Fishy Business

As the lone MLA representing the Green Party, I have the great privilege and responsibility of sitting on every standing committee of the PEI Legislature. Although this means a lot of reading and preparation, I am sincerely happy for the opportunity, and have learned so much about a wide array of issues of which I previously had little or no knowledge.

One of those topics is the halibut fishery. There were a few things I knew about halibut – they are tasty, they can be huge, there’s some weird thing about their eyes, and they are expensive – but as for quotas, history of the fishery, worldwide stock health, and that its name means “holy flatfish!” I knew almost nothing. Last year we devoted half of a standing committee meeting to the issue, and in my research and during questioning, I came to understand why the 135 Islanders who fish halibut can get so worked up about it.

Currently 89 per cent of the Atlantic halibut allocation goes to Quebec and Newfoundland fishers while the three Maritime provinces split up the remaining 11 per cent, and last year the Total Allowable Catch on PEI went down from 46 tonnes to 40. The fairness of this allocation and the history around it is a whole other issue which is beyond the scope of this particular scribbling.

In a typical year, that Island quota is caught within days, if not hours. That’s why I read with interest recent news reports that the 2017 season on PEI has been extended by Fisheries and Oceans Canada (the federal body which oversees marine fisheries) – the first time such an extension has ever been granted. Nobody understands why a quota which in previous years could be caught so quickly has suddenly become elusive, but the story of unexpected fluctuations in fish stocks is a familiar one.

It used to be that when it came to fishing on the high seas, the amount of fish caught was limited by the number of boats that were put out on the water. Nowadays, with almost 90% of the world’s fish stocks classified as fully or overfished, the limiting factor is not the number of fishers, but of fish. Island filmmaker John Hopkins in his award-winning documentary “Bluefin” highlights issues with not only the tuna stock, but other gulf species that are critical to the marine ecosystem health, like mackerel and herring. We shouldn’t take for granted the sustainability of any part of our Island fisheries – there was a time back in the 1890s when the lobster fishery collapsed due to overfishing and lack of regulations.

We have mismanaged fisheries before, and it is often devastating when things go wrong. The damage when this happens is ecological, social and economic. Fallout from the collapse of the Atlantic cod fishery continues to reverberate through our region today: after 25 years the stocks have yet to recover, countless rural communities have been forever changed, and the financial implications are ongoing. There are a few inherent problems with monitoring marine ecosystems. Firstly, unlike a clear-cut mountainside, the devastation of a decimated fish stock is invisible – the surface of the ocean looks exactly as it did before the collapse, so public awareness – and therefore concern - is minimal. Secondly, fish move, and they pay no attention whatsoever to the artificial boundaries that humans use to divide up the Earth’s oceans. Thirdly, accurate estimates of fish numbers are almost impossible to come by.

I have no idea what is going on with the halibut fishery, or more generally with the complex marine ecosystems around our Island, but I do understand the economic and social importance to our province of the health of the aquatic environment that surrounds us. That’s why I’d like to see a major study of the Gulf of St. Lawrence marine ecosystem, and some serious discussions around the creation of a marine protected area and a ban on exploratory oil and natural gas drilling in this most complex and sensitive zone.

As an interested Islander, I’ve spoken with many people who are far more familiar with this issue, and who have seen evidence of unprecedented changes in the seas around our province over the last few years: the sudden spike in whale deaths being the latest anomaly. It is time to raise alarm bells about how we are caring for this critical part of our world.