On September 17, 2020, the Sipekne’katik First Nation finally launched its own self-regulated moderate livelihood lobster fishery off the Saulnierville wharf on the shores of St. Mary’s Bay in Southwest Nova Scotia. It had been 21 years since the Marshall decision, when the Supreme Court of Canada affirmed the 1760-61 Treaty Rights of the Mi’kmaq to fish for a “moderate livelihood.” And the waiting had been long enough.
Almost immediately, non-Indigenous fishing boats swarmed to the area, cutting some First Nation lobster traps and seizing others that were then dumped in front of the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) office in Meteghan. And just this past week, a lobster boat belonging to Sipetne’katik fisher Robert Syliboy was burned in a suspicious fire, which the RCMP is investigating.
As reported in Part 1, the underlying tensions between inshore fishers have been brewing for years.
While the DFO injected substantial amounts of funding to transfer commercial fisheries access from non-Indigenous commercial licence holders to First Nations, it failed to address the Marshall ruling directly and come to an agreement with the First Nations about what, exactly, constitutes a “moderate livelihood” and how this right to one can be exercised.
And even though the communal commercial licences and everything that went with them — including vessels and training — were intended, in the words of the DFO, to “provide First Nations with opportunities to access the fisheries in pursuit of a moderate livelihood,” it didn’t work out that way. As previously reported, not all community members are able or want to work in an industrial, dangerous, commercial fishery. So, the distribution of benefits from the government transfer of commercial access to First Nations has been limited.
Because the government has failed to agree with First Nations on what constitutes a “moderate livelihood” fishery, some Indigenous fishers have been exercising this Treaty right by selling the lobsters caught in the Food, Social, and Ceremonial (FSC) fishery, which can take place in seasons closed to the commercial sector — during which the sale of lobsters is prohibited.
And when it comes to the moderate livelihood fishery, like Sipekne’katik First Nation’s in lobster fishing area (LFA) 34 — an area currently closed for the season — fishing industry reps point to the Supreme Court clarification, known as Marshall II, that states that conservation-based regulations would still apply.
In the absence of any real understanding of the playing field, many of the commercial players, at least the inshore ones, are demanding the conservation-based regulations — including seasons — be adhered to by everyone, for the sake of conserving the lobster stocks.
A “season for a reason”
In an interview with the Halifax Examiner, Sipekne’katik Chief Michael Sack dismissed suggestions from some non-Indigenous fishers that there were risks to lobsters from fishing in the early fall after lobsters have molted, which could result in high mortality, even when they were put back in the water.
“I don’t know who would be saying that,” said Sack. “Probably just a greedy commercial fisherman.”
He said that lobsters can molt a couple of times a year and some years not at all, and pointed out that there are lobster fisheries that go all year around Nova Scotia. “So any of these theories [about the risks of fishing out of season], are all just grasping at straws.”
This contrasts with the views of several non-Indigenous fishers who spoke to the Halifax Examiner. The fishermen, also asked that their names not be used because the issue is so sensitive in their communities, fish in the Northumberland Strait. All spoke of conservation measures that have been taken to maintain lobster stocks, and expressed concerns about their sustainability if additional licences are issued and fishing goes ahead out of season.
According to one second-generation lobster fisher, there are always arguments in the lobster fishery. “Fathers fight sons over lobster bottoms,” he said. “The fighting is not racial, it’s territorial.”
The inshore lobster fishery, he explained, is “effort-based,” which means that the DFO issues a limited number of commercial lobster licences and the owner-operator of each licence gets tags for a certain number of traps each year, in his case it’s 280, for a set number of days.
“Here in Northumberland Strait, we fish only for two months, May and June,” he said.
He is adamant that “there’s a season for a reason,” saying that lobsters spawn in the summertime, and molt then too. In his view, fishing lobster in the fall could devastate the stock, because:
Catch rates in the fall would be 10 or 20 times what they are in the spring because that’s when the lobster are hungry and feeding just after they’ve molted. If we fished in the fall, we’d wipe them out. If we fished a whole fall the way we do in the spring, the next spring there wouldn’t be any lobsters.
Another Gulf Region lobster fisherman says that the “one in-one out” system, which was the standard arrangement for the federal government’s buyback program of commercial licences it issued to First Nations as communal commercial licences, is essential for the sustainability of the lobster fishery.
