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DFO announces closures of Atlantic mackerel, bait fisheries to restore stocks

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Fishers on the East Coast are expressing their disappointment with Ottawa after the federal Fisheries Department closed the Atlantic mackerel and commercial bait fisheries, citing concerns that dwindling stocks have entered a “critical zone.”

The department said in a release Wednesday it was taking “urgent action” to help preserve the stock of southern Gulf spring herring and Atlantic mackerel with the closures in Atlantic Canada and Quebec. Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray said she recognizes many harvesters depend on the fisheries, and she promised to work with them and others in the industry to preserve the stocks.

“We know more than 90 per cent of fish stocks on the East Coast are in good shape and I am committed to working with industry to grow the very important fish and seafood industry,” Murray said.

Read more: Prospect area mackerel fishermen demand answers after lucrative season halted by DFO

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Fishers in the sector, however, want the decision reversed.

Martin Mallet, executive director of the Maritime Fishermen’s Union, said in an interview Wednesday the closure came as a “complete surprise” to the industry, adding that it will have far-reaching effects on lobster and crab fisheries in the region, which use the smaller fish as bait.

Pelagic forage fish, like herring and mackerel, are also a food source for other species, including tuna and Atlantic cod.

“(It’s) going to have a major impact _ an atomic bomb impact _ on our whole East Coast fishery, from Newfoundland to Quebec to southwest Nova Scotia,” he said. “Many fishermen don’t necessarily have a lobster licence or a snow crab licence. Some of these fishermen are dependent on the pelagic fisheries for their income.”

Mallet added that the Fisheries Department did not contact the union about the closure prior to the announcement.

The sentiment was shared by officials of the Fish, Food and Allied Workers Union, which said fish harvesters were “shocked” by Wednesday’s announcement. Union president Keith Sullivan said in a statement released Wednesday fishers would suffer from the decision.

“Announcing a moratorium on the mackerel fishery is one more example of how (the Fisheries Department) and Minister Joyce Murray would rather eliminate livelihoods than do the actual work that needs to be done,” Sullivan said.

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Advocacy group Oceans North said in a statement Wednesday it hopes the closure leads to healthier fisheries.

“This was clearly a difficult decision, but it was ultimately the only decision that could ensure the long-term health of the stocks and the future prosperity of the fisheries,” senior fisheries adviser Katie Schleit said. “Atlantic mackerel has been in the ‘critical zone’ _ meaning the stock is severely depleted _ for over 10 years. The spring herring stock has been in the critical zone for almost double that time.”

Last year, the Fisheries Department imposed measures to protect the fish stock, including by halving the total allowable catch for Atlantic mackerel, but now it says the measures haven’t worked and fishing from all sources needs to be kept as low as possible.

The department says it’s turning its focus to investing in projects that support alternative forms of bait.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 30, 2022.

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