The Poseidon Princess steamed through the storm toward the southwest shore of Nova Scotia at eight knots, bringing home 39,000 kilograms of haddock caught hours before on Georges Bank.
The wind was strong, the waves high and "a lot of stuff [was] flying around" inside the 65-foot boat during the difficult 14-hour journey, said captain Martin d'Entremont. But the mood was almost giddy – because of the record numbers of haddock that had grown big enough to catch on Georges Bank.
Last year was tough as haddock catches were down, says Claude d'Entremont, who has been in the fish business for 45 years and is co-owner of Inshore Fisheries in Lower West Pubnico.
But this year was eagerly anticipated. Mr. d'Entremont, his captain Martin and other fishermen saw an abundance of baby haddock in the water in recent years, and in the stomachs of other fish, such as pollock, that were being processed. An estimated 500 million haddock hatched and survived in 2010, and have since grown to maturity, making the 2010 year-class the largest in recorded history.
"It's like 50 times the size. So where a usual year-class might be in the order of 10 million fish, this one is 500 million," says Donald Clark, a fisheries scientist at New Brunswick's St. Andrews Biological Station.
It is a bounty that will sustain the more than $20-million haddock fishery for at least six to seven years – a good-news story for an industry that is often struggling.
Haddock prices are slightly lower this year because of the abundance, but no one is complaining – much of it is being trucked to New England plants to be processed and sold to American consumers. The lower Canadian dollar is helping with that, too. Consumers are paying between $3.25 and $4 a pound for fillets.
"It's just been unreal," Claude d'Entremont says. "Everybody's happy."
Happy – and busy in this picturesque Acadian community, where most residents are named either d'Entremont or d'Eon. In fact, Pubnico (it's a common name – along with Pubnico proper, there's Pubnico Centre East, East, Lower East, Lower West, Middle East, Middle West, Upper West and West) is considered the oldest village in Canada still occupied by descendants of its founder, Phillippe Mius d'Entremont.
Haddock is a groundfish, a little smaller than a cod, with a black mark just above its pectoral fin called "the Devil's thumbprint." In Canada, it is found mostly off Nova Scotia, in an area that wraps around the southwest of the province from the Bay of Fundy to Halifax, referred to as "4X"; and on Georges Bank, an underwater shelf – where the haddock are mostly caught in depths between 50 and 100 metres – that separates the Gulf of Maine from the Atlantic Ocean.
Georges Bank is shared by Canadians and Americans, with Canadians fishing about 20 per cent of it. The haddock season runs from June until February; it closed Sunday, Feb. 2, to allow the haddock to spawn. Canadian fishermen caught 4,619 tonnes of haddock in 2013, according to preliminary figures. The quota was 6,448 tonnes. This year, the quota is 16,470 tonnes – 250-per-cent higher.
"We have seen signs of these fish growing up since they were born in 2010," says Alain d'Entremont, whose family owns O'Neil Fisheries Ltd., in nearby Digby. He notes that it takes three years for haddock to sexually mature and about four years to enter the fishery. The fishing gear is suited to catching the larger haddock and designed, for example, to exclude cod, which are not surviving at such huge rates as haddock.
Unlike the cod that swim in international waters around the Grand Banks – where a lot of overfishing occurred – haddock hasn't been found in that area for several decades, says Mr. Clark, the scientist. He notes that haddock prefer warmer water than is found there.
But that doesn't mean Georges Bank was immune to overfishing. Between 1994 and 2004, the Canadian fishery for groundfish on Georges Bank was closed from January to the end of May during the time that fish spawn. Some fishing in January and the early part of February has been allowed since 2005.
The haddock fishery is well-managed now: Boat owners pay out of pocket for independent monitors on the boats. Fish plant owners pay for the observers on the wharf and in the plants. These observers watch for proper fishing practices on the ocean and collect data. On land they record the weight and size of the fish and ensure what comes off the wharf goes to the fish plant. The monitors can add a couple of thousand dollars to the cost of a trip.
"What we have learned is that Canada has a very good fisheries management system when we compare it with the rest of the world," Alain d'Entremont says. "I think there is a place in the world for wild capture fisheries …
"I feel pretty good about it." In fact, the scientific advice was to make this year's quota even higher than the 16,470 tonnes, but fishermen said no. "We just felt there was some value in being conservative," Alain d'Entremont says.
Canadian scientists have been surveying on Georges Bank since 1986 (U.S. surveys go back to the 1960s) and can estimate the number of fish at each age. They tell the age by the ear bone, a white teardrop-shaped structure. When it is cut, a cross-section reveals rings like those on a tree.
On Georges Bank, Mr. Clark says there has been a "general increase in haddock abundance since the 1998 year-class appeared." The 2003 year-class – an estimated 326 million haddock – was the largest in 50 years.
Science can only go so far, however, in explaining why this happens. "Luck of the draw, frankly," Mr. Clark says. Haddock are fecund and produce millions of eggs. It's a species that tends to have huge ranges in size of year-class, and Georges Bank has unique currents that bring in rich nutrients for the young fish to eat.
That's part of the story. Other factors, Mr. Clark explains, contribute to sudden fishery population explosions. "What's happening when you get a huge year-class is that you have higher than usual survival through those really early stages, feeding conditions have been good for them, not too many of them have been eaten by something else, they haven't had a storm that sweeps them out of the area where good food conditions are available," he says.
For Captain d'Entremont, the abundance "makes our work a lot easier." He was able to catch in 36 hours what would take three or four days last year. He was on shore just long enough to clean up and get a homemade coconut cream pie before boarding the Poseidon Princess for the 12-hour trip back to Georges – one last chance to load up his boat before the fishery closed for the season.