Science Advisory Report 2017/008
Review of the exploratory fishery for Atlantic hagfish (Myxine glutinosa) in North Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO) Div. 4T
- The East Coast fishery for Atlantic hagfish originated in NAFO 4X in 1989, but since 2000 has expanded, with total landings from all areas peaking at 3,610 tonnes in 2013. In 2011, four exploratory licences for Atlantic hagfish were issued in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence (NAFO 4T) in the 4T9ab management area (Figure 1).
- Of the four licences issued for 4T9ab, one licence has been active each year since 2011; an additional two licences landed hagfish in 2012 exclusively.
- Annual total discards as a percentage of total catch ranged between 4% and 15%. The frequency and amount of hagfish discarding appears to be related to trap soak time, likely reflecting a relationship between catch spoilage and discarding.
- The primary source of data on hagfish population trends is groundfish trawl surveys conducted yearly in the southern Gulf every September since 1971 and in the northern Gulf in August since 1990. Distribution maps of catches in the two surveys show that hagfish occupy the deep channel waters of the central Gulf and the lower estuary. In the September survey, hagfish occupy depths >260m and prefer temperatures 5-6°C and salinities of 34-35 ppt.
- Hagfish abundance fluctuates widely from year-to-year in both surveys with wide annual confidence limits about the mean catch. In the September survey, the 4T hagfish abundance index increased sharply in the mid-1990s and has continued to fluctuate at a relatively high level since the late 1990s. The abundance index for the northern Gulf survey has varied widely over time without any trend since 1990, as has an abundance index for the 4T9ab management area that combines data for both surveys.
- Length-frequencies for hagfish from the September survey have generally remained the same since the 1990s. The surveys catch very few hagfish of market-size (≥43 cm), though to some extent this likely reflects low catchability to the survey trawl.
- It is currently not possible to determine the age or productivity of Atlantic hagfish. Many aspects of their biology are consistent with slow growing, long-lived fishes with low reproductive potential. In other fish species, such characteristics are associated with an elevated risk of overexploitation and long recovery times once depleted.
- The ability of Atlantic hagfish to sustain exploitation in the long term is uncertain. Given the uncertainties concerning the abundance and productivity of Atlantic hagfish in NAFO 4T, there is currently no scientific basis for determining a sustainable harvest level. Furthermore, given the lack of responsive abundance indices, adaptive management is not presently feasible for this fishery.
This Science Advisory Report is from the December 18, 2015 science peer review meeting on the status of emerging fisheries species in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence: hagfish. Additional publications from this meeting will be posted on the Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) Science Advisory Schedule as they become available.
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