Another tells the Examiner:
For decades, we inshore fishermen fought to get the owner-operator policy made into law. That policy was created back when the industry was collapsing, and inshore fisherman in every port in the Maritimes struggled to sustain it, and fishermen like my father struggled to feed his family for many, many years.
And another says that the lobster fishery is what it is today because, “Fishermen went along with conservation plans,” many of which were “fisherman-driven.”
He maintains that local fishermen have not only agreed to, but have also been behind conservation efforts such as increasing the limit for the size of lobsters they catch, and reducing trap numbers.
The former head of the Northumberland Fishermen’s Association, Ronnie Heighton, confirmed that a few years ago, his members each gave up 20 traps to contribute to a government fund that was used to buy out 11 commercial licences and reduce the number of boats on the water.
Shannon Arnold is Senior Marine Program Coordinator at the Ecology Action Centre. She told the Halifax Examiner that inshore lobster fishers were also instrumental in pushing for conservation measures when the offshore fishery in LFA 41 was being established by Clearwater, a fishery we will come back to.
Canada’s most valuable fishery
But let’s back up a bit, and take a quick look at how this all fits with the overall lobster fishery before diving deeper into the issues of conservation, sustainability of stocks, and their long-term prospects.
According to the DFO, lobster was “an important food source for Aboriginal peoples who harvested lobster (jakej) through the spring and fall using traps and spears.”
Today, lobster is Canada’s most valuable fishery. In 2019, the value of Canada’s lobster exports was nearly $2.6 billion. According to DFO commercial landings data, in 2016, it was worth $1.3 billion at the wharf and contributed 44% of the total commercial value of all fisheries in Atlantic Canada.
The DFO recognizes and manages four separate lobster fishing regions in eastern Canada, with two around Nova Scotia — the Maritimes region that includes the Bay of Fundy and the Atlantic Coast (and LFA 34 where the Sipekne’katik are engaged in their moderate livelihood fishery), and the Gulf region, which includes the Northumberland Strait and the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
What is remarkable, given the immense value of the lobster industry, is how much is not known about this precious marine crustacean. Scrolling through DFO web pages devoted to the lobster fishery reveals a number of areas where data and information about lobster biology and behaviour are lacking; the pages are riddled with phrases such as “little is known about” (larval distribution), “not fully understood” (lobster stock structure), “difficult to define” (the impact fishing has on lobster productivity in the offshore), and “not known” (consequences of high exploitation rates in the offshore).
What the DFO pages do tell us is that lobster is landed at 300 communities in the Maritimes region, where it directly employs 7,500 people, providing important economic benefits in coastal communities, including Indigenous communities. The Maritimes region alone accounted for 61% of Canadian lobster landings in 2016.
And of all the LFAs in the Maritimes Region, indeed of all the LFAs in eastern Canada and perhaps the world, none is more productive than LFA 34. In 2018-2019, the landed value of lobsters in just that one area exceeded $404 million — almost half the value of all the inshore LFAs combined.
In 2018 there were 979 core lobster licences fished out of LFA 34, and 35 of those (3.6%) were communal commercial licences, fished by First Nations. When all LFAs in the Maritimes Region are combined, there’s a total of 2,979 lobster licences and 134 (4.5%) of those belong to First Nations. 1
In the moderate livelihood fishery launched by Sipekne’katik First Nation, Chief Mike Sack said the band issued 10 licences, with 50 traps each, for a total of 500 traps. Compared to the nearly 980 commercial and communal commercial licences allowed in LFA 34 — each with between 375 and 400 traps totaling as many as 392,000 traps — the Sipekne’katik First Nation’s moderate livelihood share represents a fraction of a percent of what’s commercially fished there for six months every year.
So what are the concerns being expressed by commercial fishing associations about the out-of-season First Nations moderate livelihood fishery?
They argue that each trap set in the summer or early fall is the equivalent of at least 10 traps set during the official lobster season, which in LFA 34 runs from November 28 to May 31. Like their counterparts in Northumberland Strait fishery, the associations say that when adult lobsters are molting — shedding and replacing their shells as they grow — they are very hungry. Hungry lobsters are more easily lured to the bait inside the traps.
Colin Sproul is president of the Bay of Fundy Inshore Fishermen’s Association. Referring to First Nation fishing and traps “recovered,” Sproul says there’s an “incredible amount of industrial fishing taking place in the summertime” and it’s causing “damage to the molt and breeding stock…you can’t really safely release lobsters that time of year because of their super soft shell.”
