Editorial: Missing links

Published on April 25, 2017

DFO Science technician Curtis Pennell makes an incision in a farmed Atlantic salmon to implant a small transmitter in the abdominal cavity. Over the next three years DFO researchers, in collaboration with the Aboriginal community and the aquaculture industry, will monitor these tagged fish to try to get a better understand of their behavior of fish that escape from rearing pens in southern Newfoundland.

DFO picture

©DFO picture

It’s not what you know that will get you by surprise: it’s what you don’t know.

For years, marine conservation groups have been warning about the state of Canada’s oceans, and the fact that so little is known about the Atlantic Ocean as a whole — that whole species of commercial fish are left unexamined for periods of years, that surveys have been skipped and that catch estimates are less and less dependable.

Fish harvesters have been issuing warnings, too, about the catch rates of specific species they are fishing, and about the general abundance of other known species.

Fisheries have been marked by their boom-and-bust natures, and by the fish harvesters who have been left out in the cold when stocks collapse.

You have to think that a startling amount of it is because of what we don’t know — not only what we don’t know about commercially important species, but what we don’t know about the whole spectrum of marine life that lives off our shores.

Look at federal fisheries science reports, and one of the most startling things is the number of times scientists write about the information they don’t have.

Here are a few samples.

“(Many) aspects of Atlantic hagfish life history and behaviour, including their mode of reproduction, remain unknown.”

“Owing to limited survey data, walrus are considered data poor.”

For fall herring off western Newfoundland, “the absolute biomass of the fall-spawning stock remains uncertain.”

“Knowledge of lumpfish in the St. Lawrence Gulf is very limited; for example we do not know the size at sexual maturity, its location after spawning or its migration route.”

Add to that the fact that, in recent years under the federal Conservatives, fish science was not only frozen but actually downsized, surveys were skipped, changed or reduced in scope, and you can see why we might have a looming problem — an underwater knowledge gap, if you will.

That changed a little last week, as DFO announced five years’ worth of full scientific stock assessments for northern cod off Newfoundland — but once again, the research was for a specific stock, and a specific commercially valuable stock at that.

We need to do better.

For the Atlantic fishery to work, it has to be better understood — not as biomasses of individual species and the amounts of those species that can be harvested, but as an inclusive ecosystem, balancing the effects of everything from hauling lobster to cage-raising salmon to the health of the legion of aquatic species we don’t harvest.

There’s one clear thing about the sea: we need to know how it works.

And that means full ecosystem management — at least, it means that if we want to have a stable and profitable industry moving forwards.

Things have to change, or, to put it in fish harvesters’ terms, in the long run, we’re looking at a water haul.