Sorry Clearwater, the ocean floor is not your private storage area.
On January 10, 2019, the CBC reported on newly released court documents showing that Clearwater Seafood, one of Canada’s largest fishery corporations, has been fishing illegally for years, leaving thousands of traps in their offshore lobster fishery unattended at sea for weeks to months at a time.
The Ecology Action Centre is very concerned about the serious implications for conservation, transparency, and management equity this case reveals. It appears that Clearwater has been flouting the rules for years in order to make many more millions profit off public resources that it holds exclusive access to. And at the same time, wasting tonnes of lobster, likely vastly undercounting catch of endangered fish like Atlantic cod and cusk, and increasing the risk of entanglement for whales and sea turtles.
For the past two years, the Ecology Action Centre has been gathering information and trying to track down details on how this fishery operates. Our analysis led us to question whether it was possible for Clearwater’s one offshore boat, which has exclusive access to Lobster Fishing Area 41, to fish upwards of 6500 traps within the law.
Unfortunately, we hit roadblocks to transparency and access to clear information about this fishery due to privacy regulations in both our queries to DFO and through the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) eco-certification public assessment process.
We know now that Clearwater was ‘storing’ thousands of traps on the bottom instead of bringing them to shore when they aren’t fishing and using thousands more baited traps to fish unattended for weeks to months at a time. This has been happening for years with repeated warnings from DFO (but no charges until 2017) the company has chosen to ignore.
We also know at the same time they were getting warnings from DFO for this violation, Clearwater responded to our query through the MSC certification company that ‘they were not storing traps in the ocean.’ This false statement allowed them to keep their eco-certification.
‘Storing’ traps on the bottom illegally and not tending gear within the 72 hour regulation has serious conservation implications and brings up questions of equity in how our fishery system may favour big companies over independent fishermen. Clearwater has been granted a huge area of public waters. They bought rights to profit from a public resource, and the public deserves transparency on how this resource is used.
Instead, the system is opaque, giving larger companies the ability to keep more from the public in the name of proprietary information.
From DFO and through the MSC certification company, Acoura - hired by Clearwater to independently verify that their fishery is legally compliant and sustainable according to the MSC eco-label standard - we sought the following basic fishery information:
- how many traps they are actively fishing at a time (3500, 5000, 6500? Depends who you ask)
- where they store their traps when they aren’t fishing,
- evidence they check their traps every 72 hours as required by all fisheries in Atlantic Canada (Atlantic Fisheries Regulations Sec 15)
- Information about their bycatch through on board observer records,
- a copy of a private science study done by Clearwater that was being used by DFO to inform a possible exception to the 72 hour rule for them.
You can see our letters to Acoura over two years (2016 I 2017) bringing up our concerns about the fishing practices. Here are the responses from them and Clearwater here (scan to the end of the report for response). The failure of the MSC certification company to follow up on our stakeholder concerns, which have now been confirmed by this conviction, brings into question the credibility of the MSC eco-label independent verification process.
The difficulty we have experienced in getting a full picture of how this fishery works have highlighted the distressing lack of transparency in our fishery management system. This is especially true where fisheries are consolidated, like this case. It is particularly worrisome in fisheries, because it is a public resource that is managed on behalf of all Canadians by the government and fishermen or companies are given a licensed privilege to use it to make profit.
In this case, Clearwater bought all the other licences and consolidated the fishery to just one boat. Since 2012 the company has had exclusive access to the entire offshore fishery grounds. Now much of the information about this fishery is protected under privacy regulations. Clearwater and DFO cite “proprietary reasons” to protect from public scrutiny most of the relevant information about how Clearwater operates this unique fishery, along with private research studies that may inform management changes in public waters.
The Ecology Action Centre commends enforcement officers and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) for pursuing and finally charging the license holder (CS Manpar) with what they describe as a ‘gross violation’ of the ‘72 hour rule’, which requires all fishermen to check their gear every three days at most.
‘Storing’ traps on the bottom illegally and not tending gear within the 72 hour regulation has serious conservation implications:
The longer traps are left in the water, the more lobster is potentially wasted through cannibalization. The record of enforcement officers boarding their boat in 2014 shows many hundreds of half-eaten lobsters, which could amount to thousands of tonnes over the years.
As the government notes in the court transcript, even in traps Clearwater claims had an escape hatch (or ghost panel) open, there is still a concern about big lobsters getting caught, lobster cannibalism, and spoilage of lobsters.