Sproul says that in some of the First Nations traps in the last few weeks “the [trap] doors were stretched right around by the lobster being jammed into them… and half of them were dead because they’re so soft. The weight of them piling up inside kills them.”
One lobster licence holder in LFA 34, who spoke to the Halifax Examiner on condition of anonymity, described St. Mary’s Bay as a “lobster nursery, where lobsters come to molt and spawn during the warmer months.”
Landings down in St. Mary’s Bay
Sproul says each lobster fishing area (LFA) is divided into hundreds of little boxes, “and when you catch lobsters, you have to record which box you caught them in, and it gives DFO a regional assessment within the LFA of lobster abundance and movement.” He says these data point to a recent decline in lobster landings in St. Mary’s Bay, while the landings “are strong or increasing just outside the bay.” He attributes the decline to the years of out-of-season fishing by Indigenous fishers.
However, according to data retrieved from the DFO, a slightly different picture emerges. While lobster landings in St. Mary’s Bay (SMB) have declined, down 46% by weight and 32% in value over a recent three-year period, “the rate of change is not dissimilar to that observed in other areas of LFA 34 during the same time period” and that “lobster landings in the Gulf of Maine are also showing declines in recent years from record highs.” 2
Indeed, when you look at the data for LFA 34 overall, landings in 2018-2019 were down to 21,000 tonnes from a record high of 28,800 tonnes in 2015-2016. Landed value for the district also declined over that time period, from $416 million to $404 million.
It should also be noted that since 2002-2003, the landings in SMB have fluctuated annually, dipping as low as 900 tonnes in 2006-2007, and as high as 1,855 tonnes in 2012-2013. The data also reveal that there were fewer vessels in SMB — 76 in 2018-2019 compared to 95 three years earlier — which might also account for at least part of the decline in landings.
According to Sproul, who says he has the most recent landings data for the 2019-2020 season, there was a further decline in SMB to below 600 tonnes, amounting to a 68% drop over the last three years.
The DFO said it was not able to provide the Halifax Examiner with the most recent data “due to the percentage of outstanding logs.”
Seasons “created by industry”
As reported in Part 2 of this series, despite calls for First Nations to stop fishing “out of season,” Membertou First Nation Chief Terrance Paul says the lobster seasons were “created by industry” and were not conservation measures but were for marketing purposes only. First Nations also maintain that conservation is not a concern because the lobster stocks are healthy.
This position seems to be corroborated by the DFO:
Lobster landings (which do tend to show pulses) have been very high over the last decade. The stock in LFA 34 remains in the healthy zone, with high commercial biomasses and a broad size distribution. The production of lobsters in the area is lower than high levels in 2015-2016; however, natural fluctuations are normal… From [trawl survey] information, we can see that there are a large number of size classes represented in both LFA 34 and specifically St. Mary’s Bay, and there are a high number of berried (egg carrying) females, indicating the stock is in a healthy state.
When it comes to seasons, the DFO says the rationale behind having them has to do with both conservation and market requirements.
More specifically, asked if there was any time of year, from a biological perspective, when lobsters should not be fished by anyone, the DFO neglected to provide a satisfactory answer.
Fishing for lobsters occurs at various times of year in different lobster fishing areas (LFAs) throughout Atlantic Canada. Some places in the US and the Canadian Offshore (LFA 41) can fish lobster year-round. The location, time of year, and size of the fishery are all important factors in determining the risk to the stocks.
In the Maritimes Region, apart from LFA 38B — a disputed zone where Canadians can fish year round — August, September and October seem to be months closed to lobster fishing in the region. 3
The only exception is the vast offshore LFA 41 over which Clearwater has had a monopoly until recently, when Membertou First Nation bought two of its eight licences. There, fishing is permitted year-round.
So the question remains: do lobster fishing seasons have to do with conservation concerns, or marketing, or both?
In 1999, shortly after the Marshall decision, First Nations fishers set lobster traps in areas closed for the season. At the time, Denny Morrow, head of the Nova Scotia Fish Packers Association, argued the out of season lobster fishery threatened the viability of lobster pounds, where lobster is bought in season and kept in tanks, creating a year-round market. In an interview conducted a couple of months after the court ruling Morrow said, “We invest capital in buying lobster with the idea to sell them in the summer — we can’t compete if you’re going to have fresh lobster that can undersell them.” Morrow also pointed out that when Mi’kmaq fish out of season it “devalues” the resource because those lobsters have less meat, soft shells, and are of poor quality and can hurt the reputation of businesses. 4
In another interview conducted in 1999, this time with DFO lobster specialist Douglas Pezzack, it was explained that seasons are a “complex tool with many functions and a diverse history.” Pezzack said seasons were first imposed in the 1880s to prevent fishing in late summer when lobster were molting and meat content was low and of poorer quality. Back then, the main use of lobsters was for canning, and the quality of the meat was an important consideration. It was recognized that seasons, with fewer days fishing, could also be used to help limit the catch and at the same time could be “developed to match markets and availability of lobster.”
