If you follow Atlantic salmon news, you’ve no doubt read about the recent deal to curb Greenland’s commercial salmon harvest. Signed just a few weeks ago, the agreement is being lauded by salmon conservationists. To get a better idea of the nature of this deal and what it means for North American salmon runs, we sat down with an expert, fisheries biologist Sean Landsman.
Can you give us a brief history of the Greenland fishery, and why it’s been so controversial in Atlantic salmon conservation?
To give a full answer to that question, it’s useful to start with a bit of biology. Atlantic salmon are “anadromous,” meaning they are born in freshwater but grow in the ocean. Anadromy is most prevalent at temperate latitudes given the high productivity of oceans in these regions.
The goal of any animal is to successfully reproduce and pass on its genes. One way fish can ensure this is to grow as big as possible. For females in particular, being big means growing more eggs. Producing more eggs increases the likelihood that your offspring will survive and you will pass on your genes. For males, being larger may equate to a better ability to fend off intruding males and thereby secure a mate.
All of this getting big business requires an abundance of resources. For Atlantic salmon, some of the very best feeding grounds exist in waters off the western coast of Greenland. Over the years, scientists that have implanted or attached tracking devices to salmon have demonstrated that fish tagged in eastern North America, particularly in Atlantic Canada, go straight to waters in western Greenland. Additionally, genetic analysis of salmon caught by Greenlandic commercial fishers indicates that the stock they are fishing consists primarily of fish of eastern Canadian origin.
Furthermore, research demonstrates that (North American) multi-sea winter fish (i.e., the group of salmon with the most potential for growth) use these Greenland feeding grounds. Again, this is important because these fish will be producing the greatest number of eggs (compared to grilse) and, theoretically, their eggs could be of higher quality and therefore more likely to survive past the critical juvenile life stage.
The controversy over the Greenland fishery is simple: Greenland has a sizeable commercial Atlantic salmon fishery, of which primarily eastern North American salmon are harvested. In other words, Greenland fishers aren’t harvesting Greenland salmon (or at least not in comparable numbers), but instead they are harvesting fish originating from other nations.
The conflict thus centres predominantly around the right of Greenland fishers to earn a living, on one hand, versus the need to sustain and conserve populations of Canadian- and American-origin Atlantic salmon, on the other. I don’t think anyone would want to see the economic displacement of Greenland fishers, but the fact that Greenland’s harvest is predominantly of Canadian fish, stings. And stings deep for many people.
The Greenland fishery was bought out from 2002 to 2009. What effect did that have on Atlantic salmon populations, and why? Was that deal a success? Why was it not renewed?
The ASF and North Atlantic Salmon Fund (NASF) seem to prefer not to use the language “bought out.” They draw the distinction that ASF money went to re-train Greenland commercial fishers for work in other industries. This is very important because no one wants to see the economic displacement of Greenland fishers. In my opinion, that would be terribly irresponsible on the part of the collective whole should that be allowed to happen. However, the ASF and the NASF have worked toward a deal to ensure that doesn’t happen.
Long-term, this effort to re-train fishers with other job skills is far more effective than just handing a cheque for X dollars to them in exchange for guaranteed no-fishing. Instead, this approach that ASF and the private donors took was to not walk away, per se, but instead offer training to give fishers the skills to enter different employment.
So, this approach was applied from 2002 to 2009, largely at the behest of the NASF. It should be noted that the ban was only applied to the commercial fishery, and that Greenland residents were still allowed to harvest salmon under an approved subsistence fishery.
By all accounts the commercial ban seemed to work. Not only did salmon returns in eastern North America increase during this time period, but Greenland fishers reportedly went on the record as stating that this form of an agreement (i.e., re-training to develop skills in other fisheries or sectors of employment) was important to their compliance with the no-fishing order.
However, when the ban was lifted, salmon returning to eastern North America again dropped (e.g., a reduction of 300,000 fish from 2011 to 2016 or a loss of 60,000 fish per year). This pattern underscores how important Greenland waters are to the population of fish returning to North America.
Tell us about the deal that was signed this spring. Should we be optimistic for Atlantic salmon numbers?
The deal, which will last for 12 years, is very similar to the previous agreement. Private donors and two private conservation groups have raised enough money to provide retraining to Greenland fishers (plus investment in research and conservation). The ASF states that no government money was involved in the deal, but just how much money has been invested is being kept confidential.
