Canadian Trawlers Designate Voluntary Coral Closure; Fisheries Management Calls It "Good First Step"

MPA News

Canada's offshore trawling industry for shrimp and groundfish has instituted a voluntary closure to protect coldwater corals off the coast of Baffin Island and the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, on the nation's Atlantic coast. The 12,500-km2 coral protection zone will help prevent coral species from being taken as bycatch in trawl gear. Coral species in the region, including Primnoa resedaeformis and Paragoria arborea, exist hundreds of meters below the surface and can live to be centuries old.

The closure will apply to members of the three industry associations that designated it: the Canadian Association of Prawn Producers (CAPP), the Groundfish Enterprise Allocation Council (GEAC), and the Northern Coalition (NC). All offshore shrimp license holders in the region are members of these associations, as are all but one of the offshore groundfish license holders. (The one non-member is currently inactive in the fishery.)

The trawling associations have called the measure one of the most progressive industry-based initiatives in the world to protect coldwater corals. "We are taking a lead role in identifying and protecting important coral concentrations," says Bruce Chapman, executive director of CAPP and GEAC. He says the closed area was identified based on discussion among captains who had fished the wider region for many years. "For the most part, the area that is closed has been avoided in recent years because of the problem of gear getting tangled with the coral," says Chapman. The associations have also instituted a code of conduct that requires their captains to stop fishing and move elsewhere if they believe they are in an area where corals may exist, even outside the voluntary closure.

"The right direction"

Nadia Bouffard, a director of resource management for Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) calls the voluntary closure "a good first step in the right direction." "DFO supports conservation measures taken on a voluntary basis by industry," she says. "Such actions demonstrate a recognition of the need to change behavior to improve conservation of marine ecosystems."

Bouffard notes that the closure applies only to members of the three associations. Outside of those groups, a small number of bottom trawlers are approved by the government to fish aboriginal quotas. There are active gillnet and longline vessels in the region, as well. "Although the [shrimp and groundfish trawl] sectors represent the large majority of sectors/fleets that fish or are capable of fishing this area, a mandatory closure could be considered to bind all sectors," says Bouffard. "As such, consultations with stakeholders who have an interest in the area would need to be held, including with aboriginal management boards under land claim arrangements." She says any consideration by DFO of a mandatory closure - either covering the voluntary closed area or elsewhere - would take several criteria into account, including natural disturbance regime, species present, types of gear used, and other factors.

Chapman of CAPP and GEAC says the associations would not oppose DFO if it were to make the closed area mandatory.

Evan Edinger, a coral researcher at Memorial University in Newfoundland, would prefer it to be mandatory. "Voluntary closures are attractive because they entail fishing industry buy-in, rather than enforcement," he says. "However, voluntary closures probably are more appropriate in cases where severe habitat damage cannot be caused by the actions of a single vessel or small number of fishers - such as where deep-sea corals, sponges, and other vulnerable ecosystems are not present." He notes that a single commercial trawl in May 2007 within the closed area hauled up more than 500 kg of corals as bycatch. In August 2006, a 15-minute research trawl in the area collected a similar amount of coral.

Edinger says the voluntary closed area covers less than one-third of the "Hudson Strait coral hotspot" - an area of unusually high coral abundance. "The voluntary closure is about 25-30% of what I would recommend in size," he says. "It errs on the side of protecting corals only in those places where the industry generally does not fish anyway. The closure does nothing to stem the current rate of fishing-related damage to corals on the margins of the Hudson Strait hotspot."

The voluntary closure is the largest coral protection zone in Canadian waters. The government has designated mandatory closures in two areas elsewhere on the Atlantic coast (hundreds of kilometers southward of the voluntary closed area) specifically to conserve and protect corals - Lophelia Coral Conservation Area and Northeast Channel Coral Conservation Area. The Gully Marine Protected Area, off the coast of the province of Nova Scotia, also provides protection for corals and other fauna. For descriptions of these protected areas, visit http://www.mar.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/oceans/e/ocmd/coral/coral-measures-e.html.

For more information:

Bruce Chapman, CAPP/GEAC, Ottawa, Canada. Tel: +1 613 692 8249; E-mail: bchapman [at] sympatico.ca

Nadia Bouffard, DFO, 200 Kent St. - 12e234, Ottawa, ON K1A 0E6, Canada. E-mail: bouffardn [at] dfo-mpo.gc.ca

Evan Edinger, Department of Geography and Biology, Memorial University, St. John's, Newfoundland A1B 3X9, Canada. Tel: +1 709 737 3233; E-mail: eedinger [at] cs.mun.ca