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In the North Atlantic, the trajectory following fisheries collapse has not been forgiving. Even decades after overfishing drove seemingly inexhaustible species like Atlantic cod off a precipice, many populations—most notably, of Atlantic cod—have remained stubbornly low.
But in Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence, an exception to the rule is emerging from the depths.
Redfish—a deep-dwelling species found in the western Atlantic from Baffin Island to New Jersey—is an unlikely hero: a scarlet groundfish the length of a bulldog sporting a faintly outraged expression and a line of spines sharp enough to draw blood. More to the point: aside from readers of Dr. Seuss, who’s even heard of a redfish?
Yet stocks of redfish in the Gulf of St. Lawrence that were once fished so intensively they were put under a moratorium are now making a heroic—if mysterious—comeback: a return measured not in one fish or two fish, but in the millions of tonnes. In Eastern Canada, harvesters and scientists have begun to hope that a fish the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada designated endangered as recently as 2010 will soon support one of the largest redfish fisheries in the world.
With this optimism, the return of redfish has also brought complications, not only in parsing the reasons for the population boom, but in determining how the benefits of that boom can be distributed. And because redfish is a species that’s returned from the brink, the specter of failure hangs over this process: 30 years after collapse, have we learned enough to have this do-over go differently?
On a Monday afternoon, the harbor in the seaside town of Souris, Prince Edward Island (PEI)—a town whose website highlights such historical moments as a 1724 plague of mice and a temporary economic windfall from the oil generated out of 50 beached whales in 1925—is bustling. Cars line up for the five-hour ferry ride across the Gulf of St. Lawrence, while refrigerated trucks trundle away from the port, passing an ice cream shack and a Christmas tree made of lobster traps.
One notable thing about this view, though, is what’s not in it: the Usen Fisheries plant, once a major site of redfish processing in the region.
Half a century ago, PEI fisherman Justin McKinnon harvested redfish out of Souris, delivering loads to the Usen plant. Even decades later, as he stands outside his equipment shed on Mackinnon Point Road—the family seat a short drive from the wharf—reflecting on whether the fishing was sustainable, McKinnon’s conclusion is immediate. “We knew [it wasn’t] when we were doing it,” he says. Sometimes, he says, the boats, rigged for bottom trawling, seemed to bring in loads of redfish where more fish were forked over the side—non-target species, as well as undersized redfish—than were put in the hold. Then, as the industry shifted to midwater trawling, a more efficient gear type, catch rates doubled. Some fishers feared the increased catch was devastating the redfish population, but the economics of the fishery—including the fact that it was happening at a time when fishers’ incomes in the region as a whole were declining—made it hard to shift course.
Local processing came to a halt in 1993, when the Usen plant, once the town’s largest employer, burned down. But for the redfish fishery, it wouldn’t have mattered; the fishery was closed two years later, in 1995, and with it went many of the remaining jobs in groundfish fishing and processing that had existed across the region.
Now that redfish’s fortunes have improved, McKinnon, who is retired, still looks at a reopened fishery with some trepidation; if it’s going to happen, he says, it should be done with caution. “As far as I’m concerned, if you’re going to open up a fishery, you don’t let everybody go out there, run and gun.”
But exercising caution for a species whose recovery is poorly understood is a complicated task.
If there’s an emotional state that can sum up the nature of the redfish recovery, it’s this: jealousy. A growing fish stock is a rare thing in the region, and Caroline Senay, a biologist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) researching the species, jokes that she’s the envy of her colleagues.
The rarity of an increasing stock in Eastern Canada has particular resonance because the closure of the northern cod fishery in 1992 decimated communities. The fact that redfish followed the same path to a moratorium was an additional blow, even though redfish lacked the storied history: just 50 years or so of fishing to the cod’s nearly 500.
But starting in 2011, the two species’ paths began to diverge. While many cod stocks had failed to recover, DFO research trawls, which the agency uses to conduct annual surveys of species in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, began picking up improbable signs of a redfish rally—improbable because, even without fishing pressure, the odds are stacked against a young redfish’s survival.
Unlike most groundfish, redfish enter the world not as eggs, but as unprotected live young. This unusual trait matters in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, which is stratified like an aqueous layer cake: there’s a relatively warm bottom layer from the Atlantic Ocean, a lighter surface layer fed by rivers and rain, and a band of much colder water squeezed between them, generated in part by the ice melting from the Gulf in the spring. If this intermediate layer is too cold or thick, scientists think redfish’s grain-of-rice-sized larvae struggle to migrate from the depths of the Gulf where they’re born to the surface where they feed. Then, once at the surface, redfish larvae are at the mercy of the timing of their plankton prey; if they miss the plankton bloom, there’s nothing for young redfish to eat.
Between 2011 and 2013, though, the redfish’s stars—whatever they are—managed to align, and a significant proportion of redfish young survived. Ten years on, DFO research trawls are showing the results: redfish are now 90 percent of the biomass picked up in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. In other words, nine of every 10 grams of a trawl catch is redfish—up from 15 percent in the 1990s.
