Integrated Fisheries Management Plan

Lobster in the Southern Gulf of St. Lawrence




With an estimated annual landed value approaching $200 million and about 7,100 people involved annually in harvesting, the lobster fishery is the mainstay of the fishing industry in the Gulf Region.

Archeological investigation indicates that aboriginal people harvested lobsters for centuries with a variety of fishing gears before contact with Europeans who also took advantage of the resource upon their arrival. The fishery grew in the mid-19th century when American operators set up canneries to compensate for declining catches in the USA. After an initial increase, landings in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence underwent a long decline apparently as the pristine unexploited populations were fished down significantly from the 1920s to mid-1970s. Beginning in the mid-1970s, annual landings underwent a remarkable and continuous increase peaking around 1991 followed by a decline. Since 2005, landings have been increasing and have reached similar levels to the early 1990s.

The lobster fishery has one of the longest histories of fisheries regulation in Canada. Until the late 1800s, the fishery was unregulated: there were no restrictions on who could fish and how much they could catch. In 1873, an Order in Council was signed prohibiting the capture of soft-shelled lobsters, egg-bearing females and lobsters less than 1 ½ pounds. Many of the management measures in place today were introduced during the following decades including measures such as fishing seasons and minimum carapace size limits. Once the change from manual harvesting and harpooning was made in the late 1800s, gear and harvesting practices (baited traps) changed relatively little for several decades. However, recent changes in the efficiency of gear (faster and bigger vessels, technology such as GPS, larger and more efficient traps) have increased fishing pressure significantly. Beginning in 1967 and 1968, the limited entry licensing was implemented to cap the number of licence holders and in 1976, three classes of licences were introduced to exclude those who earned their living elsewhere or at other professions. In 1977 and 1978, the Department undertook a program to reduce the number of fishing enterprises and 600 licences were retired from the Gulf-based fishery.

In 1982 the “bonafide” policy was implemented throughout the Gulf Region fishery. Those who met the criteria and thus became bonafide fish harvesters were subject to a policy that allowed them greater flexibility in managing their activities: a fish harvester could have his/her licence reissued to another fish harvester and could participate in a particular fishery or not. The bonafide policy also established restrictions that were aimed toward concentrating as many licences as possible in the hands of bonafide fish harvesters, thus creating multi-species enterprises which would be more able to sustain fluctuations in individual species abundance or value. In 1995, the concept of “core” fish harvesters was introduced in Atlantic Canada and served to reinforce the bonafide policy by establishing restrictions on the number of multi-species enterprises.

In 1990, the Supreme Court of Canada released its decision in R. v. Sparrow. In this landmark decision, the Court provided meaning and context to the Constitution Act, 1982, section 35(1) and held that, after conservation and other “valid legislative objectives”, Aboriginal rights to fish for food, social and ceremonial purposes have priority over all other uses of the fishery. Through the Aboriginal Fisheries Strategy (AFS) Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) provides a framework for the management of fishing by Aboriginal peoples for food, social and ceremonial purposes. Agreements are negotiated and the Minister or delegate issues a communal licence to reflect the agreement reached, or when an agreement is not reached, the Minister issues a communal fishing licence consistent with the provisions of Sparrow and subsequent Supreme Court of Canada decisions.

In 1995 the Fisheries Resource Conservation Council (FRCC) produced a report on the status of the lobster stocks in Atlantic Canada. In short, they stated that “we are taking too much and leaving too little and the risk of recruitment failure is unacceptably high.” This led to a series of multi-year lobster management plans throughout Atlantic Canada aimed at increasing egg production. In the Gulf Region fishery, the focus was on increasing the minimum legal carapace size gradually in each LFA. However, the fishery throughout Atlantic Canada continued to show signs of distress and ten years after the initial 1995 FRCC report, the minister of the day asked the FRCC to review once again the status of the lobster stocks. Their 2007 report “Sustainability Framework for Atlantic Lobster” focused mainly on reaching a conservation target, reducing fishing effort and the need for fish harvesters to provide comprehensive data about their fishing activities and landings. In response to the second FRCC report and industry interest, DFO announced the $50 million Atlantic Lobster Sustainability Measures (ALSM) program in 2009 which essentially provided funding to the lobster industry to improve its economic prosperity and long term sustainability. The ALSM program resulted in the removal of over 24,000 lobster traps and the retirement of 280 lobster fishing licences in the Gulf region.

