Lifelines: Canada's East Coast Fisheries

Key issues in Atlantic fishery management

by Joseph Gough, M.A.


II. Trends in management

The federal government manages Atlantic fisheries, under authority of the Constitution, the Fisheries Act, and other legislation. Provincial governments control land-based processing; and the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO) and other international bodies bring some order to fisheries beyond Canada's 200-mile zone.

Historically, the federal government mostly avoided seeking out a broad industrial policy, trying rather to do what seemed logical under the circumstances and to adjust in the best direction depending on needs. But as fishing power increased, government's role has become more intensive, for the stated purpose of protecting fish stocks and balancing competing demands.

Confederation to the First World War

Little active fishery management in the modern sense existed before Confederation. Between 1867 and the First World War, the Department of Marine and Fisheries set up a corps of fishery officers. Travelling royal commissions wrote regulations for scores of fisheries, and government set up a Fisheries Research Board.

Managers first concentrated on the river fisheries, dealing with closed seasons, gear restrictions, and the like. The first Commissioner of Fisheries touted the idea of leases and licences for salmon rivers, on the grounds that this would avoid destructive over-competition, and that those holding the privilege would take better care of the resource. This idea faded under pressure of circumstances.

Regulations soon moved into deeper water. As the lobster industry built hundreds of small canneries on the Atlantic coast, government set seasons, size limits, and trap regulations for conservation purposes. The herring industry was also growing. But the fisheries department banned Canadians from using the powerful purse-seine technology for herring, because of alarm about the effects of American seiners fishing mackerel.

Motor boats were common by the First World War, and trawlers -- powerful motor vessels towing large nets -- were becoming a major factor in the groundfish fishery, hitherto dominated by hook and line. To protect inshore fisheries, managers made larger trawlers (or "draggers") stay twelve miles offshore.

Sporadic attempts took place to develop new fisheries, or to improve product quality. Government sponsored dozens of hatcheries for salmon and many other species, with fishery managers convincing themselves that these efforts were increasing the harvest. This initiative faded by the 1930s; hatcheries remained mainly to stock rivers for sport fisheries.

The First World War to the Second

The First World War brought a huge boom in groundfish and other fisheries. Soon after, the scallop fishery became important, as did the fresh fish trade. Diesel engines became common on larger vessels.

The Depression struck early for the fishing industry. As Europeans recovered from the war and built up their salt and fresh fish trade, Newfoundland lost overseas markets and began competing with the Maritime salt fish trade. This caused a price decline that forced fishermen into other fisheries, only to see the price drop again in a ricochet effect.

During the Depression, hardship was commonplace in the Maritimes and even worse in Newfoundland, which faced financial collapse in the early 1930s. The "oldest colony," as it was often called, lost parliamentary self-rule when it could not pay its public debt. The British government stepped in, and a Commission of Government ran its affairs from 1934 until after the Second World War.

For the Maritimes, a Royal Commission in the late 1920s led to a virtual ban on trawlers, largely to protect inshore markets. The fisheries department sponsored the renowned priest Moses Coady to set up fishery co-operatives, especially along the Gulf of St. Lawrence shore.

Further scientific work also took place. But overall, the interwar period offered few innovations in fisheries management.

Second World War to 1968: the age of development

The Second World War brought another boom in demand for Canadian-caught fish, and a new emphasis on productivity. Nylon nets, hydraulics, radio, radar, and sonar became common. The frozen-fish trade concentrated in groundfish grew enormously.

The federal government did away with the trawler ban (it had already lifted the Atlantic purse-seine ban in the late 1930s), and after the war began granting boat-building subsidies, coupled with a Fisheries Loan programme. A vessel-insurance programme also came into being. The fisheries inspection programme took on new strength and encouraged better quality. The Fisheries Research Board, working with an industrial development arm of the fisheries department, encouraged new gear and burgeoning fisheries such as swordfish and offshore scallops.

The provinces encouraged the building of new processing plants. In Newfoundland, Premier Smallwood combined resettlement of small communities with the development of "growth centres" such as Trepassey.

Foreign fleets using the new factory-freezer trawler technology in the 1950s began fishing more intensively in the Northwest Atlantic, exploiting many stocks that Canadian investigators had explored. Through the International Commission for the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries, Canada worked with other nations to regulate the fishery, mainly by controlling the mesh size of trawls to let small fish escape. But concerns about overfishing were minimal. The emphasis was on catching the Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY).