Senay compares the baby boom to winning the lottery. In the same way that hitting the jackpot is, for most people, a once-in-a-lifetime event—meaning there’s no way to compare, say, the impact of wearing your lucky charm on the outcome—the current redfish recovery is based on a couple of banner years. Prior to 2011, the last time redfish had even a strong cohort, let alone a recovery, was in 1980, 15 years before the moratorium. With so few points of comparison for the present situation, Senay says, it’s hard to tease out the exact factors that caused it to happen.
Nonetheless, one potential explanation for the redfish’s sudden success is that climate change has increased water temperatures in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, conditions that have also been linked to a shift in the timing of plankton blooms that feed redfish larvae. But what climate change giveth, it can just as easily taketh away, and to test the impact of further changes wrought by climate change, Senay and her colleagues have had to bring deep-dwelling redfish to the surface.
When redfish ascend too quickly from waters as deep as 500 meters, they can meet a gruesome end as their swim bladders burst from the change in pressure. (“They’re not having the time of their life,” says Senay.) Instead, Senay and her team sent scuba divers to gather redfish in cages, which were then raised to the surface over several days, stopping every few meters, as if the fish themselves were divers avoiding the bends.
With the fish safely in the lab, Senay’s team worked to determine how redfish respond to water as warm as 10 °C, compared with the Gulf’s current average of about six at the bottom. So far, experiments suggest that redfish could withstand higher temperatures—good news for fish, and fishers, in a body of water that is warming quickly.
But there are effects nonetheless. Redfish are late bloomers (maturing at about 12 to 18 years) and can live as long as 75 years, so they’re already slow to get growing. But Senay says new research shows that in the changing conditions of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, they’re growing even more slowly and maturing at smaller sizes than in the 1990s. It’s a dynamic facing marine ecosystems the world over, as an increasing body of evidence suggests that climate change–driven temperature increases are causing fish to shrink. One theory is that because warmer water holds less oxygen, at a certain point fishes’ gills can no longer extract enough oxygen from the water to keep up with their metabolism, and they stop getting bigger. The exact mechanism is still being debated (the gill-and-oxygen-limited theory is controversial), but the relationship between size and temperature is increasingly clear—and it has implications for when the redfish fishery reopens. Reports from DFO’s redfish advisory committee show some harvesters would like to see fishing start immediately, while others call for more time, hoping—for the sake of marketability—that redfish may yet get bigger. The research being done on redfish has other management implications, too, not least because understanding the population boom—and whether it’s likely to happen again—makes it easier to plan for the future.
Complicating this is that “redfish” is actually two species—deepwater and Acadian—that live at different (though overlapping) depths, and have historically been managed as one stock. But when scientists and harvesters talk about the redfish boom, they’re referring to the deepwater variety; Acadian redfish have not had the same population spike and are not recovering as quickly. Nonetheless, the two species are almost impossible to tell apart—even though what works for one may not work for the other.
Either way, these decisions are complicated by the way redfish could affect communities above and below the water.
As redfish have returned, they’ve swum into an environment different from the one they left. Not only is it warmer, but many other groundfish have disappeared. There’s now one dominant species in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, a four-million-tonne “predatory wall” of redfish, says Dominique Robert, a fisheries ecologist at the Université du Québec à Rimouski. “What we’re seeing right now with [the recovery of] redfish is really an extreme event.”
Part of what makes the situation so extreme is that a redfish’s diet is a function of its size—and therefore age—with almost all redfish in the Gulf having been born in 2011. These adult fish have now reached the size where they’re graduating from eating tiny zooplankton and are turning en masse to a slightly bigger snack: shrimp.
The intense competition for shrimp could be contributing to the slow growth of redfish. It’s also an issue for the region’s shrimp fisheries.
This includes the northern shrimp fishery of the Wolastoqiyik Wahsipekuk First Nation, in eastern Quebec. The northern shrimp, a cold-water species, is faring poorly in the Gulf of St. Lawrence’s warming waters. Guy-Pascal Weiner, the fisheries director for the community, says this past year, harvesters found fewer young shrimp than usual—a situation that’s prompted fears that redfish predation has already begun, on top of the pressure shrimp are facing from climate change. “This is very worrying,” says Weiner. “To save the northern shrimp, we have to harvest some redfish.”
This means redfish fishing is not only part of the community’s climate change succession planning—they currently hold an experimental license for redfish—it’s also a way to protect Wolastoqiyik Wahsipekuk’s shrimp harvest in the short term, giving additional urgency to the reopening of the redfish fishery. Still, not all routes to reopening (a date that is unclear but could be as soon as 2024) are created equal, says Weiner. This is especially true with the issue of access, the crux of which can be distilled into a question: is the redfish fishery an existing harvest that’s been on pause for 30 years—one in which three-quarters of the quota went to large companies—or an opportunity to divvy up the resource differently?