Types of Fishery

The fishery is conducted mainly on a commercial basis, and some Aboriginal communities also conduct fisheries for food, social and ceremonial (FSC) purposes. There is no recreational fishery for lobsters in Atlantic Canada.

Aboriginal communal food, social and ceremonial fishing is a cultural and sustenance activity and DFO negotiates agreements for Aboriginal fishing for FSC purposes. Through these agreements, licences are issued outlining the locations, methods, gear types, timeframes and other pertinent conditions. The resources caught under an FSC communal licence are used to provide food for community members, and support the traditional social and ceremonial activities of the First Nations community or Aboriginal groups.


In 2012, the lobster fishing industry in the Gulf Region consisted of 2,966 commercial lobster licence holders which included 215 communal commercial licences held by 18 Aboriginal organizations. Each of these commercial enterprises employs a number of crew members bringing the total to about 7,100 individuals involved in the harvesting sector. In addition, there were nine Aboriginal organizations which received communal lobster fishing licences for food, social and ceremonial purposes.

In 1992, DFO launched the Aboriginal Fisheries Strategy (AFS) in response to the Sparrow decision of the Supreme Court. The AFS provides access and allocation of lobster resources to Aboriginal people for their food, social and ceremonial purposes. Under AFS, some communal commercial licences were also issued. Starting in 1999, in response to the Supreme Court decision in R. v. Marshall, increased access to the commercial fishery was provided to First Nation communities. Detailed information on the numbers of lobster licences of the various categories can be found in Appendix A.

Location of the Fishery

The lobster fishery in the Gulf Region is managed in five Lobster Fishing Areas (LFAs) some of which have been divided into smaller management zones some with more restrictive management measures (i.e.sub-LFAs). Lobster Fishing Areas do not correspond to biological units of the lobster population; rather they were developed over a long period of time and corresponded to a large degree to clusters of fish harvesters from different fishing communities.

Fishery Characteristics

Lobster is harvested using baited traps set on the sea bed. The lobster fishery is an input fishery (as opposed to an output fishery which has quotas) characterized by limiting, amongst other elements, the number of licences, the number and size of traps, the length of the season, the minimum carapace size, the configuration of fishing gear, no retention of egg-bearing females, etc. More information on management measures is found later in this document.


In addition to conservation and harvesting plans specific to management areas, the fishery is governed by a suite of legislation, policy and regulations including but not limited to those noted below:

  • Fisheries Act
  • Coastal Fisheries Protection Act, 1985
  • Oceans Act, 1996
  • Species at Risk Act, 2002
  • Atlantic Fishery Regulations (AFR), 1985
  • Fishery (General) Regulations, 1993
  • Aboriginal Communal Fishing Licences Regulations, 1993
  • Commercial Fisheries Licensing Policy for the Gulf Region
  • A Policy Framework for the Management of Fisheries on Canada’s Atlantic Coast
  • Sustainable Fisheries Framework: Conservation and Sustainable Use Elements
    • Precautionary Approach policy
    • Foraging Species policy
    • Sensitive Benthic Areas policy
    • By-catch policy

The Southern Gulf Lobster Advisory Committee provides the forum for consultation on matters related to the overall management of the Lobster fishery in the southern Gulf. The Committee is comprised of representatives from First Nations, fish harvesters from each LFA, processors and provincial governments. The advisory committee is chaired by a DFO official from the Gulf Region, supported by regional and area officials in resource management, science and economics and enforcement. Historically, the advisory committee meets on a three year frequency. DFO is expanding its use of the multi-year approach by coordinating multi-year stock assessments and advice with multi-year fisheries management planning. This influences the frequency of meeting of the advisory committees. From time to time, ad-hoc working groups may be established by the committee to address specific issues. In addition, there are LFA-specific committees to discuss management measures and conservation and harvesting plans.

Approval Process

Generally, decisions concerning major conservation and management matters are made by the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans. Other elements related to the regular ongoing management of the fishery are made by the Regional Director General for the Gulf Region.