I call the meeting to order.
Good morning, everyone. Welcome to our committee meeting this morning. We're studying the status of the Atlantic herring and its trends.
Today we have the officials from the department to give testimony and answer questions. I will remind everyone that we will close up this portion of the meeting at 10:30 to allow 15 minutes for committee business at the end.
Here from the department, we have Frédéric Beauregard Tellier, director general, biodiversity management; Adam Burns, director general of fisheries resource management, and no stranger to the committee; Marc LeCouffe, acting regional director, resource management and aboriginal fisheries branch, gulf region; Brian Lester, assistant director, integrated resource management; and Kent Smedbol, manager, population ecology division, maritimes region.
You have 10 minutes. I believe, Mr. Burns, you might be starting.
I will start, and then I will pass it over to my colleague from DFO science.
Good morning, everyone.
Atlantic herring are a small silvery fish, which feed primarily on phytoplankton, zooplankton and small fish and larvae. The species swim with their mouths open to filter the plankton as they move through the water. Adults stay in the deeper waters during the day and come to the surface to feed at night.
Herring are a critically important species in the ecosystem and are a key forage species for many larger fish and for marine mammals, such as harbour porpoises, dolphins, whales and sharks. Herring can grow up to 44 centimeters in length and weigh up to 750 grams.
In Atlantic Canada, herring is harvested and processed throughout the Atlantic provinces and Quebec. The Canadian fishing season runs from April to November. The species is harvested with purse seines, tuck seines, fixed gear, midwater trawls, weirs and gillnets.
Atlantic herring is fished for both food and bait, and the catch may be exported smoked, fresh, frozen, marinated and canned in the same way as sardines, or for their roe. Products from Canada's herring fishery are destined for markets in Japan, the United States and the Dominican Republic. One of the most valuable herring products is roe for the Japanese market.
The department recognizes the Atlantic herring's importance as a key source of bait in the lobster and snow crab fisheries, especially given the current concerns about a shortage of fresh bait availability, as the mackerel fishery is only set to open on June 1 in some areas.
The main fisheries in Atlantic Canada are in Scotia-Fundy NAFO divisions 4VWX; the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence spring and fall spawner components; and off the west and east coasts of Newfoundland spring and fall components.
For several of these stocks, DFO's science advice seeks to reduce herring harvests to meet conservation and rebuilding targets. At the same time, stakeholders in many of these fisheries want to keep fishing Atlantic herring.
I'll pass it over to Kent to give a bit of an overview of the science.
As he said, I will be providing a brief overview of status trends for Atlantic herring stocks, and I will also provide a little bit of an explanation on how status is defined in the department's precautionary approach framework.
The first thing is that it's important to keep in mind that Atlantic herring is a key forage species within the northwest Atlantic. It plays a very important role in the ecosystem and is a main prey species for a number of other fish species and for seals, whales and seabirds.
Atlantic herring are organized throughout the Canadian range in a series of somewhat discrete populations, and because of that, those populations are managed as discrete stocks. The organization of that management aligns with our four regions within the Atlantic zone: Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec, the Gulf and the maritimes.
Atlantic herring that occur from basically the tip of Labrador down to the south coast of Newfoundland are organized as one stock managed out of the Newfoundland region. Herring found in the northern Gulf of St. Lawrence are managed in two separate units, 4S and 4R, out of our Quebec region. Herring in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence are managed out of our gulf region, and that includes herring off the Gaspé, the coast of New Brunswick, around PEI and the gulf coast of Nova Scotia. Finally, herring that are located from the tip of Cape Breton along the coast of Nova Scotia into the Bay of Fundy and the Gulf of Maine are managed as a single unit out of the maritimes region, of which I'm a member.
An important piece of context is that all stocks are assessed with the best available information. When sufficient information exists, herring stocks are managed through our precautionary approach framework.
Very briefly, herring are allocated into three zones within the framework that are defined by the state of the health of the stock: the healthy zone, the cautious zone and the critical zone. There is a fourth category; it's called "uncertain". Stocks are considered to be uncertain if they are missing at least one reference point from the precautionary approach. The reference points are just defined as the boundaries that separate those three regions.
If a stock is considered to be in the healthy zone, from a science perspective there is really no concern about the status of the stock, and it's likely that most of the fishery objectives are being met.
If a stock is in the cautious zone, there is some concern from a science perspective for the status of that stock, and science advice would recommend a progressive decrease in removals from that stock as you move the boundary from the healthy to the cautious zone. That's to avoid doing serious harm to the productivity of that stock.
