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Trapnet fishery takes mackerel and tuna where trawling is banned

Shetland Seafood News online

3rd March 2003

Ben Miller rows a mackerel laden dory alongside
a sea pen to feed the tuna as his dad Lawson, on
board a Cape Islander fishing boat, drops anchor.

Photo: Rachel Brighton

With restrictions on trawling and seine netting gripping the North Sea, minds are turning to other methods. In this article, Canadian fisheries journalist Rachel Brighton explains the trapnet fishery for tuna and mackerel in St Margaret's Bay where mobile gear is banned. The method is also used in Japan where trapnet catches from local operations and Canada sell for top dollar.

Communities in St Margaret's Bay, Nova Scotia, on the east coast of Canada, have been shaped and sustained by the traditional art of trapnet fishing for tuna and mackerel for more than 100 years.

While mackerel today is sold for bait, the bluefin tuna that migrate into the bay to feed in summer are sold mostly into the lucrative Japanese food market.

Along the western shore of this bay, fishermen in some years have landed more than half the bluefin tuna catch in Canada. The bay is home to the only four fishermen licensed to trap bluefin tuna in the fishery-dependent provinces that make up Atlantic Canada. Other mackerel fishermen in the bay are allowed to land a smaller amount of tuna as a by-catch. All up there are about 50 significant mackerel and tuna berths in the bay, operating from late April to early December. The bay is closed to mobile fishing gear.

A bay fisherman feeds the tuna their mackerel feast,
fattening them up for the Japanese market.

Photo: Rachel Brighton

Japanese set technical pace

One of the bluefin licence-holders is Robert Conrad, who last September left his traps set in St Margaret's Bay and flew to Japan, where he was representing Canada at an international summit held to promote trapnet fishing (called setnet in that country) as a more responsible method of fishing. He was joined by representatives from Australia, Spain, Chile, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Kenya and the Philippines.

A trapnet is a series of nets made of synthetic twine and anchored to the ocean floor in a shape that permits migrating schools of fish to enter, but makes it difficult for them to escape. A leader net, of 25 fathoms to sometimes more than 100, serves as a fence that directs the fish into the outer and then inner bowl of the trap. Each bowl measures about 100 fathoms around. A double rope is made fast to the twine and the whole trap is floated by corks fastened to this rope. At least once a day Cape Islander motorboats, towing a handful of wooden dories, head out to the traps to haul in the mackerel - some for the tuna in nearby pens and the rest for the shore.

Inside the main bowl is a bottomless sweeper net, which is pulled shut across the mouth of the trap when the fish are being taken, and is also used to sweep the fish towards the peak of the main bowl and then into a shallow net called a spiller. Fishermen row their dories alongside and purse the spiller, bringing the fish to the surface to be hauled on board along with any tuna, which are gaffed.

Most trapnets are set from the shore or a shoal, although more frequently fishermen are setting them in deeper ocean waters outside the bay to intercept the changing paths of fish.

In St Margaret's Bay, the structure of these traps is simple compared with the elaborate systems used on the west coast of Japan, where the conference was held in Himi City. Officials in that city are exploring ways to export to developing countries their own expertise and technology in this way of fishing.

Trapnet fishing is typically a small-scale endeavour where fishermen set their traps in their own communities and assume more responsibility for managing the local fishery. As well as being an important way of conserving fish stocks, there are added benefits for the small fisherman. Fuel costs are low, since the operations are mostly conducted inshore and close to where the fishermen live, and the captured fish can be held alive till the market peaks.

Trapnet tuna make top dollar

Fishermen in St Margaret's Bay have been selling bluefin tuna into the Japanese food market since the 1970s, when they began to farm the tuna they were catching. They hold the tuna in sea pens and feed them mackerel to increase their weight and the lipid oil content that drives up the price in Japanese markets. Tuna captured in the bay can earn up to $40 (Canadian) a pound for the fishermen, while a tuna caught with other gear may be dead or injured, changing the condition of its flesh and reducing its value to as low as $4 a pound.

The conference gave Conrad the chance to experience the Japanese market firsthand and to compare practices. He was impressed by the vast size and complex designs of their traps.

Together, they formed a matrix that maximized the total catch for the bay. "I don't know how a fish gets in that bay and swims away," said Conrad.

