Unit 1 and 2 Redfish: Making the Most of the Future

Units 1 and 2 Redfish is a good news story.  As recently as 2010, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) recommended the species in this stock be listed as endangered and threatened.  Fortunately, favorable environmental conditions from 2011 to 2013 allowed extraordinary recruitment.  With millions of tonnes of mostly juvenile redfish in the water today, the industry is faced with entirely different questions – how fast and hard to fish it.  These decisions will help determine if participants invest on a five-year horizon, or twenty.

This fishery has historically been productive.  Annual catches exceeded 100,000 mt in the 1980s (although catches at this scale were likely not sustainable).  Unfortunately, the mistakes of the 1980s were shared in this fishery and large-scale discarding of undersized fish contributed to the moratorium of the 1990s and the death of an industry.

Incorporating the catch uncertainty into the most recent assessment model led to the following conclusions verified by the DFO surveys:  juvenile fish are in the water; a fishery today will be dominated by juvenile unmarketable small fish; juvenile fish taken today will disappear from the fishery of tomorrow; and uncertainty remains.

Those in the business often say at best, redfish are a low-margin species.  They require special treatment to maintain color and quality (needed to satisfy premium markets) and are challenging to handle.  Combined, this means whether it’s fresh or frozen-at-sea, there is considerable risk in investing in harvesting and processing capacity.

Markets are well-supplied with redfish and similar species.  Beyond the over 170,000 mt of Atlantic Redfish harvested by Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Russia and Europe, there is another 100,000 mt of similar species caught in the Pacific.  Canada is designing an industry to compete with one serviced by over 270,000 mt of similar product – a challenging feat.

What do markets want?  Surprisingly, fillets are near the bottom of the list.  The bright red color of whole or dressed redfish holds a special place in Asian markets for custom-cutting to service high-end markets.  China produces some twice-frozen fillets exported at prices unachievable in Atlantic Canada.  The fillet market in Europe is reasonable, but uptake is governed by quality, sustainability and size (think a 6-8 oz fillet – this won’t be achieved for a decade with this recruitment pulse).  The US market for redfish fillets (once the backbone of redfish production in Canada) has faded and is now highly price-sensitive due to competition with cheaper aquaculture products.

There is domestic consumption – in Atlantic Canada this mostly means bait which is reactive to supply and timing.  This market isn’t stable or deep, as redfish is not the preferred bait choice at any price.

The importance of size driving market uptake cannot be understated.  Iceland is the lead premium fillet producer and harvests the same and similar redfish species – except their catch is mostly over 14 inches.  EU markets demand fillets from fish over 14 inches.  Meanwhile in the Gulf, some are advocating to harvest juvenile 8 ½ inch redfish –fish largely immature that will never reach a dinner plate except as bait or feed stock.

What do we do?  The biggest of the three strong year classes is about 8 ½ inches long and less than a third of a pound.  As fillets or whole, global markets don’t want them at any appreciable volume. Markets begin buying redfish around 10 inches and value significantly increases over 12 inches.

The answer is to wait.  That first big year class isn’t yet fully mature and will grow considerably in the next few years.  Every pound caught at small sizes today can equal several pounds caught in the future.

This position is contentious – some say fish now, citing impacts these fish are having on shrimp and turbot and the need for bait.  The ability to re-shape the food-web in the Gulf is an insurmountable task.  It is impossible to remove enough redfish to grow the shrimp stock and the long-term trend of marine warming is likely to continue.

And then there is the uncertainty.  Northern Cod dynamics has shown the difference a year can make.  This redfish stock is expected to grow under current conditions, but what if something changes?  This would not be the first-year class to disappear from the Gulf.  Although factors suggest this time is different, certainty is needed.

The appropriate approach is to go slow.  The industry and resource have time – Redfish live easily to 40 and up to 70 years.  Significant catch increases should be delayed until marketable-sized fish are in the water, ensuring economic viability.  Then, with planning, the fishery can expand to reflect the resource with the knowledge that it’s the right decision for harvesters, communities and future generations.

Atlantic Canada has been lucky enough to get another chance with this stock and one can only the hope Minister Leblanc will have the patience and discipline to wait until after 2020.

Kris Vascotto, Executive Director
Groundfish Enterprise Allocation Council