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Cod Flounders as Lobster, Halibut Thrive

Ray and Lucy Vautier aboard their boat with a load of fresh halibut. – Courtesy of Ray Vautier.

SOUTHWEST COAST – It’s Monday, Apr. 19 and Melvin Bateman is preparing to head out to check the lobster traps he’s had soaking since Saturday. He’s got a good day for it, with sunshine gleaming off the relatively calm waters and barely a breeze to chill the blood.

Bateman has been fishing since 1993. This early in the season he’s going to bring in mostly canners, little one pounders and perhaps a couple of two pounders. As of publication deadline, they were selling on the wharf for $9 per pound, about $3 more than they were last year.

Bateman will fish them every day the weather co-operates during the 69-day long season, for about 6 hours each day. He has six grey plastic tubs that will hold about 80 lobsters each.

Lobster is king in the 3Pn fishing zone and shows no sign of relinquishing that throne anytime soon. Halibut is a close second, but cod is becoming more and more of a distant memory.

Further on down the coast in La Poile, Ray Vautier and his wife, Lucy, are currently after halibut. Vautier doesn’t fish lobster, just groundfish. The halibut season opened on Apr. 1, which Vautier says is a wee bit earlier than usual and will last probably until some time in June.

“Depends on how many boats are at it,” says Vautier.

He heads to James Bay for work on a tugboat around the last of June or early July and by then the halibut quota has usually been caught. Vautier first started heading out of province for work in 2007 and has been on the tugboat since 2009. He’s been working as a fisher for a little over 40 years, since he finished school back in 1978.

“Once the fishery got to where, you know, can’t make living at this anymore without going somewhere to compensate,” recalls Vautier.

He never had a lobster license, and for a long time there wasn’t much lobster to be had anyway. Now that lobster is booming along the Southwest coast, the cost of a license has skyrocketed.

“Now it’s over $200,000 to get one and at 60 years old – almost 60 – I really don’t want to get into that kind of money.”

He’s content to stick to groundfishing, especially as the halibut has been picking up over the years. Last year he only managed to fish for about four or five weeks thanks to some necessary boat repairs and thanks to the pandemic it didn’t look like the season was going to start at all.

“The year before – 2019 – was the best year I had since I’ve been fishing halibut,” says Vautier. “All in all over the last few years halibut has been pretty good.”

Were it not for that, Vautier figures he’d have given up fishing by now.

“Crew is starting to get hard to get. I have a long-liner that I built in 2003, and only me and the wife are fishing now. We just go out on the good days and try to make a bit of income for her. That’s about it,” shares Vautier.

He thinks there are too many regulations facing younger generations looking to get into the industry. People have to make ends meet even when the fishery is closed, and it’s not always possible to take time off from other jobs for training and seasonal employment.

The Fish Food and Allied Workers Union (FFAW) responded to inquiries via an e-mailed statement on Wednesday, Apr. 14.

“Crew recruitment has been an issue for several years, long before these new regulations were even considered,” stated the FFAW. “The owner-operator regulations that FFAW supports are the most consequential act to protect the next generation of fishers in more than a generation. The regulations provide a meaningful check on the growth of corporate involvement in inshore fishing licenses, which has been contrary to policy since 1979 and law since April 1st of this year.”

Once he got back from his tugboat gig, Vautier used to head down to 3Ps to fish cod for Icewater Seafoods, which is based in Arnold’s Cove. That zone extends past Burgeo down to Cape St. Mary’s.

“I don’t catch much cod. I usually go at it in the fall of the year when I get home from Ontario, but I did get them last fall because they opened early,” says Vautier.

For a few years the cod fishery didn’t open until about mid-November and the Vautiers fished until the quota was met, usually around mid-December. On Apr. 1, that quota just got slashed by 50 per cent, dropping it down to 1,346 tonnes. The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) stated the reduction was necessary to promote stock growth while still allowing for a seasonal fishery.

“It’s getting to be where there’ll be no Cod on the Southwest Coast. Very little,” says Vautier. “I don’t know. They’re saying the stocks are in poor shape, but I don’t know if it’s in that bad a shape or not.”

The FFAW and the DFO agree that it is.

“Southern Gulf cod is doing exceptionally poorly; it is not recovering and – with current seal predation levels – may well go extinct,” wrote the FFAW. “The status of Northern cod is much more optimistic. There has been significant recovery in the Northern cod Spawning Stock Biomass, which was estimated to be only 10,000 t in 1995 and today is estimated to be around 400,000 t. A 40-fold increase is a significant recovery.”

