Top News

Editorial: Failing the fisheries

['The federal government has announced it will spend $4 million on harbourside improvements to the Canadian Coast Guard Atlantic Headquarters on the south side of St. John’s harbour.']
The Canadian Coast Guard vessel Teleost on the south side of St. John’s harbour. — Telegram file photo

On Thursday, CBC Nova Scotia published a news story online — quickly reposted by CBC NL — about how federal fisheries scientists had, for the first time in 48 years, been unable to collect data during a Nova Scotian summer bottom trawl survey.

Seawater had damaged the coast guard vessel Alfred Needler, and, while the coast guard’s Teleost had been able to pick up some slack and do a small part of the survey, DFO had been unable to complete the work, even by renting private vessels.

If only that was news.

Truth is, vessel failure during DFO surveys is so common now, it’s not unreasonable to suggest it’s almost expected.

After all, both the 36-year-old Needler and the 30-year-old Teleost were out of commission during extended refits last winter, meaning DFO had to hire the private vessel Mersey Venture for $300,000 for an abbreviated, 11-day winter survey on George’s Bank.

And what’s the very first thing you read in a crucial annual study of oceanographic conditions off Atlantic Canada for 2017?

Truth is, vessel failure during DFO surveys is so common now, it’s not unreasonable to suggest it’s almost expected.

“Vessel breakdown and survey cancellation and delays resulted in important data gaps in the assessment of oceanographic conditions in the Atlantic Zone for 2017. Data gaps result in significant declines in the accuracy and precision of observational series and can limit our ability to detect shifts in environmental conditions in the future.”

The biggest gap? The cancellation of the Labrador Sea spring research survey, which, among other things, was doing research on plankton abundance. Plankton are a critical food source for fish. Because of persistent cloud cover, the research program couldn’t even use satellite imagery to try and get a handle on the size and location of plankton blooms. Crucial ongoing research into the increasing acidity of the Labrador Sea also could not be completed, meaning there will be a gap in long-running datasets.

Reviews of DFO’s science surveys prepared by the North Atlantic Fisheries Centre highlighted vessel issues in every single year between 1995 and 2004, followed by more issues in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2014.

You don’t need to be a scientist to see that trend.

As the report pointed out, “Given the current rate of survey downtime and the realization that there are only two vessels operating the survey program since 2008, it is likely that in-situ unplanned reductions may be more frequent in the near future. … Any loss of coverage in the areas presently having long-standing time series is likely to have an adverse effect on the stock assessments and ecosystem monitoring of multiple species.”

The promise, of course, is that new federal research vessels are coming — some time, somewhere.

By the time they get here, some long-running data collections may be too compromised to use, meaning years of research needed to gauge the health of fish stocks may be down the drain.

Recent Stories