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The history of getting harvesters a seat at the science assessment table

January 5, 2022

This article was originally published in the Winter 2021/2022 Edition of the Union Forum Magazine, written by Dr. Erin Carruthers, FFAW-Unifor Fisheries Scientist.

The FFAW-Science program first began nearly thirty years ago in 1994, on the heels of the moratorium at a time when harvesters insisted that their voices to be heard. Inshore harvesters, after all, had been signaling the cod crisis well before DFO-Science acknowledged the problem. It was clear that DFO needed data from the inshore and from inshore harvesters.

Inshore harvesters’ catch rates declined significantly through the late 1980s. Nonetheless, information from the inshore was not considered in stock status assessments and management prior to the moratorium. The Cod Sentinel Program was designed, in part, to ensure that changes in inshore fish abundance and health were tracked.

The Cod Sentinel program is a collaboration with DFO-Science, designed to collect information on cod distribution, abundance, and sizes, as well as other biological information such as, what cod are eating based on their stomach contents. The Cod Sentinel program was also designed to bring inshore fish harvesters and their knowledge into the resource management process.

Of course, Sentinel – like all our programs – are about more that the data collected. Harvesters become active participants in research, stock assessment, and management. Ideally, harvesters contribute to all stages of research, assessment, and management processes from on-the-water observations, identifying knowledge gaps, highlighting research questions that matter for the fishery, designing research programs and surveys to address those questions and gaps, and crucially evaluating and communicating results.

Both our collaborative post-season (CPS) snow crab survey and our Atlantic halibut longline surveys on the south and west coasts were designed to improve the assessment of fishable biomass.  A question of critical importance for fish harvesters. In the case of Atlantic halibut, prior to our survey there were no stock-wide indices of commercial-sized halibut.

Every year more that 85 enterprises participate in the CPS snow crab survey. In the CPS, and indeed in all our programs, we strive to ensure that all harvesters have an equal opportunity to participate in and benefit from FFAW-led science programs. In recent years these programs have included mackerel egg and larvae surveys, trapping young-of-the-year lobster, deploying acoustic receivers for whales, capturing live shrimp for laboratory growth studies, testing sustainable trawl fishing gear, among many, many others. These programs are in addition to our long-standing survey programs for cod, lobster, crab, halibut and other groundfish species.

Over the past three decades, and in the seven years I’ve been in this role as Fisheries Scientist, we have worked together to build a substantial, robust science program. Since Cod Sentinel to the more than 20 programs we are now involved in, our overall goals remain the same: ensuring the best possible information is collected to support sustainable and healthy fish stocks, fisheries, and communities. This means ensuring that fish harvesters and their knowledge are active partners in all stages of research, assessment and management.