Finally, if a stock is considered to be in the critical zone, then its status is that from a science perspective, there is serious harm being done to the productivity of that stock. It's likely that there are effects to the ecosystem and to associated species and a lost opportunity for fishing. This can occur for quite some time, at least until that stock is able to rebound out of the critical zone.
That's a very quick overview of the precautionary approach framework.
I will go through the stock status for the various stocks very briefly.
First, starting with the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence in area 4T, there are two stocks within that unit. There's a fall spawning stock and a spring spawning stock. You will see that it is fairly common for herring to have spring and fall spawners. The fall spawning stock is considered to be in the cautious zone, and the spring spawning stock in the critical zone. It has been in the critical zone for some time, I think since 2004.
Moving on to the maritimes region in the Nova Scotia Bay of Fundy area, the major stock is a southwest Nova Scotia Bay of Fundy stock. Almost all of the harvest comes from that stock. That stock is considered to have moved into the critical zone very recently, just last year. The other components—coastal Nova Scotia, offshore Scotian shelf and southwest New Brunswick—have a status of "uncertain".
We then move to the north shore of Quebec, the northern part of the Gulf of St. Lawrence on the Quebec side. There are again two spawning stocks, a fall spawning stock and a spring spawning stock. Both have an uncertain status, but we do have acoustic indices for those stocks, and recently there has been a decline both in that index and in some of the landings.
Moving on to the other side of the northern gulf—the west coast of Newfoundland, area 4R—again we have a fall spawning stock and a spring spawning stock. The fall spawning stock is considered to be in the healthy zone and the spring spawning stock in the critical zone.
Finally, moving to the east coast of Newfoundland up to the coast of Labrador, there are five stock components within this management unit, and their status is considered to be uncertain.
On the next slide we have shown a few plots from stocks that are considered to be in the critical zone. The take-home message from this slide is that there are common patterns for stocks that are currently within the critical zone, in that previously they may have had a high abundance or have been in the healthy zone and over time have decreased into the critical zone and down to very low levels of abundance.
Finally, on the last slide, you see that there are a few take-home messages and key points in regard to Atlantic herring.
The first one is that biomass has steadily decreased for most stocks—not all, but most.
Recruitment, which is the number of young fish coming into the population or fishery, is currently low or decreasing for most stocks, and it's expected to remain low in the near future.
Natural mortality, which includes predation, may have increased in recent years, but this is an area of active research within the department.
Finally, the growth of individual herring in recent years is low relative to what has been measured in history further back.
That's all I have.
Thank you for the question. There isn't a simple answer to it. There are a number of things that could come into play.
One, of course, is continued fishing.
The second is that in the last decade or so we have seen general warming in ocean conditions from the Gulf of Maine into the Bay of Fundy, the Scotian Shelf and the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
In that same time, we've also seen a decrease in the weight at age of individual fish. They're skinnier than they have been in the past at the same age.
There has also been a general decrease in the length at age of herring. If they're skinny, they're also shorter at the same age. This can have a population-level effect, because the number of eggs or sperm produced by individual herring is a function of both their length and how fat they are. If you have the same number of herring and they are smaller in size, the maximum number of eggs or sperm that can be produced is less than it would have been if they were growing faster.
It's also possible, as noted in my “key points” slide, that natural mortality may have increased. It could be due to predation, or it may not be. This is an area of active research within the department, and the answer isn't settled.
Finally, the number of fish coming into the populations is fluctuating, but it has remained relatively low compared with the case in previous years. This may be a function of a number of things, some of which I've just mentioned.
There is not, however, a smoking gun, if you will.
I don't really have, I think, a direct answer for that. The one thing I can add is that as a result of implementation of the new Bill , major fish stock provisions, throughout the Atlantic zones—so within the four regions—science is undertaking work that is related to this, and herring is one of our case studies.
What we're trying to do with that is we're both increasing some of the targeted surveys throughout the zone—so that includes the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Newfoundland—and also looking at ways to augment some of the information we are collecting. This is relatively new and hot off the press, so we'll have to stay tuned and see if that bears fruit.
I'll come back to one of the questions I answered earlier. You know, we are confident in the science that we do provide. When we think about what we mean by the term “uncertain”, it's not that we don't know what's going on with the stock; it's that we haven't defined the reference point under our precautionary approach framework.
