult their shells. They do it multiple times. They grow as much as 12, 15, 16 per cent with different moults. They are strongly influenced by temperature, which is why they want to be in warm water for moulting because it's more likely to happen and there's going to be more growth. There are other things that influence it as well.
Mating occurs just after females molt, between July and September in Atlantic Canada. The female lobster has an almost two-year gestation period. It extrudes eggs for approximately one year. The number of eggs produced by a female lobster increases with size, so we have some protection for larger females. That's why we have some maximum size limits, as well as minimum size limits. The eggs are carried in clutches on the underside of the female's abdomen, called a berried female, for the last 9 to 12 months. That's why we have protection for berried females as well.
Now, for a little bit about the state of the stocks, how are the stocks doing in Atlantic Canada and Quebec?
In Atlantic Canada and Quebec, lobster fishing is usually managed through the control of inputs—such as the number of permits, gear restrictions and seasons. I want to point out the following exception: Nova Scotia offshore lobster fishing—in lobster fishing area 41—is managed on the basis of total allowable catches.
In addition, landings currently constitute the primary parameter used to ensure the monitoring of the state of lobster resources and related trends. In lobster fishing areas of the Maritimes, Cape Breton and Fundy Bay regions, landings are increasing or stable—reaching record highs or nearly reaching them.
The landings are high in those areas and high in other areas as well.
I'll speak to the other areas. The southern Gulf of the St. Lawrence LFAs, lobster fishing areas, which include P.E.I., New Brunswick, as well as the southern part of Gaspé and the Magdalen Islands in Quebec, also show stable or increased landings. The areas around P.E.I. and New Brunswick, in particular, have high abundance or are at near historical levels. Landings in the northern gulf have generally been stable since 2008, at a low level on the north shore of Quebec, and high abundance at Anticosti Island. However, areas 13 and 14, located on the west coast of Newfoundland, have shown a decline since 2008, albeit they have in fact increased in the last year.
For the other lobster fishing areas around Newfoundland and Labrador, we've seen an increase in landings on the south coast since the late-nineties. However, the northeast coast landings, those in the Avalon, have been declining since the early-nineties, but the fishery has not been substantial in that area.
As I mentioned before, the offshore Nova Scotia lobster fishery is the only lobster fishery in Canada managed with the total allowable catch. The current total allowable catch is 720 tonnes. It's been in place since 1985 and we believe the stock has been stable since 1999.
Of note, as I mentioned already, is lobster fishing area 40, located off southwest Nova Scotia. It's closed to lobster fishing because it is known to be a spawning area, where large females congregate. The area was closed because of its potential conservation benefits. We believe it is in fact a bit of an incubation area for many of the fisheries, particularly in southwest Nova Scotia.
Overall, the stocks are in good shape, and some would say “remarkably good” shape. We acknowledge that has created significant challenges in other areas, which are being dealt with by fishers. There are different views about why the lobster fishery has done as well as it has since the 1990s. It really has grown exponentially in some areas.
The views generally come down to three or four different factors—three factors anyway. One is favourable environmental conditions, temperature in particular, but the second is lack of predation. We know that the predators of lobsters, particularly at a young age—cod, cusk, white hake, sculpin, and others—are not in great shape, so lack of predation we think is a factor. The other factor is the management controls that we've established. We've always had management controls, but they've actually increased significantly over the last number of years.
I'll just touch on those management controls. There are three basic controls. The first is the specific season, meaning that you can only fish at certain times of the year. The second is limited entry, with only certain people licensed to do it. And the third is trap limits, with only x number of traps being allowed.
In addition, we have rules for conservation in various fisheries. There is a minimum carapace size, which means you can't keep a lobster larger than a certain carapace size. There's a prohibition on landing egg-bearing females and v-notched females. We get the fishermen to put a v-notch on the tails of egg-bearing females so we can recognize them in the future.
Some of them, as I said, have a maximum size, so we're protecting the larger females. There are vents to allow for the escape of sublegal sizes in the traps. And there are biodegradable traps, which are a new development that ensures the traps that are cut aren't catching fish forever.
Those are things we've done that we think speak to why the stocks are in as good a shape as they are.
