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The future of redfish

The smaller redfish of the two shown above is 23 cm in length. FFAW-Unifor says 70 percent of the Unit 1 redfish being landed are larger than the 22 cm minimum. – FFAW-Unifor


PORT AUX BASQUES – On Jan. 25, FISH-NL President Ryan Cleary posted a couple of photos to the group page on Facebook. The photos showed a blue cigarette lighter next to some palm sized redfish that had been landed at the dock in Port aux Basques.

“Concern on the wharf is that the vast majority of the experimental redfish quota being caught lately in the Gulf of St. Lawrence (like this fish landed this week in Port aux Basques) is too small to be used for anything other than bait or offal,” read Cleary’s post.

“I was contacted last week by some inshore fishermen on the West Coast and they were concerned because recent landing of redfish in Port aux Basques were small,” he said during a phone interview not long after putting up the post. “There’s an experimental fishery for redfish in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.”

Cleary maintained that the redfish being landed were consistently small or even undersized, which he says represents a danger to the future of the entire stock. The regulation size for a redfish is 22 cm,

“We’ve fished other stocks to extinction. You’d think we would have learned from what happened,” said Cleary. “But we haven’t learned.”

While the images are striking, Fish, Food and Allied Workers Union (FFAW-Unifor) data shows that 70 per cent of Unit 1 redfish were larger than the 22 cm minimum. Responding via e-mail, Courtney Langille, Communications Officer for FFAW-Unifor agreed that this is smaller than the ideal size for a commercial fishery.

“Redfish are currently between 22 and 25 cm in fork length,” wrote Langille. “It will take time to develop and demonstrate solutions to expected challenges to a new redfish fishery in the Gulf. We need to figure out how to target the more abundant species, how to not catch other groundfish and avoid catching small redfish. If we waited until the fish reach a larger size we would not have time to figure out solutions.”

Redfish are a slow-growing species, and the experimental fishery is hoping to figure out a way to fish them sustainably to support fisheries and communities for decades. That would mean jobs for harvesters, onshore processing workers and spin offs within smaller communities.

“It is well-known that the inshore fishery and onshore processing is the lifeblood of coastal Newfoundland and Labrador. The value of inshore fleets and onshore processing to our coastal communities is one of the reasons we are working hard to ensure there is a sustainable and profitable redfish fishery in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Before the redfish fishery collapsed in the 1990s, it supported onshore processing in communities on Newfoundland’s South and West Coasts,” wrote Langille. “The species of redfish we want to target is called mentella. The ongoing experimental test fishery gives us a chance get this fishery off on the right foot. It will be a few years before we may see a commercial redfish fishery, but with fish harvesters as stewards of our resource, we’re determined to do it right.

Because of sheer size of the biomass estimated in the Gulf, FFAW-Unifor is confident that the experimental fishery will not have any negative impact on the stock.

“The last assessment estimated 3,044,000 tonnes of commercial-sized redfish of Sebastes mentella (deepwater redfish) alone,” responded Langille.

Experimental fisheries landings from around Newfoundland were less than 500 tonnes in 2019, off an estimated biomass level of more than 3,044,000 tonnes of deepwater redfish that reached the 22 cm minimum threshold and Atlantic or Acadian redfish that exceeded the minimum harvest size.

FFAW-Unifor data reports that redfish biomass continues to grow and dominate the Gulf of St. Lawrence finfish biomass. The Sebastes mentella trawlable biomass was estimated to be 4,365,000 tonnes in 2019, which puts it at the highest level since the 1980s.

“It is a once-in-a-lifetime fishery development opportunity but there are still considerable challenges in building this sustainable, profitable, and long-term fishery,” wrote Langille.

In the 4R3Pn zone, FFAW and the NL groundfish otter trawl fleet are focused on experimental fishing to find ways to target the more abundant redfish species (mentella), minimize bycatch and harm to groundfish like Atlantic halibut, and fish more sustainably overall. Last year fishing was done a modified bottom trawl and a standard groundfish bottom trawl side-by-side.

“The modified trawl was fished with semi-pelagic doors and the result was that the redfish catch rates were as good as – and at times better than – the standard trawl. Redfish catch rates were on average 1.8 t/h, which is comparable to commercial catch rates in the 1980s. This means there is no decrease in commercial catch rates from fishing with the semi-pelagic doors – and minimizing trawling impacts on the bottom.”

In January 2020, one midwater set recorded 4000 tonnes in less than a half hour of fishing. The results varied, but FFAW-Unifor was encouraged because that represented a major improvement over the 2018 and 2019 midwater trial rates, which had been quite low.

“Troy Genge, the captain of the Guardian Gale, reported that when they fished the midwater trawl there was very little bycatch and that when you looked back on the deck, it was all redfish,” noted Langille.

“Our work has demonstrated that information collected from onboard commercial fishing vessels can be used to determine where, when, and at what depth, fish harvesters can target the more abundant redfish species. These results and continued research will help guide the foundation of a sustainable and profitable redfish fishery and protect existing fisheries in the Gulf.”

Before the redfish fishery collapsed in the 1990s, it helped support onshore processing jobs along the Southwest Coast. FFAW-Unifor says that is one of the reasons it is focused on ensuring there is a sustainable and profitable redfish fishery in the future. Historically, the redfish fishery meant onshore processing jobs for about 5 months of the year.

“Redfish is a lesser-known species, but it meant a lot to our communities in the 80’s and 90’s for fishermen and plant workers alike. Similar to cod, a new redfish fishery will look very different than it did three decades ago. Using sustainable methods to reduce our levels of bycatch and undersize fish we have a unique opportunity here to build a sustainable fishery from the ground up.”

But as it works to build the future of redfish into a long-term sustainable fishery, FFAW-Unifor must ensure that measures are in place to protect existing high-value fisheries such as the longline Atlantic halibut fishery in 4R and 3Pn – a high-value sustainable fishery with over 500 small boat enterprises, and the Gulf shrimp fishery, which had a quota of just over 8.5 million pounds for 4R in 2020.

FFAW-Unifor stated that its ongoing work is currently focused on understanding the behavioural differences among bycatch species, understanding if redfish catch rates from midwater trawl are comparable to bottom trawl outside of the winter fishing season before investments are made in midwater gear, protection of the existing sustainable and high-value halibut longline fisheries – more information needed on post-release survival) because the trialed bottom contact gears did not result in decreases of this bycatch, and a broader understanding of ground fish species distributions and of fish harvester targeting behaviour to detail seasonal, regional or depth-related opportunities to minimize unwanted bycatch.

Concluded Langille, “If we are able to rebuild a sustainable redfish fishery, the benefits will extend well beyond the wharf to coastal communities and municipalities.”

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