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EDITORIAL: Who is watching out for the smelt?

William Ryland of Reef’s Harbour offloading caplin from boats landing at the government wharf in Goose Cove in this file photo
William Ryland of Reef’s Harbour offloading caplin from boats landing at the government wharf in Goose Cove in this file photo

Earlier this month, the World Wildlife Fund issued a report on forage fish — the littler fish that often make up dinner for more lucrative species.

The forage species — mackerel, caplin, smelt, herring — often get little coverage, because they haven’t traditionally been the mainstay of the fishing industry. Caplin, for example, is caught in Newfoundland exclusively during the short spawning season when the females are heavy with eggs. They’re a valuable catch, for sure, but a short-term one. Herring also has its short seasons, though, throughout the Atlantic region, it’s worth close to $40 million annually.

The WWF pointed out that forage fish might well be worth more in the water than in a fishing net — that every $4.33 in forage species caught off Newfoundland, for example, would support $13.43 worth of a larger, more valuable commercial fish species which loses its dinner. Likewise, in the northern Gulf of St. Lawrence, $31.80 in forage fish landed on the deck would be dinner for $193.47 of larger species.

Now, some may argue with the WWF and have issues with its particular methodologies — fishermen might not agree, for example, with the report’s conclusion that the spring herring fisheries in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the mackerel fishery across the Maritimes are both in the critical zone.

What is startling, though, is that, out of the 27 individual forage stocks the WWF looked at, in 21 different fisheries, including all Newfoundland caplin stocks, there was not enough information to even assess the current status of fish stocks.

Heather Grant of the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax told the CBC her group had done similar analysis of forage fish, with similar results. And she was pretty clear about the problem that lack of information creates: “We can’t manage them if we don’t know how well or how badly they’re doing and if we don’t know what factors are influencing their health. … I think that’s something that really needs to be made a priority because it’s hard to manage a species well when you have no idea what its status is.”

It’s a good point, and one you’d hardly think would have to be made again: there isn’t much of the Atlantic fishery that hasn’t seen the direct result of fisheries collapse in the past 20 years, and the argument that’s always made after the fact is that we simply didn’t have enough information about what was going on under the waves.

Forage fish may not have the prominence of other fish stocks, or the lucrative pride of place at the wharf of snow crab or lobster or swordfish.

But you can’t make a model of the health of the stocks of the big fish or the crustaceans, without knowing first whether they’re able to find anything for their own dinner.

The forage species — mackerel, caplin, smelt, herring — often get little coverage, because they haven’t traditionally been the mainstay of the fishing industry. Caplin, for example, is caught in Newfoundland exclusively during the short spawning season when the females are heavy with eggs. They’re a valuable catch, for sure, but a short-term one. Herring also has its short seasons, though, throughout the Atlantic region, it’s worth close to $40 million annually.

The WWF pointed out that forage fish might well be worth more in the water than in a fishing net — that every $4.33 in forage species caught off Newfoundland, for example, would support $13.43 worth of a larger, more valuable commercial fish species which loses its dinner. Likewise, in the northern Gulf of St. Lawrence, $31.80 in forage fish landed on the deck would be dinner for $193.47 of larger species.

Now, some may argue with the WWF and have issues with its particular methodologies — fishermen might not agree, for example, with the report’s conclusion that the spring herring fisheries in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the mackerel fishery across the Maritimes are both in the critical zone.

What is startling, though, is that, out of the 27 individual forage stocks the WWF looked at, in 21 different fisheries, including all Newfoundland caplin stocks, there was not enough information to even assess the current status of fish stocks.

Heather Grant of the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax told the CBC her group had done similar analysis of forage fish, with similar results. And she was pretty clear about the problem that lack of information creates: “We can’t manage them if we don’t know how well or how badly they’re doing and if we don’t know what factors are influencing their health. … I think that’s something that really needs to be made a priority because it’s hard to manage a species well when you have no idea what its status is.”

It’s a good point, and one you’d hardly think would have to be made again: there isn’t much of the Atlantic fishery that hasn’t seen the direct result of fisheries collapse in the past 20 years, and the argument that’s always made after the fact is that we simply didn’t have enough information about what was going on under the waves.

Forage fish may not have the prominence of other fish stocks, or the lucrative pride of place at the wharf of snow crab or lobster or swordfish.

But you can’t make a model of the health of the stocks of the big fish or the crustaceans, without knowing first whether they’re able to find anything for their own dinner.

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