For Weiner, it’s clear that it should be the latter, with First Nations harvesters having first crack at the quota, a move that would not only support the economic stability of Indigenous communities, but—given the historic underrepresentation of Indigenous people in Canada’s fisheries—could serve as a tool of reconciliation. Weiner isn’t alone in thinking this: a DFO survey of potential participants in the redfish fishery, obtained through the Access to Information Act, showed most supported changing the allocation, including to allow for Indigenous access. Large companies will lose if quota is reallocated, says Weiner, but it’s the only socially responsible way.
Groups representing small-scale fishers have made their own appeals for an increased share of the fishery to go to local communities, a call that has particular resonance in places like Newfoundland, where much of the fishing in lucrative areas such as the Grand Banks is conducted by large, and in some cases multinational, fishing companies—operations that were held responsible for the overfishing of cod.
Much of the fishing happening now in the offshore sector—meaning larger vessels, generally operating farther from shore—has had minimal benefit to people in the adjacent coastal communities, both because companies are often not locally owned, and because processing is done aboard the ship or in other countries, says Keith Sullivan, former head of Fish, Food and Allied Workers (FFAW), a union representing thousands of fish harvesters and processing workers in Newfoundland and Labrador. “We really think that’s not the way our future should look.” Avoiding repetition of past mistakes with redfish, he says, means ensuring more of the benefits stay local. That’s one of the reasons industry groups like FFAW, as well as individual harvesters, want to see much of the quota going to smaller, independently owned fishing operations, which formerly had only about 15 percent of the total.
Offshore companies have pushed back against this characterization, noting that they employ local people, with one saying they’d already started investing in equipment based on the historical distribution of redfish quota. Taken together, it’s possible to see how the rosy opportunity redfish represent could also be, as one Indigenous organization put it in a letter to DFO, “a shining beacon for conflict.”
But the question of distribution is nearly moot without the fish having a market to go to—and for a species that’s largely disappeared from Canadian consumers’ plates for the past 30 years, the destination is unclear.
Prior to the moratorium, Gulf redfish was mostly sent to the United States, where it was sold as “ocean perch,” in deference to the local preference for freshwater fish. Confusingly, it’s not a perch at all, and “redfish” is often used as the common name for a species of drum fish (not red, by the way) found in the Gulf of Mexico.
While at least one major seafood processor is hoping to send the redfish from a reopened fishery to Asia, Europe, and the United States, others say integrating a portion of the catch into local food systems will be key to ensuring a sustainable fishery.
This echoes the approach advocated by a young Rachel Carson, who, in 1943—almost 20 years before the publication of Silent Spring—wrote a pamphlet for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. In it, the biologist encouraged housewives to embark on the “gustatory adventure” that redfish and other underused species represented as a way of reducing pressure on overexploited fish like cod and haddock. (Some of Carson’s other suggestions, like a “salad surprise” of flaked mackerel in gelatin are perhaps less compelling.)
For the redfish in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, measures to develop markets are in their infancy and there are hurdles ahead. As it stands, redfish are too small to produce the large filets that fish processors want; given changing environmental conditions, they may never get big enough. Developing domestic markets therefore means not only familiarizing consumers with a new species, but in some cases overcoming North American expectations that fresh fish should arrive as a disembodied slab of flesh.
Some are using the time before the fishery opens to test the waters. This includes the Wolastoqiyik Wahsipekuk First Nation, which is participating in a trial to sell whole, head-off redfish from its experimental fishery to grocery stores in eastern Quebec. Ultimately, Weiner—who says he eats redfish as often as he can (“in the oven, sprinkle a little bit of spice, skin on”)—thinks redfish could easily replace other flaky, white fish like tilapia, which is mostly imported from Asia and South America, in local markets.
Apart from markets, the other bottleneck is by-catch. Based on the experimental and index fisheries for redfish (which have been established to assess the state of the stock and test gear), the proportion of the harvest that is by-catch stands at roughly nine percent. That’s in line with the 10 percent of the global catch that’s considered by-catch, but it’s still potentially devastating in a fishery that could eventually total up to 60,000 tonnes annually, particularly for species like the endangered white hake (for which being caught at a rate of less than one percent of this redfish total could cause extinction), as well as commercially valuable fish like halibut—not to mention Acadian redfish. As unprecedented as the redfish’s return has been, scientists say the harvest shouldn’t be the cause of a more familiar story for other fish populations: unsustainable management, leading to collapse.
How these questions are answered will determine whether the redfish fishery is managed to last as long as possible into the next century, or if it will have the same emphasis on short-term yield as in the mid-1900s. Either way, there is ultimately no return to the pre-moratorium redfish fishery, because the environmental and economic conditions that supported that harvest are gone—making the redfish fishery less of a do-over than a glimpse into how we’ll navigate a changing world. In that changing world, there will be winners and losers; a scarlet bottom dweller in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, appears, so far, to be a winner. Who redfish bring along for the ride will be up to us.