The Trouble With Halibut

Charles Courtney at the wheel of his fishing boat. While Courtney is permitted to catch only 200 lbs of halibut per day, boats from Nova Scotia can buy licenses allowing them to catch 200,000 lbs.

HERMITAGE – About four miles off the coast, Charles Courtney takes a snapshot of a boat that hails from Nova Scotia. It’s late April, and the unidentified boat is allegedly fishing for halibut, licensed to catch 200,000 pounds. Later that evening, Courtney posts the photo to Facebook. 

He feels wronged, and he’s not the only one. Newfoundland fishers like Courtney can only catch 200 lbs of halibut per day until the season’s quota is caught. 

“They’re buying up the quotas,” begins Courtney by phone a few days later. “When he’s got that caught, he’s going to buy another quota too.” 

Courtney says that NL boats can’t buy up those quotas, which the province has leased to Icewater Seafoods in Arnold’s Cove since 2004 for $50,000 per lease. The intent was to sustain operations and create jobs. 

“It was given to Icewater, a few years back there, to give them 98 per cent of the quotas, what was in 3Ps. And I think they gave us 2 per cent,” said Courtney via telephone interview. “They took it away from the 3Ps fishermen and gave it to that plant, to do what they wanted to do with it.” 

The belief by some NL fishers is that Icewater has been subleasing the quotas to harvesters in Nova Scotia, and the catch is also landed there for processing. If the point of those leases was to create jobs in Newfoundland, landing it outside the province makes no sense to Courtney. 

“It was supposed to be landed in Newfoundland but it’s not. It’s Nova Scotia, and like nobody’s got a benefit from it in Newfoundland – not a soul,” he insists. 

Courtney’s halibut season in 3Ps doesn’t usually start until around mid-May and ends once the quota is caught. He estimates that prior to the arrangement with Icewater Seafoods, the were about 1500 fishers dependent on that quota. 

“They just took it away, just to give it to this plant there so that 150 people that work in the plant to help them out through the tough times, took away the quota from 1500 fishermen, you know, enterprises,” states Courtney. “There’s a lot of fishermen around the coast that depend on the halibut. That’s all they’ve got for the year, a bit of cod and a bit of halibut.” 

Last year Courtney reached out to MHA Elvis Loveless, who was serving as the Minister of Fisheries, Forestry and Agriculture prior to the 2021 election. 

“They (NS boats) were here last year, last Spring, and they were fishing the same bank. Coming in, carrying off 40-50 thousand pounds a trip to Nova Scotia,” recounts Courtney. “I asked him to do something and he called me back after and said there was nothing he could do.” 

The province’s agreement with Icewater Seafoods is scheduled to continue until 2024. There are quotas for other fish too, including cod, haddock and flounder. 

Prior to the Icewater leasing, Courtney says the halibut fishery in his area was doing well. Since then, fishing for halibut in 3Ps is nowhere near as profitable for smaller, independent fishers like Courtney. 

“I do go at it but now it’s only a bycatch. We’re allowed – when it’s open – 200 lbs of round weight a day,” says Courtney. “If I go out there tomorrow and set six tubs of gear, and the first tub comes up and I’ve got my quota, then I’ve got to let the rest of it go. Tomorrow I could go out and run the same amount of gear, probably not see either one (halibut).” 

Courtney also fishes crab and cod when those seasons open, but lobster licenses are a bit pricey. That’s because the lobster fishery is king on the Southwest coast. 

“You’re talking 250 thousand a license, up to 300 thousand,” he estimates. 

Closer to Port aux Basques, in 3Pn, halibut fishers have weekly quotas, something Courtney envies. 

“They’re allowed just 2,000 pounds or 2,500 pounds per week. They’re allowed to catch it all one day or in a week. Once they’ve caught that amount that’s fine. They’re stopped fishing for the week, but down here we can’t do that,” he explains. 

