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Kevin Comeau seen on his boat, 4th Generation, at the wharf in Petit-Rocher, NB on April 7.Chris Donovan/The Globe and Mail

The surprise closings last month of the mackerel fishery in Atlantic Canada and the herring fishery in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence will have knock-on effects for a large number of fishermen who rely on both species as bait, experts say.

The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) announced on March 30 that both commercial fisheries would be closed – mackerel for the entire year, and herring for just the spring fishing season – because past efforts to rebuild depleted stocks of the fish had not been sufficient and urgent action was needed.

Although the two fish species make up only a small part of Canada’s annual catch, the impact of the closings could extend into the country’s lucrative lobster and snow crab fisheries, both of which rely on morsels of frozen herring and mackerel to lure hungry crustaceans into undersea traps.

The full scope of the fallout won’t be known until 2023, according to Martin Mallet, executive director of the Maritime Fishermen’s Union, which represents 1,300 members in the Atlantic region. Many fishermen still have reserves of frozen bait from last year ready for this lobster season, he said.

“It’s going to take probably a year to really get all the numbers together and the lists of people that have been directly affected by the decision,” he added.

For many fishermen, the most noticeable effect will be on the cost of bait. The price is expected to increase next year, because the fish will be imported from international fisheries instead of being caught and sold locally by Atlantic Canadians.

Justin Albert, the owner of High Tide Fisheries, a seafood store and bait wholesaler on Prince Edward Island, said that three weeks ago Atlantic mackerel caught in Spain was wholesaling for $1.35 a pound. Last week, one of his suppliers quoted him $1.55 a pound for the same type of fish.

“Before, I worked on a 20-cent-a-pound margin,” he said. This year, it will have to be 30 cents because of increased costs.

“It’s sad, but it all trickles down to the consumer. That’s who ends up paying more.”

Federal government announces closure of most Pacific herring fisheries

The DFO has put less stringent measures in place in recent years to reduce the amount of mackerel and herring being caught each season, but the industry was surprised and disappointed by the decision to shut down the commercial fisheries completely.

“We had no idea that this decision was going to be taken,” said Keith Sullivan, president of the Fish, Food and Allied Workers Union, which represents 15,000 members nationally. He added that the union has been “really concerned for a long time that DFO management in Ottawa is really not listening to the harvesters and the people who are closest to this resource.”

The DFO has yet to make a decision on the fall herring season, which is fuelled by a different population of herring than the one that is fished in the spring. The department will decide after its next stock assessment whether to reopen the fisheries, according to its announcement. In the meantime, the recreational mackerel fishery will remain open, with catch limits in place. Food, social and ceremonial fisheries for Indigenous communities will remain open for both species.

Both the spring herring and Atlantic mackerel stocks are in what the DFO calls the critical zone. That means the productivity of the species is so poor that they could have difficulty sustaining themselves in the future, according to Kayla Hamelin, a PhD candidate in the department of biology at Dalhousie University who studies the Atlantic mackerel fishery.

When a stock is in the critical zone, Ms. Hamelin said, the DFO has an obligation to take some form of action.

“Ultimately, it’s at the minister’s discretion what they’d like to make the decision based on,” she said. “So we are seeing a minister who appears to be more conservation-minded.”

This is the first spring herring and Atlantic mackerel season since Joyce Murray was appointed Fisheries, Oceans and Canadian Coast Guard Minister in October, 2021. “Southern Gulf spring herring and Atlantic mackerel are stocks that have been in the critical zone for lengthy periods and need to be allowed to regenerate for the continued sustainability and success of the entire fishery,” she said in a statement.

The spring herring fishery has been depleted owing to multiple factors, including natural mortality and environmental changes, as well as levels of commercial fishing that exceed the DFO’s provisional harvest rule, which sets a guideline for the amount of fish that can be caught sustainably.

The inability to harvest mackerel is a cause of concern for John LeBlanc, a fisherman from Cape Breton Island, N.S., who usually catches his own supply of the fish to freeze, store and use as lobster bait. “Next year, those freezers are all going to be empty. So we have to buy lobster bait, which creates a much bigger expense for us in the spring.”

Kevin Comeau, a fourth-generation fisherman in Petit-Rocher, N.B., invested in new equipment to catch herring this spring and hired two helpers, who will likely soon be out of work.

“It was really sad news,” Mr. Comeau said. He usually earns $30,000 to $50,000 from spring herring. During the 2021 fall herring season, he froze a small amount of fish to use as bait in May, but he was hoping to replenish his reserves.

He is part of a small but active subsection of Canada’s fishing industry. According to DFO data, the total commercial landing value of mackerel (that is, the total value of product brought to shore) was $50,922,000 in 2020. For herring, the amount was $8,850,000. Canada’s lobster landing, by comparison, was worth $761,148,000 that year.

Mr. Sullivan said many fishermen have shifted to alternative forms of bait in recent years because of the DFO’s restrictions on mackerel and spring herring fishing.

This is precisely what the federal government is hoping will happen. “DFO is confident that harvesters can purchase bait from other more sustainable sources,” Claire Teichman, Ms. Murray’s press secretary, said in a statement. “Through the Atlantic Fisheries Fund (AFF), DFO has provided support to three projects focused on the development of alternative and sustainable bait.”

Ms. Hamelin said the moratorium on mackerel fishing could help reverse a worrying change to the age structure of the fish.

In the past decade, Atlantic mackerel have rarely been able to live until their reproductive years. This is partly a result of overfishing, but it also has to do with warming temperatures, as well as reduced availability of the mackerel’s preferred prey, according to DFO assessments. “That means that we’re no longer seeing nice, big, old fish in the population,” Ms. Hamelin said.

Mackerel are a vital part of their ecosystem, Ms. Hamelin added. They are eaten by predators, which is what makes them useful bait. The species serves as a conduit, providing larger fish with nutrients from the smaller organisms consumed by the mackerel.

“I see these fish as linking some critical pieces of the food web together,” she said.

She hopes the closing will allow the DFO to complete more in-depth research on the fishery and ensure imbalances are prevented in the future.

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