The long winter seasons in LFAs 33-38 are in areas where the live market trade predominated and where [sea] ice was not a problem. The shorter spring seasons were in areas where [sea] ice was a problem and they were designed to start after the ice left and ended before the soft-shell period, when the animals molted. The result is that Canada has a nearly year-round supply of high-quality lobsters as various seasons open and close. In contrast, in the USA where it is a free-for-all, [and it] has large late summer (mostly soft shell) landings but they fish the stock down by late fall and have little until the molt the next July. 5
When it comes to lobster, anything that “controls fishing pressure” or the numbers of animals harvested serves as a conservation measure.
But here’s the crucial point: If seasons were, at least in part, intended to limit fishing effort, they haven’t done a very good job. When we look at trends in landings we see that the imposition of seasons and trap limits in the commercial lobster fishery have done absolutely nothing to reduce the number of lobster landed. In fact, if anything, the opposite is true.
For instance, in LFA 34, where conservation measures like seasons are firmly in place, landings quadrupled between 1977 and 1998, from 2,800 metric tonnes to 12,000 metric tonnes. They more than doubled again by 2014, when landings reached a record high of 28,841 metric tonnes. In other words, over a 40-year period, lobster landings in the district increased more than nine-fold.
“Taking too much, leaving too little”
In 1995, not long after almost all groundfish species with any commercial value were wiped out, and in the midst of a meteoric rise in lobster landings, the Fisheries Resource Conservation Council reported to the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans that “we are taking too much and leaving too little.”
The report stated in no uncertain terms that the fishery was operating at a high exploitation rate, harvesting primarily immature animals and did not allow for adequate egg production. “In these circumstances, although lobster stocks have traditionally been quite resilient, the risk of recruitment failure is unacceptably high.” 6
The report went on to comment on how the lobster fishery has been “one of the most closely regulated fisheries in Canada,” and that regulations are based on “input controls” like trap limits and seasons, as opposed to the “output controls” in the groundfish fisheries, like catch limits (and we know how well those worked). 7
The FRCC also noted that closed seasons were implemented in the 1870s for several reasons “that appear to respond to mixed concerns: limiting exploitation rates; marketing; protecting lobsters during egg laying, molting and hatching; fishing in good weather conditions; or improving the quality of lobster meat.”
In 2007, when the FRCC revisited the subject to see if any of the 1995 recommendations to reduce exploitation and fishing effort had been achieved, it found they had generally not been implemented. It identified low eggs per recruit, poor stock structure, high exploitation rates and poor compliance as the four key risks to the long-term sustainability of the Atlantic inshore lobster fishery. From the 2007 FRCC report:
Generally, the lobster fishery is characterized by very intensive fishing, particularly during the early days of the season, as landings are usually highest at this time. New recruits to the fishery are for the first time generally available and as the days and weeks of the season progress less and less of the resource is available to the traps and landings per trap haul decline.
The FRCC again recommended reductions in exploitation rates and fishing effort to “reduce the risks to the sustainability of the fishery.”
The report also addressed the issue of “illegal activity” which it defined as poaching, usually during the closed season, and illegal activities by commercial fishers during the fishing season. When the severity and implications of the two issues were compared, the FRCC concluded:
[T]he illegal in-season activity of commercial harvesters in the view of many industry members is much more insidious. It is usually characterized by the landing of short, berried and, where applicable v-notched lobsters, the overfishing of trap limits and fishing in adjacent LFAs…It was suggested to the FRCC that some harvesters set as many as 50% more traps than the allowed limit. 8
It’s a practice that would completely distort the official landing statistics.
Jeff Purdy is the Deputy Chief of Acadia First Nation. He also worked for 18 years with the DFO as an Area Aboriginal Program Officer. He says there really isn’t anything hidden about fishing out of season — which is what the Mi’kmaq are doing right now in St. Mary’s Bay. “It’s happening in plain view, and easy to point fingers at. But the hidden, illegal fishery is harder to prove.”
