Canada’s northern fleet licensed to land ghost fishing gear

When Mersey Seafoods trawlers sail into northern Canadian waters later this year they will be landing more than shrimp.

The Nova Scotia company is part of a new pilot program to recover ghost fishing gear off northern Labrador and Baffin Island in 2020 and 2021.

Ghost gear describes lost or abandoned nets, traps and rope that continue fishing, killing and polluting.

“It’s good to remove it from the pristine ocean,” said Andrew Titus, a longtime captain for Mersey Seafoods in Liverpool, N.S. “We’re progressing. We’re becoming a lot more environmentally aware.”

Who else is on board

Fifteen vessels from seven companies that fish for shrimp and turbot off northern Labrador and Baffin Island are taking part in the program.

It was proposed by Canadian Association of Prawn Producers, which represents some of the region’s biggest seafood companies.

Members are Mersey Seafoods, Clearwater Seafoods, Ocean Choice International, Newfound Resources, MV Osprey, Harbour Grace Shrimp Company and Caramar.

Before taking a shore job earlier this year, Titus captained the Mersey Phoenix, a Northern shrimp trawler.

“Nobody wants to lose any gear,” he said. “It’s expensive. It takes a lot of time to rig it and get it ready.”

The pilot project with the Canadian Prawn Producers Association is part of an initiative to retrieve lost or abandoned traps, nets and ropes that can continue fishing and polluting for years. (DFO)

In northern waters, ghost gear tends to be crab pots dislodged by ice, and gill nets damaged in summer storms, he said.

“Crabs will go in, they’ll die in there and become bait for more crabs to come in, so it’s a cycle that keeps going,” he said, noting it is a similar situation with gill nets.

All tangled up in the blue

Offshore harvesters see ghost gear when it gets entangled in their trawls.

The program required the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to lift a prohibition on removing gear from the ocean.

It’s there to prevent theft and also to prevent boats from fishing several types of gear at one time.

Andrew Titus said it makes sense to bring ghost gear ashore rather than chuck it overboard.

“Most times we have to get the ghost gear out of our nets because it hinders our fishing anyway,” he said.

“So we’re dealing with it. All we have to do is one more step and stack it and take care of it. Yes, that can be a little bit more cumbersome but I think overall it’s a good thing.”

Why DFO is going slow

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans “controlled pilot initiative” allows the northern fleet to retain ghost gear only if it comes up in their nets.

“Outcomes of the initiative will be reviewed at the end of the season,” said spokesperson Barre Campbell.

Alexa Goodman of Coastal Action in Nova Scotia, a non-government agency, said this is a step in the right direction, but understands DFO’s caution.

“You don’t know if that gear was actually lost gear or if that was active fishing gear and was being used by someone else or if it’s being fished illegally,” she said.

“It opens up the opportunity for potential vandalism, poaching and the lines become a bit blurry, because it could be really easy to have illegal gear on board your boat and say that, ‘Oh, I just found out I’m not fishing it.’ So it is challenging.”

She said DFO is doing this the right way.

The big trawlers that make up the Northern shrimp fleet are likely to have observers on board.

“I’m hopeful that it’ll be successful and we can learn some valuable lessons and perhaps apply this elsewhere,” she said.