It’s not a shell game, it’s an end game

The Pilot - - Editorial - Rus­sell Wanger­sky

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.

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