We do have surveys for, I think, all of those major stock units, and we have fishery information as well, so from a science perspective we can communicate what has happened and, using our population models and forecasts, we can provide some levels of prediction of what may happen in the future under various management regimes or climate regimes. However, at the moment we are not able to diagnose directly or to link either an environmental factor or something else directly to stock decline.
To date, science has not identified a single issue that would explain that result. There are a number of things that come into play.
There is continued harvest, so there are continued removals both in the commercial fishery and in the bait fishery.
Then there's a second aspect, and that's the productivity aspect of the population itself, the ability of herring stocks to rebound on their own. We have seen relatively low recruitment of new individuals coming into the population. We've seen low individual growth. In fact, in southwest Nova Scotia and the Scotian Shelf, the Gulf of Maine and the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence, we've seen some of the lowest growth rates in our time series.
If you think about it from first principles, if animals are growing more slowly, they're taking longer to age, and they're not producing as many young. It's possible that the overall ability of the populations to replace themselves is lower than it has been in the past.
We've talked a great deal about scientific surveys. You're saying that the activity constitutes more of a rough estimate of the resource, that the catches arrive at the dock and that everything is calculated. However, I gather from your statements that we don't necessarily have the scientific data to analyze the herring stocks.
That said, fishermen are noticing that, even though the season starts, like other years, around August 15, the water is getting warmer and warmer and they almost never meet their quota. Some fishermen even stop fishing after one or two weeks because they aren't catching herring.
Why not postpone the season by a few weeks to see whether it's possible to catch more herring? Fishermen who make it to the end of the season often say that the herring is there at that time. If we were to postpone the fishing season, maybe we could have a better sampling of the herring stocks.
You're telling me that you haven't had scientific data for many years and that we have only a rough estimate of the stocks. Given the lack of reliable information, how can we say that the stocks are in critical condition?
If we were to postpone the fishing season by two or three weeks, we would probably see a little bit more herring. Fishermen have been asking for this for years. They don't necessarily want to catch all the remaining herring, but they want to see whether the herring have moved a little bit from week to week given the warming waters and climate change.
Could we look at this possibility?
Right now, in the southern gulf, we have an acoustic index. We have a catch rate series, meaning catch per unit effort, and we have some gillnet information. By and large, from a science perspective, we have a fairly robust picture of current status.
Trends are a little more difficult to work on, particularly projections into the future. There is a pilot study that is being started in the southern gulf, looking at expanding and integrating some of our other acoustic surveys. That's a new piece that we're rolling out. It's very new, so it'll take a few years for enough information to come to us through that survey to allow us to add it into the science advice we provide.
We are also looking at standardizing how we undertake our acoustic surveys throughout the gulf and the Scotian Shelf, actually, with the idea of using the same techniques throughout. The way it works now is that a lot of our acoustic surveys, particularly for herring, are done in collaboration with industry groups, so they're done from industry vessels. They basically collect the information for us. We standardize the gear and all that. We standardize information and then we work it out, but a lot of the work is done in direct collaboration with industry. We're looking at ways to sort of standardize how we undertake that.
However, I would want to circle back and say that we are fairly confident in our understanding of the stock in the southern gulf.
There's an old joke that you can lay all the economists end to end, and they'll never reach a conclusion. I think we can say the same thing about marine science as well. That's not meant to be a knock; it's a deep ocean, it's big, and you don't know everything that's going on. Based on that, you're never going to have the definitive data you need. You're never going to have the scientific control of adjusting only one variable to see what happens.
What we've heard so far today is really kind of mushy. We don't see anything coming forward from you guys that gives us a really clear way forward. With that in mind, do we need to look at another approach?
We've been doing the same thing for a long time and we've been hearing the same kinds of responses for a long time. That and two bucks gets you a big coffee at Starbucks.
What other approach can we take—fuzzy logic, or whatever it takes—to give us a better path forward than we're seeing now?
What I would say with respect to the herring stocks themselves is that we know, as Kent has pointed out, that the role of natural mortality and the reproductive state, the productivity of the stocks, the impacts of climate change—all of those factors—are having a significant impact on the recovery of these stocks.
There are no silver bullets. There are no easy answers. We work with the fishing industry to identify a harvest level that's appropriate for the stock, recognizing that fishing mortality is the primary lever at our disposal, but equally recognizing, as Mr. Fast pointed out, that herring continues to be a key source for bait in the lobster and crab fisheries. It continues to provide an economic benefit to coastal communities.