We remain concerned and vigilant. The exploitation rate in some of these fisheries is high, but they continue to do well. We're concerned about that, and we continue to do research to better understand lobster. If you look at our science website, you will see studies that we've done in recent years, and the assessments of all the LFAs. We do those assessments regularly. They've all been done in the last year and, as I said, they mostly point to a healthy stock.
We also do specific studies. We have specific peer-reviewed studies on predation, on bycatch, meaning other species caught in lobster traps; the impact of temperature; the potential impact of ocean acidification; utilization of habitat and preferred habitat; on stomach sampling to see the lobster prey; the impacts of pest and pathogen treatment on lobster; the impact of aquaculture facilities on lobster, and many, many other areas. We do much of this research with fishermen as partners, and we will continue to do that.
There are many challenges in the lobster fishery, and we'd be pleased to talk about those today. But, overall, the health of the stocks at the moment is quite good. There is some concern about the exploitation rates in some of the areas, but the stocks are holding up and we believe that they will continue to do so. If you read the assessments, the immediate future looks quite good for lobster in terms of the stocks.
I'll stop there. We would be happy to take questions.
Thank you, lady and gentlemen, for being with us today. I know it has taken a while to get this meeting to happen, so I appreciate your patience.
Let me start with a two-part question and give you some time to answer. Then if I have time, I'll ask a couple more questions.
We had a meeting with Geoff Irvine of the Lobster Council of Canada. There was a sense among most members on the committee that there was something that could be called a “crisis” in the lobster industry, primarily related to pricing but perhaps other matters as well.
He said that the one thing the federal government could do would be to support the development of what he called a “levy system”, to fund promotion and structural reform efforts. Those were his words. In his view, because the federal government collects licence fees and has that jurisdiction over harvesters, if there were a way to have a surcharge or a levy on the licence fee, that could go towards a fund. The Lobster Council could use that fund to engage in marketing activities primarily, and perhaps other activities as well. He felt that would be very significant to getting them into a better place in the future.
This is my two-part question. First, do you agree that there is an ongoing crisis, and if so, how would you characterize that crisis? Second, is this idea of a levy something that needs to be considered, or has the department considered it already? Are there some significant reasons that it's not possible? Would it require the User Fees Act and so on?
Let me begin with that, if I could.
On that last point, I think what we heard in a very polite way from the Lobster Council was that Agriculture Canada has done absolutely nothing. It has been non-existent; it has not done the job.
I'll ask this question and then continue with my second one.
When the Lobster Council of Canada appeared before us, they suggested a levy—a tax and licensing fee—for lobsters. They talked about having submitted a request for it to DFO.
Is this possible? When you were asked originally about the Lobster Council's being able to initiate a levy, you seemed to say that you hadn't really thought about the possibilities. I'm a bit concerned, because certainly this is something the Lobster Council said they have been pursuing for some time.
Let me leave that question with you, and let me make this point. On the whole question of dealing with the industry, dealing with harvesters and so on, Mr. Burns, you said on a couple of occasions that you are always willing to listen to the industry, whether it be on carapace size or on other measures that can be taken to improve the business model.
I have to say a couple of things. One is that the department wasn't particularly responsive last year. It was an historic fact that the industry as a whole came together and all asked for the same thing: a year for transition in the move to download the cost for tagging and for licensing. They got the cold shoulder. That's point number one.
Number two, they continued to plead their case for an increase in carapace size, which not only is a conservation measure but also a question of improving their market size. As recently as a few weeks ago, with an Area 26B vote of more than 90%, you turned them down.
When you say that you are open to their coming forward, I'm concerned that you be serious about it. What is it going to take, on the economic side and in terms of the downloading of costs? It was a unified position; in terms of one LFA there was a huge majority that supported a particular position. What is it going to take to get an increase in carapace size or to get any of these measures that the industry is saying they want you to bring forward? They want some help.
This is a problem that exists in the Atlantic provinces and in eastern Quebec. DFO needs to be a player in this. The industry would like to see you be more involved, not just on the conservation side but in actually working with the industry to find some solutions to these problems. Your silence is deafening, when it comes to the current situation surrounding price.
So there are two issues. One is on the levy, with the Lobster Council of Canada, and on the fact that Agriculture Canada is nowhere on this; the second is about how serious you are about coming up with some solutions, hand in hand with the industry.