Silverside landings tanked last season, according to some Kings County fishers who expect demand for the popular lobster bait to exceed supply this summer.

Terry White of Murray Harbour has fished silversides since the ‘90s and has always caught more than 100,000 pounds per season – until last year.

He set his nets in October and as usual tended them into December. But he only managed to land around 68,000 pounds.

“That’s fishing,” Mr White said. He has seen silverside catches fluctuate over decades and is hopeful the schools will swell again in the future.

This was the first silverside season Lewis Miller of Murray River would classify as a “total disaster.” 

He’s not sure why catches were so low so suddenly, but he knows local landings have generally shrunk in recent years. 

Between 2006 and 2010 Island fishers landed an average of 491.8 metric tons of silversides per season, according to Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) statistics. Between 2017 and 2020 that seasonal average dropped to 175 metric tons.

One cause for the decline could be a strengthening population of striped bass – a major silverside predator.

“It has exploded,” Mr Miller said. “Without a doubt it’s a problem.”

Striped bass can grow up to 77 pounds, five feet in length and can live to 30 years old, according to the United States’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In recent years, fishers have caught individual fish with over 100 silversides in their bellies, Mr Miller said.

Bass in the Southern Gulf of St Lawrence were critically low in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, according to DFO’s website.

In response, the department imposed bass fishery closures and supported other management efforts. 

Since then, the Southern Gulf of St Lawrence bass population has recovered significantly; limited recreational fishing is now permitted, according to the department.

Mr Miller suggests that opening a commercial bass fishery would help control the population and prevent bass from obliterating schools of silversides.

Factors Mr White suspects played into particularly low 2023 landings include poor weather. 

“They don’t like the rain,” he said, explaining there seemed to be more rain days last season and possibly more days where wind conditions and direction were unfavourable for fishers.

Mr White said over the decades he has observed massive schools of silversides vacate the area and head out to sea. Usually this happens just before one of the biggest storms of the year hit the region. 

“Once they leave they are gone,” he said. 

In 2022 and ‘23 Mr White noticed these schools jet out earlier than usual, in September, just before Hurricanes Fiona in 2022 and Lee in 2023. 

According to DFO statistics, the average value of silverside fishers’ landings hasn’t crashed quite as steeply as the volume. From 2006 through 2010 fishers landed an average of $496,000 worth of silversides per season. From 2017 through 2020 the average per season value in landings was $398,000.

Prices have been strong enough to make fishing worthwhile, said Mr White who freezes his stock in Souris and sells to local lobster fishers through the season. But even with strong prices the drop in catches has impacted both fishers and buyers. 

“The unfortunate thing is, I won’t be able to supply some of my customers,” Mr White said. 

For some lobster fishers this will compound issues accessing bait considering the local commercial and bait mackerel fishery has been closed since 2022.

The mackerel closure was imposed by DFO in response to a declining stock in the species’ critical zone. In 2023, DFO said spawning stock biomass hit its lowest-observed value and stock rebuilding potential is limited by a collapsed age structure due to overfishing, low recruitment, and high predation pressure.

By Rachel Collier, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Mar 27, 2024 at 07:37

This item reprinted with permission from   The Eastern Graphic   Montague, Prince Edward Island
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