Gulf lobster stocks continue to hold with heavy fishing

The Guardian
Tuesday, May 1, 2001

Despite increasing fishing pressure, the Gulf of St. Lawrence lobster population appears as strong as ever, according to a recent federal report. 

But scientists with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans say they would be more comfortable about the health of lobster stocks if they knew why they are continuing to flourish. 

At a regionwide teleconference call Monday morning, the statistics branch of DFO’s gulf region office released an overview of the fish populations being exploited by the fishing fleets of P.E.I., New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. 

Fisheries specialist Mike Chadwick reported that there seems to be a shift in the animal population of the gulf waters. Chadwick reported that their studies show that the estimated weight of life in the gulf waters (the biomass) is remaining around historic levels, but that the numbers of groundfish such as cod and plaice are falling. At the same time, the percentage of herring has risen dramatically from historic levels, apparently displacing groundfish. 

DFO scientists said the heavily-fished gulf region is one of the best understood fishing grounds in Canada. 

While it makes up just one per cent of Canada’s water area, the gulf accounts for 15 per cent of fishing activity. 

But Chadwick admitted the continuing vigour of the lobster population is a mystery. He said the exploitation rate is very high with an estimated 75 per cent of lobsters entering the fishery being caught each year. 

In all the gulf zones, except Area 25, catch rates appear to be steady at well above historic levels. 

“This fishery could be a model for other fisheries with respect to maintaining the stock population at a healthy level despite an exploitation rate that is so high,” he said. 

Only Area 25, which goes from New Brunswick’s south eastern shore to P.E.I.’s north western shore, fails to fit the bill. Catches in that area remain above historic levels but have been in decline since 1985. 

Chadwick said the decline of Area 25 isn’t as puzzling as the sustained growth elsewhere.

“To me, the anomaly is why everything is so high. We have historical over 100 year records, basically high catches everywhere. We’ve been trying to understand why the lobster would increase,” he said. 

“That is a perplexing one because you can’t really link it in with groundfish which some people would have thought. You can’t link it with water temperature and so forth. We really haven’t been able to come up with the reason.

“Even with change in fishing, with better boats, locaters etc, we haven’t been able to come to any conclusion.” 

He said there are some concerns within DFO that Area 25’s slip may indicate a local population problem or it may be simply the first indication that the lobster population as a whole could slip.

“One theory is that Area 25 is a reproductive area and fisheries are getting to it. So we might see changes in the abundance of lobster there before we see it in another area.”