Reflections on the Canadian Conference for Fisheries Research 2020

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Guest Blog by Kayla Hamelin, PhD Student

Less than two days after ringing in the new year (and new decade), I made my way into a meeting room to take part in my first conference as a PhD student – the Canadian Conference for Fisheries Research (CCFFR 2020). After several years working outside of academia, the environment felt both friendly and familiar, but also refreshingly new. It was also a bit jarring to be under the fluorescent lights staring at a PowerPoint screen after two weeks away enjoying the holidays with lots of food, family, and fun! But one has to get back to work eventually, and what better way to kick off the new year than with inspiration from fellow researchers from across the country?

Held in partnership with the Society for Canadian Limnologists, CCFFR was celebrating its 73rd meeting, gathering both freshwater and marine researchers in Halifax to share the latest and greatest in fisheries science from coast to coast to coast. The event officially kicked off with multiple keynote addresses. I found Dr. Scott Bonar, who gave a welcome message on behalf of the American Fisheries Society, particularly memorable. He used a large portion of his time to highlight the importance of communicating with the public and encouraging us to do so, especially regarding global climate change. It was an appreciated reminder that climate change research is not outside the expertise of fisheries scientists, but rather an integral consideration in what we do, and thus we bear some responsibility in spurring climate action by the public.

As a researcher interested in the local knowledge held by fishers, I was thrilled to see that there were more community-based projects working with stakeholders than academic conferences I had attended in the past. More and more, researchers are co-developing projects with Indigenous groups, engaging citizen scientists, and working side-by-side with community partners. Despite this, I did feel that I was a bit of an anomaly as an interdisciplinarian, given that I split my time between the Bailey lab, focused on equity in fisheries governance, and the Hutchings lab, focused on fish ecology and evolution.

For this reason, I couldn’t help but notice the “siloed” nature of the fisheries research presented at CCFFR. While the audience included a mix of academics, NGO representatives, and staff from various government departments (primarily the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans [DFO]), most of the presentations focused on ecology, evolution, genetics, and research methodologies specific to the natural sciences. Most presenters asserted that their work had applications for management, but I couldn’t help but think that we could all benefits from having more folks from the policy and economics side of things in the room. After all, fisheries management typically has not only ecological objectives, but also social and economic ones as well. Some of my colleagues who attended the North American Association of Fisheries Economics in Halifax last year commented that their meeting, too, was very discipline-specific. It would be great to have more opportunities to bridge some of these gaps within the field of fisheries.

One opportunity did arrive at the end of CCFFR which nicely addressed this concern – a unique presentation organized by Noreen Kelly and Ryan Stanley (DFO), who led an open discussion on “the future of marine spatial planning in Canada’s oceans”. It was a chance to share ideas and perspectives among academics, government officials, and others with an interest in the topic. It provided more of an exchange of ideas than would typically occur in a question period at the end of an academic talk but was more open and public than the one-on-one or small group discussions that often take place in the poster session or during the coffee break. As a result, needs for data standardization, transparency, and communication with stakeholders were brought to light for further discussion.

All together, I learned a great deal about the field of fisheries science and enjoyed many fantastic presentations and conversations during CCFFR 2020. On a personal note, it was also a pleasure to reconnect with current and former colleagues from throughout my academic and NGO work history. I’m grateful to everyone who stopped by my poster presentation to ask questions and give feedback. I learned a lot about the parts of my project proposal that work and parts that need tweaking. Perhaps more importantly, talking about my proposed project helped me to realize the parts of my project that I am most engaged with and most excited about, so I can see more clearly where to focus my energy moving forward. Best fishes for a great year of research ahead!

Fishy travel notes from Cabo Verde – guest post by Helen Packer

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Skipjack tuna sold by street vendors

I recently came back from a small group of volcanic islands located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of West Africa where the sun shines everyday and rainfalls are celebrations, where landslides and volcanic eruptions are never too far in the future (at least in geological time), where the music is always playing somewhere around the corner and people are always smiling, and where arid and volcanic landscapes meet rich under water ones. This place is Cabo Verde, a place where Morabeza is the guiding principle and describes what it means to be Cape Verdean: open spirit, welcoming, hospitable, relaxed and an islander.

You may or may not have heard of Cabo Verde as it is small in size and remarkably isolated but it certainly is big in ambition and open to the world. Its land mass only covers 4,044 km2 but its ocean surface is almost two hundred times as big at 785,000 km2. The islands of Cabo Verde are located at the junction of different oceanic currents but too far from the coast to be affected by the upwelling currents that fertilize the west coast of Africa. However, Cabo Verde does get exposed to some iron fertilization from the Saharan dust that gets blown across the ocean. As a result of various (and still not well understood) oceanographic processes and its isolation, Cabo Verde has a rich underwater life with high levels of endemism (when species evolve separately, creating new species).

