New England Fisheries

Why can’t the US be more like the Canadians?

The NEFMC voted against raising the haddock bycatch cap for herring trawlers. Photo credit: NOAA/NEFSC

You don’t usually hear much Canada envy from New England’s fishing industry. But last week, commercial fishermen Vito Giacalone, Richie Canastra, and Jimmy Odlin wrote to the Boston Globe to praise Canada’s haddock regulations, which they say have allowed Canadian fishermen to catch a far larger portion of their haddock quota—93 percent between 2004 and 2011, compared to United States fishermen’s 11 percent over the same period.

These fishermen say United States haddock fishery regulations—which include minimum fish sizes and mesh sizes—are so much more restrictive than Canada’s that they are “handicapping our fishermen.” They accuse US regulators of a lack of flexibility, citing their unwillingness to reduce mesh sizes and open closed areas to fishing.

Well, the good news is that the US fleet can be more like their Canadian counterparts. Government and management aren’t standing in the way as suggested. In fact, the government has offered US fishermen terms very similar to those Canadian haddock fishermen have: 100% industry-funded observers, special gear modifications, and special exemptions from the regulatory closed areas. Industry has rejected those terms, apparently believing that the US taxpayer should be footing the bill for all observers on their boats.

Canadian regulators, in fact, require far more of their successful haddock fleet, including a requirement that they keep and land all the fish they catch and dynamic, real-time “move on” rules that protect juvenile fish and depleted species. Such full retention rules are routinely rejected by the New England Fishery Management Council and move-on rules don’t work without observers on all boats. And the Canadians, as far as I know, don’t allow herring trawlers to drag their massive, small-mesh nets in areas where there are known to be abundant juvenile haddock populations, as the US does.

If the US haddock fleet wants to be treated more like the Canadian haddock fleet, perhaps it needs to start acting more like the Canadian haddock fleet.

The bad news is that regulatory changes that industry voices argue are needed to get the US fleet into current closed areas might not make any difference. Haddock assessments are conducted by NMFS and by Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans without international boundaries in mind. Based on that data, the adult haddock seem to have a strong preference for Canadian waters during the times when the haddock aren’t spawning and fishing is optimum.

The maps below show the distribution of adult haddock caught in NMFS spring and fall surveys. Adult haddock appear to be more evenly distributed across US and Canadian waters during the spring season when many fishing areas need to be closed to protect spawning fish. In the fall surveys, when US fishing can be open, most of the adult population has shifted to the northeast peak of Georges and Canadian waters.

A map showing abundance of adult (age 3+) during NMFS surveys conducted in the spring, while fish are spawning.

A map showing the abundance of adult (age 2+) haddock from NMFS fall surveys.

Even if regulations were gutted to allow fishermen to enter the closed area on the US side of the border—one of the few “semi-refuges” left for the troubled yellowtail flounder stock—the adult haddock do not appear to be there in substantial numbers. Changing most, if not all of the management rules in US waters can’t change the distribution of adult haddock. And allowing haddock fishing during spawning periods or on small juvenile fish would simply threaten the sustainability of the fishery on both sides of the border.


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