Development was typified by the rapid growth of the offshore trawler fleet and of the smaller but significant herring purse-seine fleet, which spread from the Bay of Fundy to much of the Atlantic. The scallop fleet of medium-size vessels also grew.

Lobster remained a small-boat fishery. Limits came into place on the number of traps that fishermen could use, and some lobstermen pushed for limits on the total number of licences. Coming into place around 1968, the lobster controls marked the beginning of the end for open-access fisheries.

1968 to 1984: foundation of the current system

The groundfish industry had for years known sporadic crises, usually caused by market fluctuations. In 1974 a bigger crisis emerged, largely because of severe resource scarcity. Both the Canadian and foreign fleets had multiplied; the latter got most of the blame for overfishing. A huge agitation took place for a 200-mile limit, which skilful Canadian diplomacy, allied with other coastal states, brought into place on January 1, 1977. A full United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea came into effect in 1982.

By now several major fisheries were suffering from over-crowding and over-competition, amplifying the chronic problems of low incomes and instability. Bigger boats and better technology had multiplied fishing power, often harming fish stocks and fishermen's earnings. People raced for fish that would otherwise be caught by a competitor. Recognition spread that open-access, loosely-controlled fisheries tended to attract more fishing capacity and effort than they could properly support.

In the late l960s and the 1970s the federal government took a much more interventionist approach, and set up the modern system of fishery management. The aim was to tailor the fleet to the resource, improve volume, value, and stability, and give fishermen and processors a stronger voice in management.

Major moves included:

  • Setting up the 200-mile zone.
  • Creating a stand-alone Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) in 1979, responsible for fisheries management, fisheries research, oceanography, hydrography, and small craft harbours. (In the 1990s DFO again expanded by merging with the Canadian Coast Guard.)
  • Strongly increasing science and enforcement.
  • Using conservation quotas for major finfish fisheries, set by scientific methods to favour an Optimum Sustainable Yield rather than the larger quantity under a Maximum Sustainable Yield policy.
  • Limiting the size and capacity of boats.
  • Imposing "limited entry" by putting a ceiling on the number of boats and species licences (there was no direct control on the number of fishermen, which soon increased). No longer could anyone who wanted buy a boat and go fishing, at the cost of destructive over-competition. Controlling the number, it was thought, would aid both conservation and average incomes.
  • Using fleet quotas and zones to divide up the fishery, so the inshore, midshore, offshore, and all their subdivisions would each have fish they could count on. In addition, the "owner-operator policy" aimed to prevent corporate control of boats less than 65 feet in length.
  • Introducing individual quotas (IQs) in many fisheries, notably groundfish and herring, on both conservationist and economic grounds. The idea was that instead of building bigger, more expensive boats to race for the best share of an overall quota, fishermen could pace their fishing to their own needs and the market's requirements. They would have more of a sense of ownership, and therefore be more conservationist.
  • In a further development, adding individual transferrable quotas (ITQs) for certain fisheries. The thinking was that by transferring quotas back and forth, fishermen could operate in a more market-oriented manner. Guidelines would prevent excessive accumulation of quotas.
  • Creating industry advisory committees for every major fishery. More than 100 advisory committees now operate on the Atlantic coast.
  • Encouraging fishermen's organizations to form and expand.

In 1976, a change in federal regulations made it easier for self-employed fishermen to get Unemployment Insurance benefits for longer periods, like the rest of the work force. This was seen largely as a social assistance measure, which was expected to become unnecessary as the fishery became more viable.

Groundfish catches soon rebounded. Growth and prosperity marked the late 1970s. The crab, shrimp, and herring fisheries developed strongly in various areas. Major companies raced to build new boats and plants.

While the federal fisheries department called for caution and abandoned most of its industrial development work in fishing and processing, provincial governments encouraged expansion. Indeed, despite the fisheries department's conservation rules and anti-expansion rhetoric, federal authorities themselves sometimes loosened the rules on limited entry, or helped subsidize new plants.

As well, fishermen sought ways around the regulations. Although rules controlled vessel length, fishermen built bulkier vessels with greater fishing power and carrying capacity. Modern electronics boosted fish-finding ability. The number of registered fishermen increased sharply, with some part-timers using the fishery as a means to obtain UI.

Despite optimism and seeming progress, the four major groundfish companies on the Atlantic coast, which controlled the offshore trawler fleet and strongly influenced many other fisheries, faced business failure in 1981. Cost and market price factors coupled with overexpansion had eroded profits.

