DFO warns Canadian fishers about participating in French halibut fishery

Members of Canada's Atlantic halibut fishery are expressing concern about a recent landing by a French-flagged vessel in Saint Pierre and Miquelon. (Shutterstock - image credit)
Members of Canada's Atlantic halibut fishery are expressing concern about a recent landing by a French-flagged vessel in Saint Pierre and Miquelon. (Shutterstock - image credit)

The federal government is warning Canadian fishers that they could face penalties up to the loss of licences if they participate in activities that threaten the conservation and management of Atlantic halibut stocks.

The declaration comes at a time when tensions remain high between Canada and France over fishing for the valuable groundfish species.

On Friday, Fisheries and Oceans Canada issued a statement saying it has requested formal consultations under the Proces-Verbal to reach an agreement related to quota allocation. The government describes Proces-Verbal as "a treaty that has allowed Canada and France/Saint Pierre and Miquelon to cooperate on the management of fish stocks that are present in our two domestic fishing waters."

The move follows word that a French-flagged ship recently landed 30 tonnes of halibut in Saint Pierre and Miquelon that is believed to be destined for the United States via the Port of Halifax. The fish was caught outside Canada's 200-mile limit off Newfoundland and Labrador in an area known as the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization Regulatory Area, according to industry sources.

A blow to the bottom line and sustainability

Gary Dedrick, a Shelburne County fisherman and executive member of the Atlantic Halibut Council, said a catch like the one just landed has major implications for Canadian fishers because it would affect access and value.

"These fish got to be accounted for out of the total allowable catch, but also it affects the market," he said in an interview.

"They put these volumes on the market, which reduces the wharf price … for the fishermen. It's like a double-edged sword."

Historically, halibut in Saint Pierre and Miquelon was strictly a bycatch fishery as part of other fisheries. In recent years, however, the French have focused on halibut as part of a directed fishery.

Negotiations have yet to produce a deal

France and Canada have been trying to negotiate an agreement on quota sharing since 2016 without success. Saint Pierre and Miquelon's historical catches have ranged between one and 1.5 per cent of annual total catches from this stock. Industry members have said France is pushing for quota in the range of four times that size.

"There's no basis for that," said Dedrick.

"The catch has to be what they historically caught."

With 2,000 fishers in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador and their respective communities relying on a sustainable and vibrant fishery, Dedrick and other industry members said the matter must be resolved.

Some industry members say Ottawa needs to make it difficult for the French vessel, the Terre Neuvas, to operate financially. One way to do that would be preventing the fish from entering other markets through Canada.

'These actions do not support Canadian industry'

The statement from DFO says Canada remains "committed to maintaining constructive dialogue with France, to reach an agreement."

The threat of penalties against Canadian fishers aiding the French effort appears to be directed at some Nova Scotia members of the industry.

According to a memo prepared for Fisheries Minister Diane Lebouthillier, obtained by CBC, Sambro-based ALS Fisheries Ltd. "could be providing support through crew and facilities to assist the vessel to harvest and possibly offload catches."

"Canadians can legitimately crew on foreign vessels," the memo says.

"However, these actions do not support Canadian industry nor Canada's international posture with respect to this vessel fishing or its flagged state."

A person who answered the phone at ALS Fisheries Ltd. on Friday said the company is not involved in the Saint Pierre and Miquelon landing. They declined to answer when asked if anyone connected to the company is part of the trip.

The memo to the minister recommends that officials reach out to ALS and its employees who may be crewing for Terre Neuvas "to inform them of their objectionable actions, the concerns from both a conservation and economic lens to the Canadian fishery, and the possible future consequences should they continue their activities," which may include impacts on licences and/or fisher registration cards.