It’s not a shell game, it’s an end game
When you’re in a hole, stop digging.
When you’re hoping that hole will fill in, you’ve got to step away.
There’s been a lot said about quota reductions in the shrimp fishery in Area 6, a quota that many fishermen depend on.
Fish harvesters argue that the scientific numbers aren’t right; they argue that catch rates indicate that there is more shrimp than the scientists know. (I heard the exact same argument about offshore cod — the missing piece was that the offshore fleet was fishing the spawning biomass when it came together at its highest localized concentrations.)
But let’s look at the numbers themselves. The science is more than just grim, and to actually have the biomass grow, you could easily argue that the reduction to a 10,400-tonne quota isn’t deep enough.
Obviously, the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans is aware of both the political and personal livelihood issues tied up in setting quotas.
But it’s worth considering that a single year’s fishery of Area 6 shrimp at peak fishing rates would wipe out the biomass.
The fishable biomass right now is believed to be 104,000 tonnes, close to one- eighth what it was a decade ago (785,000 tonnes). Quotas have declined as well, falling from a quota peak of 85,725 tonnes to last year’s slightly less than 28,000 tonnes. (Two years ago, the quota in the zone was more than 48,000 tonnes.)
The problem is that, between 2015 and 2016, the biomass dropped by 25 per cent. One out of every four shrimp was gone.
Catching shrimp at the same pace this year as last would be the equivalent of catching one out of every four shrimp left in the water — all over again. The proposed 10,400-tonne quota will be better for the biomass, but will still mean catching one-tenth of the remaining biomass. In a single year.
Knock out 10 per cent of the breeding stock, and it stands to reason that you will have 10 per cent less breeding success.
Scientists now estimate — looking backwards — that predators and fish harvesters combined have been catching more shrimp than the biomass can replace. The breeding population of shrimp is even lower, at around 65,000 tonnes.
The problem is that we’re fishing at the same rate — as a ratio to the size of the biomass — that we were when stocks started declining. It’s hard to understand just exactly how a 10,400-tonne quota would allow the biomass to stop shrinking, let alone start to increase again.
And remember, even if there was a sudden boom in newly hatching shrimp — a really strong year class — it wouldn’t reach the fishery for another four years or so.
At this point, even with this year’s cut in quotas, we’re really just managing a fishery in decline, rather than trying to get it back on its feet in any meaningful way.
Increasing the quota would certainly speed up the inevitable, but the fact is, the numbers look pretty inevitable already.
Shrimp boomed in a particular circumstance of water temperature and a fractured food chain caused by our own overfishing of another species.
As the cod portion of the equation returns to a more normal balance, we have to keep in mind that the bountiful shrimp fishery of the last decade is an outlier, at least as far as shrimp populations are concerned. The conditions that made it, no longer exist.
Make no mistake, this is a financial nightmare for fish harvesters. But that doesn’t change the cold, hard facts of the equation. The biomass is shrinking because we’re harvesting more shrimp than the stock can handle.
Fighting over the last shrimp now only changes just exactly who ends up with that shrimp.
It’s still the last shrimp.
Russell Wangersky is TC Media’s Atlantic regional columnist. He can be reached at Twitter: @Wangersky.