Disagreements between scientists and harvesters about the state of the cod fishery is nothing new, especially almost 30 years into the moratorium. The FFAW maintains that overfishing – especially by foreign trawlers – was a key component in the collapse, but the current DFO assessment model attributes the collapse to a spike in natural mortality.

Whatever the cause, Vautier concedes that if the stock is that critical it makes sense to take conservative measures. As the quota continues to get cut, he’s not sure how much longer fishing Cod in 3Ps will be financially feasible anyway.

“It’s getting to now where it’s hardly worth being at it, as far as the cod go,” admits Vautier.

The FFAW expressed similar frustration with when it comes to the cod fishery in 3Ps.

“South coast fish harvesters and the FFAW have been sounding the alarm for years on the health of 3Ps cod, particularly the impacts of offshore draggers, (which concentrates on tight aggregations of cod), and on the impacts of grey seals, which are responsible for the lack of recovery in the nearby southern Gulf cod stock,” stated the FFAW. “In connection with 3Ps cod, there was a major revision is the stock assessment model in recent years. Although there was little difference in the number of cod surveyed, there was a major revision in DFO’s assessment of stock status. To add to that, the absence of current surveys and field assessments due to limitations surrounding COVID-19 have led to reliance on predictive models, which has increased the disconnect between science to support regulatory decisions and harvester observations.”

But the 3Pn zone, which extends roughly from La Poile to Port aux Basques, is a bit different. That fishery opens in early July and usually only lasts a few days. Vautier says the catch rates for 3Pn have remained stable over the last couple of years.

“I don’t know if that’s the indication of the size of the stock or that’s the concentration, but catch rates are perfect,” says Vautier, before addressing the status of 3Ps. “Well we don’t catch fish in 3Ps. We used to have a quota down there but that’s pretty much gone too.”

Even though in 3Pn it only takes a day or two to catch his quota, the effort seems to outweigh the reward.

“You’re not missing anything really anyway anymore. The prices are not that great,” says Vautier.

Cod in 3Pn is caught hook and line and gets packed for transport because it doesn’t get processed in Port aux Basques or Rose Blanche where it is landed. By the time fish arrives at a processing facility, the quality has been affected and that always means less money for the fisher.

“It’s brought in here but it’s not graded at the point of sale. It’s graded when it’s cut in Arnold’s Cove, which could be four or five days later,” explains Vautier. “It should be graded when it’s caught.”

Vautier estimates that his fish averages probably $0.55 or $0.60 per pound.

“At best we get Grade B, even some Grade C, which is only like $0.10 or $0.20 a pound. Not last fall but the fall before we took the fish off the hook, bled the fish, gut the fish, put it in slush ice and brought it in here and some of it was still B and C,” shares Vautier. “It should be a dollar a pound easy for hook and line cod.”

That lower grade can add up to a lot less money for an inshore fisher, but the FFAW statement observes that historically codfish has never been graded at the wharf.

“Up until 7 years ago, the price per pound for cod was the same regardless of the quality. 7 years ago, when the Northern cod stock began to show sustained growth, there was an agreement between harvesters and processors to change the cod fishery and focus more on quality,” said the FFAW. “Dockside grading is expensive. We have it in shrimp and crab as these species are higher value and volume (though shrimp volume has decreased). We land very little cod at an average price between 70-90 cents. As such, applying a dockside monitor fee to a low volume and value fishery would be onerous on harvester.”

The FFAW also wrote that there are independent observers at most active plants to monitor the company graders and to document any challenges. Cod also has to arrive at the plant within 24 hours, and in the event that doesn’t happen there are penalty clauses in the cod collective agreement that would see the harvesters receive full grade “A” value for that fish.

“It really makes a lot of difference when you’ve only got a small amount of fish to catch,” says Vautier about the grading. “Everything else is gone up in price. Fuel is going back up again now. Our bait is $0.65 a pound. That’s just for the cheapest.”

Other bait prices have gone up too. Mackerel is over $1.00 and squid is roughly $2.50 per pound. Costs adds up quickly but fish prices don’t keep pace.

“I just wish the prices for cod were a little better, not that I’m going to catch much in the next few years.”

Vautier says it would help a bit if they could keep some of their bycatch. Any halibut bycatch during the cod fishery must be thrown back. Vautier doesn’t really understand that logic, because the fish has to be torn or cut off the hook and will likely die once it’s back in the water anyway.

“One day we had two halibut – I’d say about 75 pounds each. That would have been a nice day. That would have paid for your expenses and everything else,” says Vautier. “A halibut could be 200 pounds at $6.00 a pound. It breaks your heart some days.”

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