Fixing the Fisheries Act - Will the Canadian Government Take Action? - Oceana Canada
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December 14, 2016

Fixing the Fisheries Act – Will the Canadian Government Take Action?

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Ferry at sunset crossing the Strait of Georgia, with a view off the stern of the boat with a Canadian flag flying


For as long as we can imagine, people in what is now Canada have been dependent on the ocean. Fish have sustained many indigenous communities for thousands of years. And, more recently, the same ocean abundance brought early European settlers to our shores. In 1868, just one year after confederation, Canada recognized the importance of fish by creating the Fisheries Act as one of its first laws. 

Today, this instrumental piece of legislation is in urgent need of modernizing, a need recognized by the federal government and many environmental groups, including Oceana Canada. What’s at stake is the future of Canada’s fisheries and the health of our oceans, coastal communities and seafood industry. At this moment we have a real opportunity to rebuild abundance in our oceans.

Oceana Canada’s recent report, Here’s the Catch, clearly identified a long-standing fisheries management crisis: Canada’s marine fish populations have been depleted for decades. For example, the biomass of our marine fish populations has decreased by 55 per cent since the 1970s. Further, Canada doesn’t have laws in place to ensure that, when overfished, our fisheries are rebuilt. 

This year, the Canadian government began a review of the Fisheries Act, led by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans. Early next year, this Committee will make recommendations to Parliament on how to “restore lost protections and incorporate modern safeguards” into the Fisheries Act. This is our chance to make a real difference for Canada’s oceans. 

Beyond restoring legal protections for fish habitat lost under the Harper government, which includes the provision that prohibits activities that result in a harmful alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat – which is critical – there are simple but far-reaching changes that must be included to modernize the Fisheries Act. These changes will bring the Fisheries Act in line with global fisheries management laws which are designed to ensure fish populations rebound:

-Mandate rebuilding: Unlike Canada, other modern laws governing fisheries, such as in the European Union, the United States and New Zealand, include legally binding requirements to rebuild depleted fish stocks. Canada’s Fisheries Act does not mandate that recovery plans be put in place when fish populations are in decline. Currently we have a system that makes protecting and restoring declining fish populations optional, at the discretion of the Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard. Just one example of this is Northern cod, where, 25 years after collapse, the government still has not developed a rebuilding plan. In other countries, once fish populations have declined below healthy levels, rebuilding-based management actions are automatically triggered by law. The Fisheries Act should similarly mandate the rebuilding of depleted fish populations. 

-Mandate accountability: Similar to other leading fishing nations, Canada’s Fisheries Act must ensure public accountability for management and rebuilding. Therefore, Oceana Canada believes that the Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard should be required by law to report annually to Parliament on the status of Canada’s fish populations and what efforts are being made to ensure they are healthy.

Canada has signed international agreements aimed at recovering fish populations, as part of our commitment to addressing global fisheries collapse. We have a government and a Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard that understands the importance of healthy fish populations. What’s missing, and what has kept Canada from moving forward toward rebuilding, is a legal duty to recover our fish. 

This is Canada’s opportunity to join other leading fishing nations by modernizing this critical but outdated legislation. The health of our oceans, the future of our fish populations and those who rely on them can’t afford to wait any longer.

Read Oceana Canada’s presentation to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans, Creating Modern Safeguards in the Fisheries Act to Rebuild Fish Stocks in Canada. You can also find out more about our campaign to modernize the Fisheries Act and sign up to get involved.