While one could look at the state of some herring stocks and say that the harvest should be set to zero, there are various other factors that need to be considered on a stock-by-stock basis. Such consideration is what we do, and it is what has led to the management decisions currently in place.
Certainly they are all informed by the best available science. As Kent pointed out, science always wants more data and more information, but a prioritization has to take place as well. No one has infinite resources, so DFO science distributes the resources at our disposal across stocks, trying to allocate them to the stocks in a manner that achieves as robust a suite of scientific information as possible by which to manage all the fisheries.
Most of our six major Atlantic herring stocks aren't doing well, as we know. Three are critically depleted and two have uncertain status. As forage fish, they play a hugely important role as prey for so many fish and other species. Rebuilding our herring stocks is vitally important for coastal communities that fish them or use them as bait for other fisheries as well.
According to the department's own survey, “Sustainability Survey for Fisheries”, or SSF 2018, only half of the stocks have estimates of targeted fishing mortality. Only one stock has a harvest control rule. Only one stock has removal reference points. These are key components of the precautionary approach framework.
Can you tell me what the department is doing to ensure there are accurate estimates of total fishing mortality that are targeted in incidental fishing mortality, and whether other elements of the PA framework are in place for all Atlantic herring stocks? These are elements like limit reference points, upper stock reference and harvest control rules with removal references for each stock status zone.
As well, how are you planning to accelerate rebuilding these stocks?
There's a lot built into that question.
What I can certainly say is that the precautionary approach framework and establishing reference points and harvest control rules is an important component of our sustainable fisheries framework, but the absence of those reference points and harvest control rules does not mean that we are not managing the stock sustainably. There are other tools that we can use, and certainly, in all of the cases of all of those stocks, we do receive peer-reviewed science advice to inform management decisions.
That said, we are certainly moving forward with the development of harvest control rules and reference points for each of the stocks for which they don't currently exist—not just for herring, but across the board. In fact, as you know, amendments to the Fisheries Act in the last Parliament created some legal framework for that as well. I would say that as a first point.
In terms of the specifics around the work plan and when we anticipate having certain reference points in place for given stocks, we publish those work plans on the DFO website, and they are part of our response to the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, including the development of reference points. Those annual work plans are put on the web. We are trying to bring forward increased transparency around how we're progressing and implementing those policies.
That concludes the round of questioning.
With the permission of the committee, I'd like to ask a question or look for some information on this as chair.
Mr. Burns, in a previous question about seals, you mentioned that there was no quota as such, no limits. I think that there's a difference in that, because to my understanding, the limit that's announced each spring.... In the last report I saw, there are about 7.5 million harp seals on the east coast or the north and whatnot. The allowable take each season, I think, is about just over 400,000 seals. Nowhere near that gets taken, but nobody—and there's no one government at fault—has taken seriously in quite a number of years the growth of the seal population and its effect.
Do they eat herring? Yes, I would suggest they eat herring. They eat cod, they eat mackerel and they eat everything that swims in the water. I think they eat somewhere up to about 30 pounds of fish a day.
To say we don't know the impact on any stock from the predation of seals is a bit ingenuous, I think. I know the minister has appointed a seal task team and I'm looking forward to the results coming back from it. There are some really good people on it, and some of them I know.
As for the seal population, I can talk to any fisherman, and they can show me pictures from when they're out fishing. They're tearing up their gear and they're doing everything possible. There are thousands and thousands of seals floating around on the top of the ocean with a cod fish or some other species in their mouth, and something has to be done, whether it's driven by the department or driven by the minister. If something is not done soon to control the seal herd, we'll lose species that we'll never get back again.
I would suggest that if there was a predator similar to this on land, and it was devastating a beef farmer's herd or a dairy farmer's herd, government would find a way to go out an eradicate that predator, and you'd never hear tell of it again. Vegetable farmers in Newfoundland have permission to shoot nuisance moose if they're eating the cabbage and the turnip.
Seals haven't moved to that yet upon land, but they're doing the same thing in the water, and nobody—government, department officials, and minister after minister after minister—has taken it seriously. It's time for somebody, whether it's through science or whatever other information is needed, to give the minister the information that forces their hand to make a decision on seals once and for all. That's my final statement.
I'll thank everyone for their appearance here today. I know it wasn't easy at times, but again, you've always been available to come and appear before the committee, and we appreciate it very much. I'm sure we'll see you again in the future.
Mr. Arnold, you have just 30 seconds.