Commercial Fisherman Processing a Catch of Pacific Rock Cod, Gulf of Alaska

Fisheries and Oceans Canada pulls at-sea observers from fishing boats due to coronavirus pandemic

Fishermen rely on observers to keep the industry honest. Now they’re worried about maintaining a level playing field

The Canadian government has removed observers from all fishing vessels for at least 45 days due to COVID-19.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s at-sea observer program monitors what is caught and what is discarded by ships engaged in many major fisheries. The observers are stationed aboard fishing vessels and report what they see to the government.

The new order came into effect on April 2.

“Given the nature of the work of at-sea observers, who can be deployed to fishing vessels for up to 45 days at a time, it is not possible for them to effectively implement isolation and quarantine guidelines, potentially increasing exposure to COVID-19,” Fisheries and Oceans Canada said in an FAQ section on its website regarding its coronavirus response. The department was unable to provide a comment prior to publication.

Fishermen say they were not consulted or informed ahead of the announcement.

“The biggest part that hurts for us is they give us no notice and we’re not even part of a process,” says Brian Mose, executive director of the Deep Sea Trawlers Association of B.C. “We just get told at 4 o’clock Friday afternoon.”

The ground trawl industry, which catches fish like turbot, hake and rockfish, will be affected most. Until April 2, that fishery had an observer on every ship.

The ground trawl industry has fought a decades-long battle to win over those who see the industry as destructive and unsustainable because of its history of overfishing and its intensive impacts on the sea-floor (bottom trawlers drag large nets along the bottom of the ocean). The adoption of at-sea observers, beginning in 1996, was a major part of that rehabilitation effort.

In an industry-wide meeting on Tuesday, the consensus was that the decision to remove observers presented an almost-existential threat to the reputation of the industry.

“Everybody — and I mean everybody — was equally concerned about the data, the truth of the data, the credibility of our fishery,” Mose says. “People were afraid that by allowing even a little crack in the door, we would be seen as not defensible.”

Scott Wallace, a research scientist with the David Suzuki Foundation, was on the call. He says he was heartened to hear the full-throated support for the observer system.

“You do hear a lot of industries using [the pandemic] as an opportunity to relax regulations,” he says. But that was not the case among the fishermen. “They don’t want to be targeted as getting away with anything.”

However, there are fears within the industry that unscrupulous fishermen may take advantage of the lack of oversight.

“Fishermen want to be able to trust what everyone else is putting down — that there’s a level playing field,” says Bruce Turris, executive manager of the Canadian Groundfish Research and Conservation Society.

Acceleration of new technology

In a letter to the federal government, the Groundfish Trawl Advisory Committee recommended a number of steps to help bridge the gap while observers are banned from its ships.

Foremost among their recommendations was expanding an electronic monitoring pilot program by putting more cameras and sensors on ships. The cameras pick up all the fish that come aboard the ships and what is discarded. Random samples of the footage are then audited to make sure they line up with what the fishermen report.

Adding cameras to more ships has been looked at for months anyway, and the department’s ban on at-sea observers has forced the issue.

“We’ve talked about that for a long time,” Turris says. “There shouldn’t be any trips without at least electronic monitoring on board.”

The industry is also recommending that more of the footage be audited to make up for the lack of observers.

Another major decision the industry has proposed to accelerate is the mandatory retention of all rockfish — meaning any rockfish that are caught have to be kept on the ship rather than discarded. That would make it more difficult for trawlers who catch the wrong fish to get away with it.

Given the circumstances, the recommendations sit well with fisherman Brian Dickens.

“These people that want to cheat, they don’t seem to have the same idea that most of us have: that we want our grandchildren to be able to fish,” he says.

Observers out of work

The observers who would normally be on the ships are out of a job for at least 45 days.

Archipelago Marine Research, the company that provides the most observers to the fishing industry in B.C., sent out an email to its staff on Friday, two hours after hearing the news.

“This was communicated to us very last minute and without consultation,” wrote Ian Hamilton, who oversees Archipelago’s observers at sea.

At any given time, Archipelago employs about 30 observers. Hamilton told staff the company would try to find alternative employment for them during the 45-day period, such as monitoring what comes off boats from docks.

But the industry representatives questioned whether 45 days would be enough.

“May 18 is when the 45 days runs out; it’s hard to imagine that things are going to be resolved by May 18,” Turris says. “It’s entirely possible that it could go longer.”

The day after the observers were pulled, Fisheries and Oceans Canada sent a tweet asking the public to “Help us protect natural resources in #BC. Observe, Record and Report illegal #Fishing activity.”

The department did not release guidance on how it expects the public to carry that out.

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