Purdy says that when he was a fisheries officer with the DFO back in 1999-2000, he witnessed illegal lobster fishing first-hand.
We used to take the Coast Guard boat and go off the German Bank, quite a ways offshore and we’d sit there and wait for low tide and then when low tide came up, the cords and buoys would start popping up everywhere and we would be scrambling to get as many as we could before the tide turned, and everything would pop right down again because the current would pull them under. So we went out there every day for a couple of weeks — and every day took [lobster] gear up.
Purdy says, “There are commercial fishermen that will leave gear all year round and they’ll go out at certain times and drag them up and it’s extra gear they get to fish.”
The 72-hour regulation
It’s not just some inshore commercial fishers who break the laws.
The biggest player — by far — in the lobster fishery, Clearwater, has also been caught doing so.
In September 2018, CS ManPar, the Clearwater company that owns the vessel Randell Dominaux, which harvests lobsters in the offshore LFA 41, was convicted in Yarmouth Provincial Court of “gross violation” of fisheries regulations.
Although the conviction escaped public notice at the time, a year later the CBC’s Paul Withers obtained the evidence and audio from the court case, and broke the story, reporting that Clearwater was convicted for “storing 3,800 lobster traps on the ocean bottom off the Nova Scotia coast for upward of two months in the fall of 2017,” which the Department of Fisheries and Oceans said was a “serious conservation risk.”
Withers also wrote that Clearwater “senior management ignored federal government warnings to change the way the company conducts its monopoly offshore lobster fishery.”
The company was fined $30,000, reportedly to limit any tax benefit for Clearwater.
The regulation that Clearwater was flouting was Section 115.2 of the 1985 Atlantic Fishery Regulations, which prohibits:
…any person from leaving fishing gear unattended in the water for more than 72 consecutive hours. The purpose of the regulation is to minimize loss of fishing gear, incidental mortality, the potential for gear conflict and spoilage of catch.
Several lobster fishermen have told the Halifax Examiner that the 72-hour regulation is a good one, because if lobsters are left longer than that in an untended trap they start to fight and eat each other and any other bycatch in the trap.
Representatives from some fixed gear fishing fleets believe that, as fisheries change, new fisheries develop and new science becomes available, these outcomes may be more effectively met through other means and in a manner that better accommodates the operational and safety needs of the fishery. The proposed amendment would provide for flexibility to consider alternative gear tending requirements on a fishery-by-fishery basis, such as longer or shorter gear tending times, where appropriate.
And just in case that garbled government-speak wasn’t clear, here is the kicker that lets us know just who will benefit if the 72-hour regulation is changed:
Since the objective of the amendment is to increase flexibility, there could be savings for business. [emphasis added]
Clearwater refused to tell the CBC whether it had stopped leaving traps untended for longer than 72 hours, but did say it thought the law was “impractical,” and did its own scientific study on different “soak times” for traps to satisfy the requirements for certification of its lobster fishery as “sustainable” from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).
In an interview, Clearwater’s vice president of sustainability and public affairs Christine Penney told the Halifax Examiner that its MSC certification was not affected by that conviction and it still has full certification.
MSC Senior Marketing and Communications Manager, Vianna Murday, told the Examiner that “with respect to Clearwater’s lobster certificate the certifier considered the conviction during a surveillance audit held in April of 2019.” The “surveillance report” from the audit was released in August last year, and according to Murday, the certifier determined that Clearwater’s offshore lobster fishery:
…would retain its certification but that the fishery no longer met best practice for two of the 28 indicators in the MSC standard. The CAB [certifier] assigned the fishery two new conditions to deal with the new information related to the conviction and bring performance against those indicators back to best practice. The two conditions require:
• there is adequate information to support the strategy to manage inquiry about the fishery’s bycatch and provide information for monitoring, and
• demonstrate that non-compliance is not systematic, which involves providing evidence the fishery complies with the management system and provides information important to the compliance system.
Further, Clearwater would need “to demonstrate progress against these conditions on the timeline set by the CAB to continue to retain its certificate.”
Shannon Arnold of the Ecology Action Centre submitted a 10-page critique of the Clearwater offshore lobster fishery to the audit team doing the surveillance of Clearwater’s MSC certification, asking that it be suspended until there was evidence that the company had stopped the practice of leaving traps untended on the ocean floor.