Courtney understands that the leasing deal is done, but doesn’t know why he can’t pull a weekly quota like the 3Pn fishers instead. He says at least that way it would give him something to work with. 

“Buyers don’t want to come out there for this little bit of fish that you’re allowed to catch and truck it out. It’s not worth it,” Courtney points out. 

The key difference is that in 3Pn, halibut is a directed fishery, but in 3Ps it is only a bycatch fishery. 

In the wheelhouse of his boat, Courtney keeps a thick binder of rules and regulations he must abide by. Lately he’s been getting them by e-mail, and he doesn’t mind them per se, but he wonders about the regulations for out-of-province boats subleasing these quotas. When Courtney comes back each day, he is subject to the dockside monitoring. He has to show his log book and his catch for the day. 

“Boats from Nova Scotia, they’re coming here, fishing away. Nobody’s bothering with them, no fisheries officers are checking them. They’re taking this fish, carrying it across to Nova Scotia. It’s not being monitored when it goes across to Nova Scotia,” he points out, before focusing on the inevitable bycatch. “They’re not allowed cod, to take the cod, so what are they doing with the cod? For sure they’re catching codfish.” 

Then there are the worries about the pandemic, especially as last week, Nova Scotia reported in excess of 100 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 almost daily. 

“They’re tied up in Ramea now,” says Courtney. “They’re not even supposed to be here.” 

MHA Derrick Bragg (Fogo Island – Cape Freels) is the current Fisheries minister. Kathy Dicks-Peyton, Communications Director for the department, responded to inquiries by re-directing them to the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), but did offer clarification on one point. 

“Icewater Seafoods licences are not resold out-of-province. The quotas associated with these licences are fished each year by OCI (Ocean Choice International), a Newfoundland and Labrador-company, through an agreement with Icewater. The financial proceeds are used to support Icewater’s plant operations in Arnold’s Cove.” 

Questions about the value of the contracts went unanswered by the department as of press deadline. However, OCI did respond to inquiries regarding the NS boats and fish processing. 

“Ocean Choice does not have any arrangements with Nova Scotia boats to harvest halibut in 3Ps. Halibut is a bycatch for Ocean Choice when directing for other species in 3Ps. The bycatch is landed in Newfoundland and the majority of the halibut is further processed at Ocean Choice’s Fortune processing facility for retail sales into the United States and Canada,” stated Cara Pike, Director of Communications and Marketing for OCI. 

Sarah Fleming, Director of Communications for the Atlantic Groundfish Council also responded to inquiries via e-mail. 

“There has been no movement of quota from OCI/Icewater to fish halibut in 3Ps by license holders outside of NL,” wrote Fleming. “Icewater Seafoods’ 3Ps halibut quota is used by Ocean Choice International to cover bycatch when their vessels are fishing other species. There are no arrangements between the company and Nova Scotian boats.” 

But Fleming did confirm that there are, in fact, Nova Scotia boats fishing halibut off NL, but that kind of works both ways. 

“They would be mid-shore and offshore license holders who have quota to do so (there are fishers in NS, NB, PEI or QC whose regulations allow them to fish in the area). Similarly, NL-based license holders in the mid-shore and offshore fleet have the opportunity to fish in waters adjacent to other Atlantic provinces, and do so without issue.” 

Regardless of who owns the licences, Courtney states that last year there were 10 boats from Nova Scotia – 65 to 100 ft. in length – fishing the same area he does. 

“Right now they’re right into the rocks,” says Courtney. “I saw this same boat, a 65 footer, right on the same bearings I was waiting to go up now in the middle of May for to catch a little bit of halibut and a little bit of cod, and there’s not going to be nothing left there.” 

When the agreement with Icewater Seafoods runs out in 2024, Courtney doesn’t want to see it renewed. 

“I would love to see this go back to the Southwest coast, to the 3Ps fishermen again,” says Courtney. “Let us have a fishery if there’s anything left.” 

DFO were unable to respond to inquiries before print deadline. 

Leave a Reply