We should absolutely be optimistic that this will have an identifiable, positive impact on Atlantic salmon numbers in eastern North America. This deal will ensure that thousands of salmon each year will go un-harvested and will thus have the ability to swim back to our region to spawn. I would expect in a couple of years to begin seeing the number of returnees to increase significantly relative to the past several years.
Is there any possibility the fishery could be ended permanently?
This is a good question, and one I’m probably not in a position to answer without being privy to internal conversations such as those that may be occurring between the ASF, NASF, the Greenland federal government, and the Greenland commercial fishers.
What I can say with some certainty is that closing the fishery will be no easy feat. It will require several things:
- A long-term, mutually beneficial agreement among: the Greenland commercial fishers; the Greenland government; Canadian, U.S., and European governments; and Atlantic salmon conservation organizations.
- Re-allocation of current fishers to other industry sectors.
- Re-training to accomplish #2.
- Lots of money to accomplish #3 (and ultimately #2, and double ultimately #1).
Will it work this time around? Well, if history repeats itself then yes, it will. But it’s hard to view this as more than a Band-Aid on a persistent slow-bleed. Pulses of increased returns are definitely welcomed, but in terms of long-term sustainability of populations in eastern North America, I’m not confident this measure — as well-intentioned as it is — will accomplish that.
Some salmon will still be harvested in Greenland. Tell us about that.
Yes, to be clear, this deal only extends to the commercial fishery and does not apply to the subsistence fishery (i.e., harvests to feed one’s self and family). As I write this, news just came out that an additional 10 tonnes is being allocated to the subsistence fishery, bumping the take to 30 tonnes of fish.
To put this into perspective, Greenland was allotted a total harvest of 45 tonnes, which included both commercial and subsistence fisheries. Exceeding that quota isn’t uncommon though; for example, in 2015, Greenland reported an over-harvest of 57 tonnes of fish. That said, they halved their catch in 2016 and 2017 to 28 tonnes.
Is this a perfect deal? No. That would see the complete shutdown of Greenland’s subsistence fishery, akin to what has been done in the Miramichi river for example (i.e., mandatory catch-and-release), in addition to a moratorium on commercial harvests.
People are often surprised to hear that many Atlantic salmon are harvested in Canadian waters each year. How does our catch compare to Greenland’s? Should we be working to reduce that?
Although there has been no commercial fishery since 2000, Canadian anglers and First Nations harvested 135 tonnes of Atlantic salmon in 2016. That amounts to approximately 58,000 fish removed from the Canadian salmon population. Pretty shocking number, right? In 2017 it wasn’t much different at 112 tonnes. That is four times the amount of Greenland’s harvest in 2017 and Canada’s harvest in 2016 (135 tonnes) was nearly 5-times that of Greenland’s. Only Norway harvests more fish (666 tonnes in 2017) than Canada.
We can point the finger at Greenland all we like, but unless we do something to severely restrict harvests in Canada, we will never see full recovery of the fishery. The math just doesn’t work out.
Realistically, it will be extremely difficult if not impossible to shut down all harvests in Canada. It would be a political nightmare and could potentially infringe on the rights of First Nations. In my opinion, the best we could hope for would be mandatory catch-and-release in the entire Canadian recreational fishery.
Reducing the Greenland fishery is obviously good news for Atlantic salmon. But is it enough? As you see it, what are the other priority issues for the species?
All too often we seek the easiest answer to a problem. Rarely do we like to admit fault, such as what role our desire to have a thriving logging or potato industry may have on the habitat of salmon, or what role Canadian harvests may have on the population.
There are several potential problems, some with more science to support them than others. To speak to the gravity of these potential problems would be mere speculation, but what I can assure you is that the fastest way to wipe out a population is by harvesting the individuals that comprise it.
Thus, to me, there is no issue more pressing than ensuring there are available spawners. This would mean a reduction in harvest across the board — from what’s allotted in recreational fisheries to what’s allotted under commercial fisheries. And that would be applied to Canada, not just Greenland.
It doesn’t take an advanced graduate degree to understand that you simply cannot make fish without fish. Hard stop.
Sean Landsman holds a Ph.D from the University of Prince Edward Island, where he is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow and Sessional Lecturer in the Department of Biology.