By all accounts, the fishery has no trouble catching the quota of 720 tonnes and filling their traps. When traps are full, lobsters keep trying to get in. This leads to lobster attacking and eating other lobsters. These lobsters are never counted and the fishery is likely killing many, many more tonnes than reported officially.
The lobster population is currently doing well – but the offshore area where Clearwater has exclusive access to is also where many of the biggest breeding females are that support the inshore populations - so any waste is long term concern and just not a responsible way to fish.
Other animals are also caught in lobster traps. The longer they are trapped, they more likely they are attacked and eaten by the lobster. In the offshore fishery, cod and cusk (both endangered), followed by white hake (which is also in trouble) are caught most frequently as bycatch. The official fishery data shows a fairly small amount are caught – but the problem with leaving the gear unattended for weeks is that many of these fish are likely eaten before they are even counted. The impact of this fishery on these important and endangered species may be vastly underreported.
The issue of whale entanglement was specifically brought up in the court by one of DFO’s leading North Atlantic right whale researchers. This fishery is in the North Atlantic right whale’s migratory path and they fish all year. The 100 trap strings this fishery uses stretch for over a mile with lines running between each trap. It is not just vertical line that the whales get caught up in – we know through research done by experts at the New England Cabot Centre that North Atlantic right whales swim all the way to the bottom to feed and can get entangled in bottom rope as well.
The less these traps are checked and monitored, the less likely anyone is going to spot entanglements or report missing gear. There is no public record of the number of traps Clearwater has lost in LFA 41 over the years.
Inequitable Regulation and Management:
Clearwater Seafoods is making a huge profit from this public resource. They can fish 720 tonnes of lobster every year – about 1.6 million pounds. At $9 per pound that is about $14 million CAD in value. Of course, making money is the goal of their business, but this needs to happen within constraints of the law.
Hundreds of inshore lobster fishermen are fishing right next to Clearwater at the 50 mile line and they have been at a disadvantage both in terms of access to the offshore area and now it seems, because Clearwater was getting away with illegal fishing. Of course, many fishermen could make a lot more money if they too, didn’t have to follow the regulations set out by DFO
Many fishermen argue the 72 hour rule may need amending, however, at the moment it is still the law. Clearwater knew this when they decided to consolidate into one boat, making it very difficult to fish within the law. DFO would have also known this when they allowed the consolidation of licences to happen. Their behaviour was not just flexibility for a day or two of bad weather, an exception given by enforcement officers at times. They left traps for weeks and months at sea all because the time and effort to bring in the traps would cut into their profit.
We have also learned that Clearwater has been lobbying behind the scenes to amend or be exempted from the long-standing 72 hour rule that requires the company to tend to their traps like other lobster fishermen. The company has noted that it is “impractical” for them to follow this law. Clearwater has conducted a study apparently on increased soak times (how long you leave a trap in the water) and according to, company VP Christine Penny, it shows no increased impact on bycatch. However, no one can verify that because it has been held from public scrutiny for ‘proprietary reasons’ for two years.
Now, DFO is allowing Clearwater to conduct further on the water research, granting them a special “science licence” to explore how “conservation objectives of a 72-hour maximum can be achieved through other means.”
Clearwater’s science licence was granted without a requirement to share the methodology with the fishery advisory committee for other stakeholders or peer review. This study could inform changes to a law that regulates all fisheries in Atlantic Canada.
A private company is undertaking ‘science’ that cannot be reviewed in the public realm- and that may inform a change to the very law that the company has just been convicted of violating. At EAC we are very concerned about the lack of transparency in this process - and more broadly about what the details of this fishery’s history and management plans reveal about Clearwater’s undue influence over Atlantic Canadian fisheries policies.
It is important this isn't just a news blip. If you are also concerned about the way this fishery has been operating, the consolidation the government has allowed, the lack of transparency, the blatant disregard for responsible fishing and following the rules, please let the Fisheries Minister know.
Hon Johnathon Wilkinson
Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard
You can also tweet him @JonathanWNV
We still have no evidence that Clearwater has stopped doing this.
You can also contact your local MP to suggest that community-managed fisheries should get access to these lucrative waters. Ask them to make sure Clearwater still isn't getting away with this. Ask them to make sure the science Clearwater is dong to is available to public peer review.
And thank DFO enforcement officers for keeping on this case!
For inquiries contact:
Marine Program Senior Coordinator
1 (902) 329-4668