The report found redfish numbers in the Gulf of St. Lawrence were declining even before the fishery reopened

The latest scientific assessment of redfish populations in the Gulf of St. Lawrence brings troubling news, even as fishing groups in Atlantic Canada and Quebec fight over who gets to catch them: their numbers are shrinking rapidly.

“I think we’re getting to the point where we clearly see that there’s a limit to this boom,” says federal scientist Carolyn Sinai, a redfish specialist at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO).

The report comes in advance of DFO’s plan to reopen the fishery later this year after it collapsed in the early 1990s and has been closed since 1995.

Fish numbers have rebounded over the decades, peaking at about 4.3 million tons in 2019 due to higher survival rates starting in 2011. But the estimated size of the fish has fallen to 3.3 million tons in 2021 and to 2.5 million tons in 2023, the latest assessment said. For stocks.

The fish are generally smaller in length and weight than they were 40 years ago, Sinai said.

“They’re behaving really differently than the last big group we had in the 1980s,” she said.

This has led conservationists to question why the fishery should be reopened.

Redfish numbers are expected to decline with or without fishing, and prices are so low that the fisheries are not worth the environmental damage they will cause, said Katie Schlight of the environmental group Oceans North.

“These fish are supposed to be gone in 10 years regardless. The prices are terrible, and there are no markets. So, what’s really the point of taking all these fish out of the water?”

There is also the problem of bycatch – when another species is accidentally killed – which can harm white hake, a bottom-dwelling fish similar to cod, and halibut, the region’s most valuable demersal fish.

Expect a decline

DFO’s latest projections indicate that the population will decline to 10 percent of current levels within nine years even without fishing. It will reach 10 percent within six years if fishing resumes at expected levels.

“It was surprising to see these numbers…it’s different from what we expected,” Sinai says.

Woman in a lab coat wearing purple gloves.  She's dealing with redfish.
DFO scientist Carolyn Senai says the latest numbers for redfish are surprising. (Department of Fisheries and Oceans)

Jean Vautier, manager of Louisbourg Seafoods in Cape Breton, says it’s difficult to make a profit from catching fish that sell for 30 or 40 cents a pound. Lewisburg processes redfish caught outside the Gulf of St. Lawrence and some small quotas are allowed inside.

“I still think people can get themselves into trouble very quickly if they’re not fully engaged and interested in the markets and what they can do with these fish,” he says.

Vauthier says the latest assessment should temper expectations.

“There will be a lot of it for a short period of time and then we will go back to realistic numbers and people who are scaling up for the next generation or two may not pay attention to what the science is telling us.”

There is also the possibility of the market being flooded, which could push prices down further, he said.

Large-scale commercial fishing will resume in 2024

DFO is scheduled to reopen the fishery this summer for two species of redfish in the region: the deepwater redfish and the Acadian redfish. A minimum quota of 25,000 tons was set, but no higher level was set.

When announcing the resumption of commercial harvesting, DFO changed the joint allocation between the different fleets.

Its historic allocation to the offshore fleet, based mostly in Nova Scotia and including Louisbourg Seafoods, has been reduced by 20 per cent.

The Gulf of St. Lawrence shrimp fleet was awarded 10 percent and unspecified original participants were allocated 10 percent.

In Newfoundland, there have been complaints that more redfish allowances are not being given to anglers in that province.

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