School of change: Redfish rebound offers (cautious) optimism | Oceana Canada
Acadian redfish

Acadian redfish, Gulf of St. Lawrence

Photo Credit: RLSPHOTO

One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish. Yes, some are red and some are blue. Some are old and some are new. 

Even with Dr. Seuss touting its name loud and proud in the incredibly popular children’s book, the humble redfish is not a very storied species.

But that could change now in Canada. 

Thanks to an unexpected boom in juvenile survival in 2011 to 2013, scientists are seeing a huge surge in fishable redfish. There are now more juvenile deepwater redfish by biomass in the Gulf of St. Lawrence than ever before recorded. If Fisheries and Oceans Canada makes the right management decisions now, this could result in a sustainable, prosperous fishery in just a few years, comprised of both deepwater and Acadian redfish.

Redfish are large, bottom-dwelling rockfish (from the genus Sebastes) and, like many other rockfish, they experience “spasmodic recruitment” – a seemingly unpredictable large production of juveniles once every several years, followed by long periods when there are few or no juveniles. In other words, reproductive success is highly variable.

What we are seeing today is a remarkable comeback for a population designated endangered in 2010 by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). 

The Atlantic redfish fishery collapsed in the 1990s due to overfishing, delivering yet another devastating economic blow to the Canadian fishing industry already impacted by the collapse of northern cod

No groundfish industry has had such great potential in recent history.

Dr. Robert Rangeley, Oceana Canada’s Director of Science, says drawing a distinction between the two redfish species, as well as old and young fish, is critical at this time in this fishery’s history. Redfish are long-lived and slow growing, so the juveniles need time to grow to reproductive age before fishing pressure is increased.

“There is an exciting opportunity to plan for a large, sustainable fishery that will have strong social and economic benefits to the region,” says Rangeley. “The fishery has potential to produce large, high-value fillets, but if the catch is increased too soon, especially of young fish, without a good management plan it could be reduced to a small, low-value bait fishery. It’s about rebuilding the population back, not just focusing on available biomass. We want a diversified age structure, not just millions of tonnes of small, young redfish.” 

So, although we are on the cusp of a potentially productive and lucrative redfish fishery in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, it will simply not succeed unless it is well planned. With redfish surplus production only happening every 8 to 20 years, increasing fishing now before these juveniles reach sexual maturity would threaten the future growth of the population. 

According to the 2019 stock assessment by Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) there's now, at minimum, an estimated 4.3 million tonnes of deepwater redfish in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and likely much more. 

During the research survey in 2019, both types of redfish (deepwater and Acadian) accounted for 90 per cent of the total biomass of everything caught. This is unprecedented, and much higher than the average of 15 per cent redfish biomass in surveys done between 1995 and 2012. 

As noted, this current massive population is primarily made up of juvenile fish (which started showing up in surveys in 2015). DFO’s stock assessment estimates that in 2020, just over half of the deepwater redfish born in 2011 will be bigger than 25 centimetres, the size at which most of them mature. In another year or two, most of those born in 2012 and 2013 should be mature too. 

The quota for both redfish species in the Gulf for the 2020 to 2021 season is set to be announced in May, later this month. As an observer of the Redfish Advisory Committee, Oceana Canada has learned that DFO is proposing to maintain the current quota of 4,500 tonnes, a level Oceana Canada supports.  

At this time, a cautious approach is necessary – if fishing pressure is not kept low, the fate of Acadian redfish in particular does not look rosy and it is not possible to separate them from the much more abundant deepwater redfish. Further, fisheries managers need the time to figure out how to mitigate risks to other species as the fishery grows.

We need to be vigilant now to ensure that this fishery recovers to its full potential so that future generations of Canadian fishers and processers will be able to prosper, supporting thriving coastal communities. 

If you don’t measure it, you can’t manage it.

With at-sea observers no longer allowed on fishing vessels due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as restrictions on at-sea research, there will be gaps in data for next year. But we can implement sustainable fisheries management tools to guide us through these unprecedented times.

Oceana Canada is calling on the government to implement the new national Fishery Monitoring Policy for each species in the entire stock area as well as developing and publishing a single Integrated Fisheries Management Plan (IFMP) or rebuilding plan that includes both redfish species. 

Currently, there is no fisheries management plan that covers both redfish species across the entire stock area. A single plan would allow for the prioritization of targeting the more abundant deepwater species and help glean accurate estimates of the species split in the catches using catch monitoring protocols developed under the Fishery Monitoring Policy. A single management plan would also help reduce the bycatch of smaller redfish, depleted species (such as Atlantic cod and white hake) and lucrative species such as Atlantic and Greenland halibut. And, importantly, a single plan would establish a harvest control rule to guide future quota decisions for each species.

Oceana Canada’s work on redfish takes us back to 2017 during our Gulf of St. Lawrence expedition where we surveyed numerous juvenile redfish. Seeing these bright red fish swimming among fields of sea pens  further confirmed that there was a pending population boom. In May 2018, Oceana Canada, urged DFO to develop the overdue rebuilding plan for redfish in the Gulf of St. Lawrence to promote their population growth into the healthy zone. In June 2019, Oceana supported amendments to the modernized Fisheries Act became law, setting the stage for rebuilding fish abundance in Canada’s oceans. Today, we are on the precipice of rebuilding redfish. 

We know the humble redfish is making a rebound – let’s sustainably seize this opportunity to bring this population back to abundance so it can become an iconic part of our Canadian pride and economy, and not just part of the quirky title from a classic children’s book.