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Canadian NAFO seats vacant for months; blind eye turned to foreign overfishing outside 200 miles

With the leaders of the European Union in St. John's — and with offshore factory-freezer trawlers from EU-member countries such as Spain and Portugal guilty of so many decades of overfishing outside Canada’s 200-mile limit — it’s infuriating not to see fish on the agenda. Even seals aren't expected to be a "major irritant," but then Canada hasn't even bothered to fill two NAFO seats, one of which has been vacant for over two years.

In October 2021 the captain of a Faroese longliner said pirate factory-freezer trawlers were destroying the Grand Banks by directing for moratorium species such as cod and other illegal fishing activities. The captain said Canada's enforcement hands were tied because Covid protocol prevented officers from boarding/inspecting foreign ships.

Canada and the EU are two of 13-member countries of NAFO, or the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization, that oversees fishing on the rich grounds on and off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland just outside Canadian territorial waters.

Two of Canada's three NAFO seats are vacant — one for 31 months, and the other for 19 months.

One of the seats was held by Keith Sullivan, former President of the FFAW-Unifor, and the other by Alastair O'Reilly, Executive Director of the Northern Coalition Corporation, representing northern indigenous communities.

O'Reilly's two-year term as NAFO representative expired in May 2021, while Sullivan's expired in July 2022.

Appointments to NAFO are made by the federal cabinet through the Privy Council office (apply at this link), but a DFO spokesperson in St. John's "could not speculate on when these vacancies may be filled."

Then again, I don't recall hearing Sullivan or O'Reilly open their mouths about pirate draggers, foreign overfishing or problems with NAFO in general, although there's always hope that new appointments will have balls.

The Portuguese offshore factory-freezer trawler Princesa Santa Joana was boarded and inspected on Dec. 5th, 2022 on the tail of the Grand Banks by Canadian Fishery Officers from the Leonard J. Cowley. As a result, the captain was accused of misreporting catches on Nov. 5th, 22nd, and 25th. CBC photo.

Stocks such as northern cod (which has been under moratorium since 1992) migrate from inshore to offshore and back, oblivious to the imaginary dotted line in the water that is the 200-mile limit.

Only NAFO is powerless to protect them on the high seas, unable to enforce the quotas it sets.

When it comes to illegal fishing outside 200 miles, Canadian enforcement officials must forward "notices of infringement" to the home country of a fishing vessel in question for investigation and follow-up in terms of penalties/fines.

What's the good of an effective enforcement regime inside 200 miles if it's the wild west outside?

That's something to keep in mind given DFO has implemented a new assessment model for the northern cod stock that means the stock has likely been out of the critical zone since 2016.

Expectations are the 31-year commercial fishing moratorium will be lifted next year, although DFO will only say "any decisions on the management approach will be made following the northern cod stock assessment and advisory process in spring 2024."

As if foreign trawlers need permission.

Ryan Cleary, Executive Director, SEA-NL Seaward Enterprises Association of Newfoundland and Labrador (SEA-NL) is a professional, non-profit organization that serves as the distinct voice for licensed, independent owner-operator inshore fish harvesters. Visit to join. If you have any issues contact me at or 709 682 4862.

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