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Fish Harvesters' Knowledge & Science: Research in OFI Module I-B

by Dr. Erin Carruthers, FFAW Fisheries Scientist & Dr. Barbara Neis, OFI Module I-B Lead


Bay de Verde, NL, Canada ©Joonas Plaan

For multispecies, owner-operator enterprises on our coasts, understanding the temporal and spatial distribution of this [American place, also known as deep-water flounder] and other fish species, is key to designing access and allocation processes appropriate for sustainable future inshore fisheries. Utilizing fishers' knowledge in the historical reconstruction is one crucial tool for this kind of initiative. 

The inshore owner-operator fleet has traditionally sustained Newfoundland and Labrador coastal communities on multispecies fisheries, often fishing for most of the year. After the groundfish declines of the late 80s, early 90s, fleet distribution adjusted to new realities (Davis 2015; Murray & Ings 2015). Ecological change and a change in market demand meant enterprises moved to harvesting the expanding shellfish fisheries, and plants moved to processing specific species at specific times, rather than multispecies groundfish processing. This shift in fisheries also shifted the social fabric of entire communities, with single-species onshore processing plants providing considerable support to municipalities (Carruthers et al. 2019). 

Currently, our marine environment is undergoing another regime shift with a resurgence of groundfish species (Pedersen et al. 2017). American plaice, also known as deep-water flounder, was one of the flatfish species relied upon by some groundfish harvesters historically but has been under moratorium since the 1990s. Some long-time flounder harvesters contend that information from their historical inshore fishing grounds is needed to understand the current abundance and distribution of deep-water flounder. For multispecies, owner-operator enterprises on our coasts, understanding the temporal and spatial distribution of this, and other fish species, is key to designing access and allocation processes appropriate for sustainable future inshore fisheries.

Utilizing fishers‘ knowledge in the historical reconstruction of fisheries is one crucial tool for this kind of initiative. Neis et al (1999) states, “The body of information held by fishers has an important role to play in fisheries assessment. When this body of information matches scientific assessments, uncertainty is reduced, and assessments become more convincing to resource users. When the two sources of information diverge, information from both sources needs to be re-examined” (p. 1950). 

In 2019, the Fish Food and Allied Workers (FFAW) conducted interviews with 11 groundfish harvesters from the southern Avalon to the northeast coast (St. Mary’s Bay to Conception Bay) who had fished deep-water flounder historically.  These harvesters reported that this, and other flounder species, contributed significantly to the landings and incomes of multispecies enterprises along the northeast coast. According to these interviews, flounder species represented 40-60% of their fishing incomes and were fished and processed from April to late October.

In the current project, funded jointly by Module I, InnovateNL and the FFAW, Erin Carruthers and Ian Ivany at the FFAW are collaborating with Module I researcher Barb Neis to secure ethics clearance for more harvester interviews throughout 3K to ensure interview coverage is more fully representative of the region’s historical flounder fisheries. In addition, DFO landings data, for the period 1950 to 1995 will be used to help determine the volume of flounder that was bought for processing, the percentage of the catch in different areas and to help assess how flounder contributed to the socioeconomic wellbeing of multispecies enterprises and to Newfoundland’s fishing communities prior to the closure of the fishery in the 1990s. Data from harvester interviews collected by DFO for the Community Coastal Resource Inventory documenting the location of flounder in inshore areas is also being accessed. The research collaboration between OFI Module I and the FFAW seeks to:


  1. Document the extent, timing, catch rates and magnitude of the historical flounder fishery on the northeast coast;

  2. Summarize the spatial and temporal extent of inshore flounder fisheries based on landings data and previous fishers’ knowledge research;

  3. Determine the contribution of flounder to the incomes of multispecies fish harvesters;

  4. Establish a basis for comparison between catch rates in historical flounder fisheries and current catch rates; and,

  5. Identify key fishing regions not covered by the DFO research vessel survey and determine fishing protocols needed to provide an index of inshore abundance and for comparison with historical fisheries, thus increasing fishers’ knowledge engagement in the scientific and assessment processes and improving spatial coverage of scientific data.


Written by Dr. Erin Carruthers & Dr. Barbara Neis

Dr. Erin Carruthers is







Dr. Barbara Neis is an Honorary Research Professor in the Department of Sociology, Memorial University. Professor Neis received her Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Toronto in 1988. Her research focuses broadly on interactions between work, environment, health and communities in marine and coastal context. Since the 1990s, she has carried out, supervised and supported extensive collaborative research on the Newfoundland and Labrador fisheries including in the areas of fishermen's knowledge, science and management; occupational health and safety; rebuilding collapsed fisheries; and gender and fisheries. She is an active member of the Ocean Frontier Institute working in Modules I, M, N and Future Ocean Coastal Infrastructures.

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