That didn’t happen, and Clearwater was able to retain its certification, an outcome Arnold calls “maddening,” telling the Examiner:
Even after their conviction, the certifier has decided to take their [Clearwater’s] word that they have changed their ways and will be able to show evidence. Their track record makes this hard to believe and the privacy protection granted to Clearwater on their logbooks and research they are collecting will make it hard for stakeholders to confirm if they are fishing within the rules.
If MSC fisheries are out of compliance, they usually lose their certification and that is the incentive — show your evidence and after a year, you can get the blue check mark of sustainability back and all the market access that comes with it. Clearwater seems to have the PR power to avoid major penalties and they have maintained their access to markets that require MSC certification the whole time — even through a serious conviction. A year later, they should be facing an MSC audit now and showing the evidence — but MSC gave them a six-month extension — so no evidence of change yet and still market access for their lobsters.
The Examiner asked the DFO whether the 72-hour regulation was still in place. A spokesperson replied that it was.
The Examiner then asked why the rule was under review, and if there were biological reasons for reviewing it, given that it has been in place since 1985.
As of publication, DFO has not provided replies to those, and to other questions about lobster health and stocks. 9
The “rush to fish” lobster
Back again to 2007, when FRCC observed that competition in the inshore fishery was what was driving the “rush to fish.” That competition also resulted in increases in the number and size of traps, an increase in hoop size to catch larger animals, an investment in larger vessels, an increase in time spent hauling traps, and an improvement in lobster-finding technologies.
“The competitive pressures appear consistent with the increasing non-compliance in the fishery and the need for increased monitoring,” said the report.
A 2012 interview with Denny Morrow, head of the Nova Scotia Fish Packers Association, echoed the FRCC findings. Morrow described the lobster fishery in LFA 34 as highly competitive. It’s “catch all you can,” and it’s often 24-7, he said. “From the end of November until New Year’s, in just one month, close to 20 million pounds [9,000 tonnes] of lobsters are caught.”
Morrow said this overwhelms the fresh lobster market and drives down the price. Morrow said the competition — fuelled by the amounts fishers have invested — helped create the untenable situation.
According to one lobster licence holder in LFA 34 who asked not to be identified, a sole LFA 34 core lobster licence is currently worth $875,000. “That’s just a piece of paper. Add on a boat (low-end, second hand $125,000, high-end second hand $550,000), lobster pots, and rope, bait and safety gear. You’re looking at approximately $1.2 -1.5 million just to set sail the last Monday of November.”
Morrow said, “The gun goes off and the boats go out.” He described the thoughts running through the mind of a commercial lobster fisher: “I have to do everything I can to be more efficient and catch them as fast as possible. If I don’t, the lobsters are going to be gone.”
The competition is driving investment in bigger boats that are able to carry all the traps and maybe even have a well of seawater to keep the lobster in. This way, fishers can just keep pulling traps. Lobster boats used to be 18 feet wide, and now they’re 26 feet wide, Morrow said. 10
In the words of Jeff Purdy: “At the end of the day, the commercial fishermen, they feel threatened, and I understand that, because they’ve sunk a million or a million-and-a-half dollars into a fishery or a company and they feel that livelihood is being threatened.”
Lobsters shifting poleward
In 2012, Brock University professor Liette Vasseur, an expert on the marine effects of climate change, was the keynote speaker at the 19th annual conference of the Fishermen and Scientists Research Society — a collaboration that was started after the cod collapse to collect and share information about fish stocks. They were concerned about the potentially disruptive effects of climate change on the lobster fishery.
At the time, Vasseur began her talk by saying that climate change was “the elephant in the room.” When asked by the Examiner, if it still was, Vasseur replied: “Unfortunately, I think it’s becoming more than just an elephant. It’s something that we know is happening here and people don’t want to admit it.” She said lobsters provide an early warning sign regarding the effects of climate change, particularly warming ocean temperatures.
In an interview with the Examiner, Vasseur pointed to what’s happened in southern New England as a warning to us here. “There is almost no lobster left there because of the warmer water coming from the Gulf Stream.” Vasseur said that lobsters like to aggregate in the bottom in some places, especially inshore, and this is often where the water is warmer. She said if the water is warmer, there’s less chance an egg will successfully make it to the adult stage — something called “recruitment” in the industry — even if there are breeding females.
