The news is generally not good when it comes to the state of northern shrimp stocks in Newfoundland and Labrador.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) held a technical briefing Monday morning detailing its stock assessments for three fishing areas off the province's northeast coast. Over the last few years, the fishable biomass for northern shrimp — the weight of all shrimp larger than 17 mm — has consistently been at or near their lowest levels since the mid-1990s.
For Shrimp Fishing Area (SFA) 6 — a key area for inshore harvesters that starts near Cartwright and ends around Notre Dame Bay — fishable biomass declined eight per cent between 2018 and 2019. The female spawning stock biomass also declined, dropping 25 per cent year over year.
The total allowable catch (TAC) in SFA 6 for 2019-20 (ending March 31) is 8,960 tonnes, a 2.6 per cent increase from the previous year's total. According to DFO, 10 per cent of the fishable biomass would be accounted for if the TAC was harvested in full for SFA 6. When quotas were finalized last spring, the federal fisheries minister set the TAC to maintain a 10 per cent exploitation rate (identical to the rate set in the previous two years). Since 1996, exploitation rates have ranged from 5.5-21.5 per cent for SFA 6.
"Under our current ecosystem conditions, the fishing at our current exploitation rates — that's how much the commercial fishery is taking out of the stock — is not likely to have a significant influence on the stocks in Area 6 and southern SFA 5," stock assessment biologist Katherine Skanes told media Monday morning. "However, as predation increases and shrimp biomass continues to decrease, commercial fishing might have more of (an impact) than it has in the past."
From 2017 to 2018, fishable biomass and spawning stock biomass increased at rates of three per cent and 27 per cent respectively.
SFAs 4 and 5 both experienced increases in female spawning stock biomass for 2019 — 16 and 23 per cent respectively. SFA 4's fishable biomass increased 29 per cent from 2018 to 2019, but SFA 5's declined by approximately 20 per cent.
"We continue to be concerned about all three stocks — SFAs 4, 5 and 6 — off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador," Skanes said. "While the stock in SFA 5 is in the healthy zone, SFA 4 remains in the cautious zone and SFA 6 remains in the critical zone … and the cautionary approach framework requires that commercial removals be kept at levels that encourages stock to return to its healthy zone."
Skanes noted there are some noticeable changes in the ecosystem for SFA 6 and the southern portion of SFA 5. Bottom temperatures were generally above average, while surface temperatures were below average.
DFO also observed increased predation, changes in the spring phytoplankton bloom and changes in the zooplankton. Shrimp generally live near the bottom of the ocean and prefer cooler temperatures. Skanes said more research would be needed to determine the extent to which changes in temperature would affect the shrimp and its food source of plankton.
"We don't believe that it's too warm for them yet," she added.
During the most recent fall multi-species trawl survey, DFO dealt with severe weather, forcing staff to miss almost a quarter of their planned fishing days.
"Unfortunately, this did somewhat affect our data collection in areas 5 and 6," Skanes said. "However, the impacts were greater in SFA 5 than they were in SFA 6."
Data informing the SFA 4 assessment was collected during a summer survey.
The Fish, Food and Allied Workers union (FFAW-Unifor) responded to DFO's findings in a news release Monday, questioning the thoroughness of last fall's survey in light of how much time at sea was lost because of poor weather.
“A significant portion of the survey used to assess northern shrimp and groundfish was incomplete. The northern shrimp stock remains very important to many of our members and it’s crucial that DFO has the most accurate assessment possible to get a clear picture of the stock’s health,” FFAW-Unifor president Keith Sullivan stated in the release.
Questioned about the union's concerns with the survey, Skanes said DFO did some tests to consider how data from previous years would have been affected if survey coverage dealt with similar weather issues and whether this would have affected DFO's scientific advice in those years. This was discussed and tested during last week's Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat peer review meeting in St. John's.
"We brought that to the table and presented that along with a few different tests, and the meeting consensus was that the biomass assessments that we had provided, while probably a slight over-estimate, were acceptable for use in the science advice."
That advice will next be considered at the department’s Northern Shrimp Advisory Committee Meeting scheduled for March 5. The federal minister will establish the quota for 2020-21 at a later date.