You might wonder what is the link between volcanism and oceanographic processes and fisheries management? The link is that Cabo Verde is surrounded by underwater volcanoes also known as seamounts that deviate ocean currents and cause local upwelling and thus create local productivity hot-spots which attract small and large sea life from corals and sponges to whales, sharks and tunas. Seamounts make up the largest and most productive fishing grounds off Cabo Verde, attracting local and international, small-scale and industrial fleets alike. Fishing is an important part of Cabo Verde’s culture and economy. It is also an important source of food with the average Cape Verdean consuming 21.1kg of seafood a year.  However, as is the case with many coastal states in West African countries, Cabo Verde does not have the capacity to fully exploit its fisheries resources and therefore has signed access agreements with the European Union (EU) and issues licenses to foreign fleets such as China and Japan, which allows them to fish in Cabo Verde’s EEZ, under certain conditions.

Cabo Verde’s national fleet is largely made of small vessels (8-25 horsepower engines) that use handline and small purse-seine nets and catch around 9,000MT/year. Catch includes a wide variety of species consumed on the local market such as groupers, seabream, conchs, small pelagics such as bigeye scad and scad mackerel, moray eels, various species of lobsters, shrimps and crabs (see pictures). These small boats also go out further at sea to the local seamounts where they can catch skipjack tuna and large yellowfin and bigeye tunas. Locally caught tuna is either sold fresh on the market or canned locally at the local processing plant (Frescomar).

Larger fishing vessels (longliners, purse-seiners and pole-and-line) are also allowed to fish in Cape Verde under access through the EU Sustainable Fisheries Agreement (Spain, Portugal and France) and licensing of foreign vessels (Japan, China and Senegal). These vessels catch between 30,000 and 40,000 MT/year and mostly fish on Cape Verde’s seamounts for large pelagics such as tunas and sharks.  By law, all the catch should be transshipped in port, where it is pre-processed and sent to Europe for canning.

Local fishermen often express their concern about decreasing catch of coastal fisheries, blaming the EU purse-seine fleets for catching large numbers of juvenile tunas and longline fleets for targeting blue sharks (legally). Fishermen believe that foreign fleet activity potentially affects availability of fish, especially closer to the shore, disrupting local ecosystem functioning and affecting species abundance and distribution. These views of fishermen are in contrast to the fact that the EU Sustainable Fisheries Agreement (SFPA) is based on the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy key principles, including sustainability and protection of endangered species. Indeed, the broader aim of the agreement is “to enable sustainable and responsible fishing opportunities, while contributing to broader development objectives in the third countries”.  But this begs the question:  is the agreement achieving these aims if it is negatively affecting local ecosystems and decreasing catch by local fishermen, forcing them to go further out at sea? Moreover, incomplete or in some cases absent catch data is a big issue in Cape Verde, leading to high levels of uncertainty in stock assessments. Many of the longline vessels, whose catch is 80% sharks, do not have observers on-board, potentially opening the door to illegal transshipment at sea and shark finning. Vessel monitoring systems (VMS) are in place, but Cabo Verde has yet to develop a compatible on-land monitoring system. Therefore, many aspects still need to be improved with regards to the management of EU fleets including better monitoring and enforcement, better reporting and by-catch measures.

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Seafood is an important part of Cabo Verde culture (credit: Packer)

The EU agreement brings almost € 1 million a year to Cabo Verde but who is benefiting from the agreement? It was reported that 71% of the revenues made from foreign fishing operations goes to the EU with only 17% going to Cabo Verde. Is this a fair bargain, contributing to local development? The government of Cabo Verde did try to invest in increasing local fishing capacity but there seems to be little interest for new entrants to join the fishery. As a result, the government is now focusing its activities on improving its fisheries research capacity.

This makes me wonder if Cabo Verde’s Morabeza has been a blessing or a curse when it comes to fisheries management. However, Cabo Verde is no exception. Development and sustainability issues associated with access agreements and foreign licensing are occurring in developing coastal states all over the world. However, this doesn’t have to go on. This year, Cabo Verde has another chance to change the course. The latest EU agreement is expiring and negotiations for renewal are on-going. The question is, will the voice of local fishermen be heard? So far governance has been top-down, non-transparent and industrial fishermen, being more organized, have been more influential in decision-making processes. How will Cabo Verde support its local fishermen? Protecting local fisheries is not only important for fishermen’s livelihoods but may also be a question of food security, with much of the seafood consumed in Cabo Verde being caught by local fishermen. Other than protecting its resources, Cabo Verde fishermen could also do with some support to improve the quality of their product for potential export. However, this also means careful consideration for local food security.

Cabo Verde has few land-based natural resources but has been blessed with rich fisheries resources. It is imperative that these resources are sustainably exploited and in a way that supports the social and economic development of Cabo Verde. This is the challenge that many developing coastal states face but one that must be solved through transparent and fair negotiations with foreign fleets, improved management capacity at the country level, and increased capacity to obtain more value from its resources whilst considering local food security issues.

Living in an isolated archipelago with such limited resources, Cabo Verdeans have developed a unique identity and strong attachment to their land (and oceans!). But Cabo Verdeans are also adventurous travellers, with many of them moving overseas for better opportunities. However, their strong connection to their country means they often come back after years of living, studying and working abroad, to share what they have learnt and contribute to solving the challenges their country faces. Despite these challenges, the people from Cabo Verde never forget to slow down and enjoy life while still being determined for a better future. If Cabo Verdeans taught me one thing, it is the importance of enjoying “the little things” and, doing nothing!

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Cabo Verde landscape (credit: Packer)