Three things differ about the way the Japanese set their traps from those in Nova Scotia. To stop the tides squeezing the nets, they are set out in an extended oval parallel to the shore. In St Margaret's Bay, by contrast, the rounded bowl of the traps can be bunched by the tides, spilling fish. Second, the elaborate structures in Japan usually have more than two bowls and more than one leader. Third, it is common for more than one trap to be set in staggered intervals from the shore so as to extend the total reach. These more expensive setups are justified by the year-round season, made possible by the warmer water, and the closeness of the traps to the fresh food markets.

Taking on board some of these ideas, Conrad, now back in Fox Point on St Margaret's Bay, is considering whether to add a pocket to the main bowl of his mackerel traps to make it even more difficult for the fish to swim out. While he's taking a fresh look at how better to manage his traps, he's hoping federal bureaucrats will take a hard look at how to best manage the tuna fishery.

Fishery needs recognition

As the president of the St Margaret's Bay Tuna Fishermen's Association, Conrad hopes the prestige of the summit will lead the federal department of fisheries and oceans (DFO) to place more priority on this environmentally friendly, and community friendly, way of fishing. "The trapnet fishery is not a little thing that happens in St Margaret's Bay," said Conrad.

"It is a fishery that is held in high regard in other countries. What I'm really hoping for is that the DFO in Atlantic Canada would come to a greater recognition of the benefits of trapnet fishing and the need to preserve and develop and grow that.

"With trapnet fishing, only small portions of the fish stocks are captured, creating a healthy future for the fish and the fishermen. The trapnet fishery does not impact the environment," said Conrad.

"The only contact with the sea floor would be the anchor system. There is no disruption of the ocean environment. You wait and capture what comes to you rather than be a hunter. It serves as a braking effect on the other fisheries that are more destructive."

In the long term, Conrad would like to see DFO invest more money into researching the patterns and populations of the migratory stocks. "We know far more about the surface of the moon than we do about our own oceans."

In the short term, his organization is trying to fix another problem: the fishery tends to close before the tuna leave the bay. Last autumn, 15 tuna swam into one trap and were released after the quota had been reached on September 30. Fishery nets $15 million

Apart from St Margaret's Bay, there are six other tuna fleets in Atlantic Canada, employing harpoon, tended line, and rod and reel. The fishery, worth about $15 million a year, closes when the quota across the seven tuna fleets is met, usually before peak prices are reached in late autumn. Under the present system, each fleet is allocated a cap, but the combined cap exceeds the regional quota of 595 MT (metric tonnes) by a considerable margin. All tuna are tagged at capture and monitored at landing.

But the quota will have been met before some fleets have reached their cap. "It promotes a totally competitive race for fish", said Conrad.

As an alternative, the local tuna association wants fleet quotas that would be managed by the fishermen.

"This would help stabilize the communities who depend on tuna," said Conrad. Each fleet would fish until their quota was met, unaffected by another fleet's superior catch that might otherwise bring the season to an early end.

The catch in St Margaret's Bay has been falling below its fleet cap. Last year it was set at 105 MT, roughly 18 per cent of the regional quota, but the fleet landed only 100 tuna, just five per cent of the regional catch.

If the rules are changed, the local tuna association will have to accept a quota well below the current cap, as will some other fleets. The payoff will be in letting each fleet pace the catch so they can fish later into the year, harvesting larger and better quality fish for higher prices.

Conrad thinks this co-operative approach, to be debated by industry and government in late February, may encourage fishermen to work together in other areas, including marketing. "Give us fleet quotas and we can do some wonderful things."

Catches up and down
The tuna catch in St Margaret's Bay has been up and down for decades. Up until the 1940s, about 50 families lived off the tuna fishery, which began its decline as the groundfish fishery improved. The tuna returned in great numbers in the 60s and 70s. Then in the 80s and early 90s, very little tuna was caught, and in some years, none at all. But the tuna have been coming back since the mid-90s. In 1994, the St Margaret's Bay fleet landed more bluefin tuna than in all the previous decade. In that year the combined value of the tuna and mackerel trapnet fishery in the bay reached $4 million.

The catch was steady for a while after that, and then dropped. At the same time prices fell from an average $20 a pound to about $10, although the odd fish will still get $40 a pound. The tuna are smaller, too.

Whereas the odd farmed tuna would go dressed for 800 or 900 pounds, the average tuna last season weighed 616 pounds, "making it a challenge for our fleet to survive," said Robert Conrad. But in the big picture, the outlook is still better than it was and Conrad is upbeat. "The better days may yet be ahead of us."

Click here for further information about trapnets