HALIFAX, Nova Scotia (AP) – Nova Scotia’s fishery has become reliant on only a handful of lucrative stocks after years of “fishing down” the marine food chain, leaving the industry vulnerable to economic and ecological collapse, says a new study.

The report, by Halifax-based research group GPI Atlantic, found that the industry has depleted species one by one, going from larger ones such as sharks at the top of the food web to smaller ones at the bottom.

Tony Charles, one of the study’s authors, said Wednesday that where the fishery used to draw revenues from a wide range of stocks, it now has concentrated its bottom line largely on shellfish.

“The value of the fishery in Nova Scotia is actually more dependent on fewer species that are down the food chain,” he said following the release of the 55-page report.

“So that’s a concern for the idea of resilience and the idea of being able to bounce back from shocks in the fishery.”

The authors cite the recent plunge in lobster prices, which saw fishermen getting only $3.25 a pound when the season opened in prime fishing grounds off southwestern Nova Scotia late last year.

The price drop hit fishermen hard as they insisted they needed at least $5 a pound to make ends meet. Many ended up selling lobsters from the backs of their trucks around the province.

Charles, a marine researcher at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, said the incident illustrates a central point in the report – that as more species higher up the food chain are overfished, fishermen will turn to those on the bottom until there is little left.

The effort to fish down the chain intensified in the early 1990s with the collapse of groundfish stocks and a focus on lobster and other shellfish, leading to all-time lows for stock biodivesity in the region.

“All eggs are more and more in one basket,” he said. “That’s a concern because when we get these shocks like the economic downturn now, where do we turn?

“There’s less left for us to look at.”

Ironically, the province’s fishery GDP rose to $382 million in 2006 from $245 million in 1995, largely because of the shellfish sector.

Denny Morrow of the Nova Scotia Fish Packers Association agreed with the central finding that fishermen in the province have become too reliant on a few species, raising concerns they could be fished out in the future.

“There’s no question the region is very dependent on the lobster fishery and the crab and shrimp fishery,” he said from Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.

“We had a shore price of $3.25, which was the lowest in the last 25 years and that is the result of what is going on in the world economy.”

Morrow said the appetite for fresh fish in Canada and south of the border is waning as people stop eating in restaurants and grocery chains look to cheaper, frozen Chinese seafood imports.

The report lists several species that are considered either vulnerable, threatened or endangered, with a handful now extinct.

Stocks such as the Atlantic salmon, blue shark and winter skate are ranked vulnerable while striped bass, mako shark and cusk have been listed as threatened by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.

The report, which examined the ecological and human aspects of the fishery, also said the average age of fishermen has been increasing and suggests young people are struggling to break into the industry.

The fishery is made up of only abut 10 per cent of people between the ages of 15 to 24 years old – a dramatic decline since the groundfish collapse.

Charles said that could cause problems for the future of the fishery and rural, shoreline communities if there is no new blood entering the industry.

The researchers also looked at the health of the marine ecosystem, finding that the average size of certain species has been decreasing while the incidence of shellfish closures has been steadily increasing.

The number of closures due to algae blooms and other contamination more than doubled between 1985 and 2000.

Algae blooms are caused by agricultural runoff and chemical leaching that increase the nutrient level in the water.

Charles said the authors want the provincial and federal governments to consider the whole marine ecosystem and the social impacts when making management decisions about the fishery.

“If we can rebuild the stocks that are at low levels, protect the ones that are not doing too badly, and make sure that the management of the fishery is in tune with what’s best with the coastal communities, then there’s real hope for building up a fishery that’s resilient,” Charles said.

AP-ES-01-07-09 1606EST


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