Authors: Chief Terry Teegee, Elected Regional Chief of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations and Josh Laughren, Executive Director, Oceana Canada
Originally published in the Globe and Mail
Rarely does a new minister, so early in their tenure, face a make-or-break decision on their legacy. Fisheries Minister Murray, and Prime Minister Trudeau, have this chance in the next few months to deliver on what their government says are priorities: healthy oceans, conservation, sustainable jobs and reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples. Or they will fail. The choice presents itself, implausibly enough, on fish. Or rather, how we manage them.
In our roles representing the B.C. Assembly of First Nations and the world’s largest ocean charity, we are urging Fisheries Minister Murray and Prime Minister Trudeau to champion rebuilding healthy oceans full of life and taking meaningful action on reconciliation. Both of these urgent priorities can be addressed with strong regulations under the Fisheries Act to rebuild fish populations. The regulations are close to being finalized, and they must get this right.
Fisheries management in Canada has been a disaster in slow motion: a decades-long decline in the abundance of an incredible bounty. This decline is not a historical artifact: we’ve lost fully half of the total weight of fish in Canada’s waters in our lifetime. It continues today, directly as a result of past and current poor management decisions. Climate change is further exacerbating this disaster — as we’ve seen very recently with the devastating B.C. river flooding — affecting the health of water systems that are habitat for fish and essential for First Nations communities.
For First Nations in British Columbia, reconciliation and fisheries abundance are inextricably linked. For example, Pacific salmon are the cornerstone of life with tremendous economic and cultural importance and a vital food and nutrient source for many species – from humans to orcas to old-growth forests. In turn, salmon rely on abundant smaller fish for food, like herring.
Without healthy wild fish populations, it is virtually impossible to imagine how First Nations communities can thrive. Many salmon populations are depleted and are missing the basic elements of good fisheries management. In fact, most of Canada’s wild marine fish populations are depleted or declining, and communities on all three coasts share the same potential fate.
Oceana Canada’s fifth Fishery Audit found that our wild marine fisheries continue to decline: five years ago, only 34 per cent of fish stocks could be considered healthy. Today, that number has dropped further to 32 per cent. The health status of an additional 37 per cent is uncertain due to a lack of good information, meaning that decisions for these populations are being made largely in the dark. Behind each of those statistics lies the fate of communities and families that rely on our oceans, not just today but for generations to come.
The Fisheries Act regulations provide an important choice for Fisheries Minister Murray and Prime Minister Trudeau. If they make the right one, we will stop overfishing and rebuild depleted wild fish populations which are so essential to reconciliation. If they make the wrong one, we should expect more of the same: too little action, too late in the game, with too little enforcement, continuing the slow, sad decline of our ocean’s abundance and all that goes along with it.
Oceana Canada and the B.C. Assembly of First Nations welcomed the amendments to the new Fisheries Act when they were first introduced in 2019. They provided the promise of greater protections to fish and their habitats and a clear framework for Indigenous expertise and stewardship to be involved in the decisions that affect their inherent rights. Now, heading into 2022, we are still waiting. If the Act itself was enough to drive change, we would have seen results by now. Clearly, the law needs strong regulations to give it teeth.
History has proven, painfully and clearly, that without strong laws, fully implemented, there will not be abundant wild fish populations. Without healthy and abundant wild fish there is no meaning to the rights Indigenous People hold to fish them.
It is time to transform the way Canada approaches fisheries, bringing together all perspectives, especially those of Indigenous Peoples who have drawn sustenance from the ocean for thousands of years without compromising the integrity of its ecosystem.
We hope that Minister Murray and Prime Minister Trudeau will show that they have the courage of their convictions on reconciliation and ocean health. With strong Fisheries Act regulations, we can start rebuilding abundant fisheries. For the oceans. For our communities. For reconciliation. For us all.