Wanted: New Management; Many of Canada's Fisheries Are in Crisis, but New Forms of Management Suggest a More Sustainable Future May Be Possible

Article excerpt

FRANKLYN D'ENTREMONT is quite prepared to believe in the possibility of miracles. Twelve years ago, D'Entremont was driving his pickup truck in his home town of Pubnico, Nova Scotia, and the next thing he knew he was in the back of an ambulance racing towards Yarmouth. He'd blacked out, and the reason, he later learned from his Halifax hospital bed, was that a tumour in his brain had metastasized. The cancer had spread from his lungs.

He was told it was inoperable, and that he should either make his peace with God or just take a long, last holiday, somewhere nice. But he is alive after all these years, despite that first grim prognosis, and the doctors aren't quite sure why. So, when you ask this 59-year-old swordfish harpooner about the fate of the fishery, D'Entremont is not ready to give up on it yet.

D'Entremont can remember the days when swordfish harpooners routinely returned to their Sou'west Nova Scotia ports with 150 swordfish after a two-day trip out to Georges Bank. Nowadays, a harpooner counts him or herself lucky to catch a third that many in a whole summer's fishing.

Since the late 1960s, the harpoon fishery has been eclipsed by the high-seas longline fishery, which now accounts for more than 90 percent of the North Atlantic swordfish catch. Hundreds of hooks are suspended from lines that float on the sea surface, and the hooks catch a motley variety of species, of all ages, from stocks of varying health and status.

The longliners fish as far east as the Flemish Cap, and the boats come not just from Atlantic Canada but from throughout the US eastern seaboard, from Spain, Portugal, Japan and a variety of other countries. In the late 1990s, the longline fishery came under harsh criticism from environmental organizations, some of which called for a consumer boycott of the fishery. (1) The American Fisheries Society--which is like the American Medical Association, only for fisheries biologists--has been equally critical, citing chronic overfishing, the longliners' alarmingly high by-catch of juvenile swordfish and the steady depletion of spawning-age adults. (2)

While Fisheries and Oceans Canada reports the presence of more than 1400 harpoon licences in its data-base, fewer than 200 of those licences have been actively fished in recent years. (3)

"It's just not worth it anymore," D'Entremont says. He points out that recent claims of swordfish stock recovery from the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (which is charged with the duty of conserving Atlantic swordfish along with a variety of large, predator fish, mainly tuna and billfish species) don't take into account the fact that swordfish populations are only a fraction of what they once were.

It may be strictly true that population size is increasing, and it may be theoretically possible to conduct a sustainable fishery on such a small stock, D'Entremont says. But the point he makes is that this isn't what conservation is about.

"Look, I take responsibility for whatever part I played in raping the stock," he says. "But they're calling it a sustainable fishery now, even though it's so badly depleted. I think it's a sick fishery. Maybe it's coming back a bit, but the scientists are basing all their assumptions on false data."

On Canada's west coast, meanwhile, Herb Van Grootel is convinced that there are ways to defy these seemingly immutable laws of industrial fisheries management. He's not interested in relying on faith, or in returning to some idyllic pre-industrial past.

"I'm a numbers guy," Van Grootel says. "It's a business."

Van Grootel's main income comes from the Pacific halibut fishery--he owns three halibut licences--but he also owns two crab boats and a prawn boat. He sells the rockfish that come up on his hooks as by-catch when he's halibut fishing and he's a salmon troller, too. He's the secretary of the Area H (Gulf Islands) Crab Fishermen's Association, treasurer of the Gulf Trollers Association and member of three committees of the Pacific Halibut Association. …