An important 2015 study that appeared in the Journal of Marine Science, found that coastal areas that had historically supported one of the most productive lobster fisheries in the northeast US were becoming inhospitable to lobsters. Southern New England was experiencing dramatic declines in juvenile lobster populations coinciding with “increasingly stressful summer warmth and shell disease,” as well as the use of fewer conservation measures.
Vasseur said that over the past couple of decades lobsters have been migrating northward to escape the heat, which has a negative impact on their physiology and reproductive success and can cause disease and parasites, and ultimately death.
The fact that the Gulf of Maine has warmed faster than 99.9% of the global ocean between 2004 and 2013 can’t bode well for LFA 34.
According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Gulf of Maine and George’s Bank stock has shown consistent declines, which it says “could indicate future declines in recruitment and landings.”
Vasseur also warned that excess carbon in the atmosphere gets absorbed by the ocean and reacts with water to form carbonic acid, which causes a decrease in ocean pH, making the ocean more acidic. When this happens, calcium, which is needed to build hard shells, bones, and teeth is less available to creatures that need it, like lobsters.
“There’s been record warming and acidification in the Gulf of Maine waters,” she said.
Vasseur warned that while we may not see a lobster collapse in Nova Scotia, “the historic high levels will probably not come back.”
“We assume too much. It’s there, it’s always been there, and it will be there forever. Well, that’s probably not the case.”
When the Examiner provided the DFO with a detailed two-part question about how ocean warming and acidification might impact the lobster fishery in Nova Scotia — and in the Bay of Fundy and St. Mary’s Bay in particular — the response was brief, and frankly, inadequate. “There are several such studies underway.” 11
The only study DFO provided a link to was a 2019 study titled, “Climate Change Vulnerability of American Lobster Fishing Communities in Atlantic Canada,” authored by scientists from the DFO and the NOAA, which seems to be saying that the future is anyone’s guess. Using climate simulations and ocean modelling, the study projects what might happen to lobster habitat suitability by mid-century:
This assessment projects an overall increase in suitable habitat across the shelf, most notably in the southwest with expansion to the northeast (including LFAs 33, 34, 38, 40, and 41). However, habitat suitability is predicted to decline in some parts of the Bay of Fundy where the ambient bottom temperature is already relatively warmer than elsewhere.
Although our study was unable to assess inshore areas, we assume that inshore habitat is not vulnerable to warming in the near-term because this has only been projected for the southern-most part of the range.
Given the uncertainty, the study points to the vulnerability faced by communities that depend on the revenue from a single fishery. It continues:
While the fishing industry in DFO Maritimes Region is supported by a diverse range of species, when it comes to value, it is dominated by a few key species. Coupled with high socio-economic dependence and a moderate state of infrastructure, the region would be at great risk if it were dependent on a cold-water species. Importantly, the entire province is heavily reliant on lobster, and adaptation planners will have to address this dependency on one species.
Long-term outlook for lobsters
So what are the prospects for this precious cold-water crustacean in the face of the climate crisis?
According to Boris Worm, a marine ecologist and the Killam Research Professor at Dalhousie University, “Atlantic Canada is one of the fastest warming places in the global ocean, particularly in the Gulf of Maine area, but other areas as well.”
Worm points out that because of the legacy of overfishing the groundfish stocks and their collapse in the early 1990s, populations of invertebrates — lobster, crabs and shrimp — now make up a very large proportion of landed value in Canada, adding:
So these are very, very important resources that in terms of lobster, are probably close to an all time high in terms of catches and abundance. And of course, there is concern that further changes to the ecosystem, this unusually high abundance, may not be there forever. And the question is what kind of insurance do we have in the system that helps us to offset any possible decline in that particular resource. And the answer is probably not much, because there’s so much relying on these invertebrate stocks right now.
Worm believes that there is a need to pay close attention to the lobster stock in the offshore, but that it’s difficult to know where Clearwater is catching its lobsters because of Canadian privacy laws. He says that lobster stocks inshore probably depend on “big brood stock offshore.”
The DFO notes that lobsters can migrate tens to hundreds of kilometres, and that while there are uncertainties about the level of “population connectivity between the offshore LFA 41 and the inshore” Southwest Nova and the broader Gulf of Maine, “adult movement observations and larval dispersal models suggest connections do exist.”
