Storm brewing in Canada over French halibut fishery in Atlantic

The Canadian halibut industry is accusing France of seeking an exorbitant share of the fishery in negotiations with Canada on quotas for the valuable groundfish that migrate across the jurisdictions of both countries.

Canadian fishermen from Nova Scotia to Nunavut would be the losers if France prevails, said Bruce Chapman, executive director of the Atlantic Halibut Council, representing both inshore and offshore Canadian harvesters.

French territorial waters extend into the Atlantic from the islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon, 25 kilometres from the southern coast of Newfoundland and Labrador.

“We urgently need the government of Canada’s help to address and resolve this matter with France and Saint Pierre and Miquelon, whose aggressive actions are putting at risk the otherwise collegial and collaborative relationship between the two fishery interests, if not also more broadly,” said Chapman.

Bruce Chapman of the Atlantic Halibut Council wants to see the government of Canada step in. (Patrick Butler / CBC)

For decades, the two countries have negotiated quota shares for so-called straddling stocks but have been unable to formalize an agreement on sharing halibut quota, most recently in 2016.

In a May 28 letter to the industry, Chapman said those negotiations were based on respective catch history, and the Saint Pierre and Miquelon share amounted to 1.5 per cent of the combined catch.

The Atlantic-wide landings were 4,000 tonnes in 2023. The fishery was valued at $100 million.

The French land halibut mostly as a bycatch in fisheries targeting other species, but that is changing.

When a French-flagged vessel — Terre Nuevas — began a targeted halibut fishery out of Saint Pierre, Canada asked to recommence negotiations, said Chapman.

French vessel landed 124 tonnes

Last September, in a Federal Court of Canada admiralty action over payment for the Faroese vessel, new owners SPM Ocean said the 37-metre liner caught 124 tonnes of halibut in French waters in 2023.

In his letter to industry, Chapman said France has increased “its previous demand, now wanting a quota percentage share in the order of four times its average catch history, well beyond its highest catch ever, ignoring the reality that any increase in the percentage share for Saint Pierre [and] Miquelon fishers would require a reduction in catch by Canadian fishers.”

A man wearing a blue coat stands on the parking lot of Confederation Building.
Jason Spingle of the FFAW-Unifor union says he wants to see Canadian fishermen hold on to the share of the quota they’ve had historically. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

Jason Spingle, secretary-treasurer of the FFAW-Unifor fisheries union in Newfoundland and Labrador, said he wants Canada to protect its historic share of the quota.

“We need to get this resolved,” he told CBC News. “We don’t want this to spiral out of control here in any fashion.”

Canada silent

Neither Canadian officials nor the French Embassy in Ottawa responded to a request for comment.

Fisheries and Oceans declined interviews when negotiators from both countries were in Halifax in March, saying the department would provide more details when an agreement is reached.

A readout of a March 2024 meeting between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and French President Emmanuel Macron noted the leaders “discussed common solutions to fishing interests and long-term sustainability.”

On Thursday, the Prime Minister’s Office declined to say if that was a reference to the disputed halibut fishery.

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