The federal government in the early 1980s invested hundreds of millions of dollars in a restructuring that saw the four major companies merge into two. A federal Task Force on the Atlantic Fishery resulted in various reforms, although attempts to improve marketing were inconclusive. The Task Force gave further impetus to Individual Transferrable Quotas, which have remained a contentious issue. And it stated broad goals for fishery policy: economic viability, maximum employment, and Canadianization (this in a period when Canada still had co-operative arrangements allowing some foreign fishing within the 200-mile zone).

1984-1992: searching for stability

The groundfish industry seemed to settle out after the 1981-82 crisis. The fishery was achieving record values. Canada was leading the world in export value of fish.

Scientists expected abundant cod, while warning of possible declines in lobster. Overall, the new system was still promising volume, value, stability, and more power for fishermen. But this vision was to suffer major setbacks.

Over the next decade, the federal government dropped boat-building subsidies, the Fisheries Loan Programme, and the Fishing Vessel Insurance Programme, as people looked forward to a self-supporting industry. In the 1990s DFO transferred fish inspection responsibilities to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (partly as a government cost-cutting move).

Aquaculture became a major force, especially for salmon in southwestern New Brunswick, and for mussels in many areas.

Individual quotas (also known as Enterprise Allocations when held by larger corporations) and Individual Transferrable Quotas continued to spread to new areas. Fisheries of these types now account for more than half the landed value.

The new advisory system proved highly useful; but it sometimes bogged down in conflicts, particularly in groundfish, where inshore, midshore, and offshore interests in all their varying gear types lobbied fiercely against one another.

The northern cod fishery was supposed to be the major beneficiary of the 200-mile limit and the foremost fish producer. But by the late 1980s, inshore fishermen were complaining of scarcity. By mid-1992, DFO had to put northern cod fishing under a moratorium which continues today. Many other groundfish closures followed. Total groundfish catches sank from 734,000 tonnes in 1988 to 96,000 tonnes in 1995. The Atlantic fishing industry, including harvesters and processors, suffered the largest layoff in Canadian history.

1992-2000: the moratorium and beyond

The federal fishing closures were linked to assistance programmes for groundfish fishermen and processors, and with new measures to reduce the fleet. The number of vessels dropped by about one-third, and that of registered fishermen from 64,000 in 1990 to about 43,000 in 1999.

Meanwhile, shellfish catches generally increased. During the 1990s the federal government authorized, at least temporarily, a major expansion of licences for shrimp and crab, and processing companies built new plants. This has aroused fears in some quarters of a future boom and bust, this time in shellfish.

What went wrong in groundfish? In April 2000 Fisheries and Oceans Minister Herb Dhaliwal had this to say:

No one has nailed it down in detail, but we know the general picture. And I am not making excuses for my department when I say that environmental changes did some of the damage.
We did the rest -- not just my department, but the whole fishing society.
As a department, we knew less than we thought. On top of that, fishermen often provided false or incomplete catch information, and dumped or misreported fish.
Too often everybody lobbied for higher quotas, and took whatever they could get. People fought for themselves; the fish lost; and we all paid the price.
The codfish collapse wasn't just an Act of God or an Act of Parliament. It was the actions of people, in government, in industry, and in coastal communities, failing to work closely enough to protect the fish on which we all depend.

The system put in place in the 1970s, though seemingly comprehensive, had in its results revealed many failings, both technical and human. In some respects the department had bitten off more than it could chew. Since the cod collapse, government has essentially been trying to make the system work as it was originally intended -- particularly by working more closely with industry.

In 1993 DFO created the Fisheries Resource Conservation Council, which brings together government scientists and officials, fisheries representatives, and academics. This body recommends overall quotas for fish stocks, and the Minister almost always accepts the recommendations. This has reduced some of the lobbying which used to take place by industry groups for higher quotas.

DFO scientists tried to work more directly with fishermen in research and in stock assessments. And fisheries managers encouraged "co-management," a term covering a variety of arrangements with fishermen. The advisory system has become more elaborate, especially in developing seasonal fishing plans. Progress has taken place in these areas, although gaps remain.

Despite the groundfish troubles, many fishermen today are doing fairly well, and some are doing excellently. In some areas there is a more entrepreneurial attitude than ever. One can even make a case that the average fisherman who is still in the industry today is better off than in previous eras, with better boats, better incomes, and more organization and voice.

But many in the industry have gone through very difficult times. And government too has been chastened by events.

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