Worm believes the populations are connected and that the health of the inshore stocks likely depends on the offshore:
It is a bit of a biological mystery how a species, where 90% of recruits are caught every year by the fishery, how it’s still in such good shape. One of the possible explanations that has a lot of support is that actually we’re only fishing part of the population that’s inshore; the issue of offshore population historically was largely untouched. And it has these big brooders, these big females that produce lots and lots of eggs and they keep the whole thing going. So then, of course, there is a concern if you’re digging into that, it’s almost like the capital you have on your bank account and you’re just cleaning up the interest. If you’re digging into the capital, and you don’t even have a good idea how much capital is there or what the interest rate is, your sustainability is at least questionable … from a stock sustainability perspective, as I said, we don’t know for sure, but there is a concern that depletion of your offshore stock could strongly affect the health of the inshore stock as well.
Are we digging into the capital, much of it potentially in the offshore reserves, without knowing how much capital there is? It’s something fishers — both Indigenous and non-Indigenous — might want to consider if the goal is to have healthy lobster, healthy stocks, and a viable inshore fishery for generations to come.
Cover photo by Krista Fulton
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- Communal commercial and core licence information from the DFO’s Maritimes Region Licensing Summary Report and Gulf Region Licensing Office. ↩
- In 2016-2017, 1,691 metric tonnes of lobster were landed in St. Mary’s Bay, with a record high landed value of $25 million. By the 2018-2019 season, landings were down to 915 metric tonnes, valued at $16.8 million. ↩
- According the DFO, “In October 1984, a binding decision by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) decision established the official boundary between Canada and the United States (US) in the Gulf of Maine known as the “Hague Line.” The ICJ decision did not address overlapping claims within the 12-mile limit. As a result, an area of approximately 259 km2 surrounding Machias Seal Island, commonly referred to by industry as the “Grey Zone” remains in dispute…Since 2002 DFO has authorized LFA 38 licence holders to fish from August 15 to October 31 providing year-round Canadian fishing access within the Disputed Zone (LFA 38B). ↩
- Communication between Denny Morrow and Linda Pannozzo, November 5, 1999. ↩
- Between October 29 and November 1, 1999 — back when the federal government didn’t muzzle DFO scientists — Pannozzo engaged at length, via email, with lobster scientist Douglas Pezzack. ↩
- Invertebrates like lobster, shrimp, and small crab seemed to benefit from the cod collapse because it freed them from predation. Similarly, their boom in numbers might have contributed to keeping the cod numbers down because they feed on the egg and larval stages of cod. ↩
- The input controls listed by the FRCC include, in this order: prohibition against landing egg-bearing females, minimum size limits, lath spacing in traps to permit escape of small lobsters, licencing of fishers (limited entry), restriction of gear types (traps), limitation on the number of traps, division of coast area into fishing districts, and fishing seasons. ↩
- The FRCC was created in 1993, in the wake of the groundfish collapse, to provide recommendations on conservation strategies for the Atlantic fishery to the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans. In 2011 the Harper government cut all funding to the research body and it was disbanded ↩
- Among other questions submitted to the DFO that received no replies are these two: 1. Is the inshore lobster fishery in the Maritimes Region fully subscribed? Specifically, do current stock data suggest there is room for additional inshore lobster fishing while maintaining current commercial licences with current trap numbers and fishing days, or do they show that there is a need for other measures if there is additional inshore lobster fishing that is not being done under existing commercial licences (fewer tags per licence, fewer days in a season, or fewer licences)? Does the “one in- one out” policy still hold? 2. Has DFO done projections — 5 years, 10 years, 20 years — for lobster stocks in the Maritime Region? And if so, what trends do they show? (And if such projections have been done, were they done at current levels of lobster fishing efforts?) ↩
- This section involving Denny Morrow is adapted from Pannozzo, L. 2013. The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: An Investigation into the Scapegoating of Canada’s Grey Seal. Fernwood Publishing, Halifax, pp. 131. ↩
- Here’s the question the Examiner sent to DFO: A recent study regarding the Gulf of Maine (Salisbury and Jonsson) has indicated that historic increases in ocean warming have led to changes in salinity and ocean acidification. a) Has the DFO done any modelling or studies on any of these parameters for Nova Scotia waters, particularly Bay of Fundy and St. Mary’s Bay and if so, what have they revealed? b) A recent study by Oppenheim, et. al, presents dire predictions for the Gulf of Maine in terms of lobster recruitment. Has DFO done a similar analysis here on how climate change (ie. warming ocean temperatures and increasing acidification) will benefit/ harm lobster productivity? If so, can you summarize here what has been discovered and point me to the relevant study/ studies? ↩