Early stories of life along the shores of what we now call Canada speak of oceans teeming with life – oceans so plentiful you could dip baskets into the water and pull up tonnes of fish.
Unfortunately, those days are long gone. Industrialized fishing activities led to overfishing and population collapses of many of Canada’s wild fish populations. The collapse of northern cod in the mid-1990s is just one example of a population that was overharvested to the brink and has still not recovered.
Fortunately, it’s not too late to rebuild our oceans. Although Canada’s fourth annual Fishery Audit shows that the state of Canada’s fisheries continues to worsen, we know that given a chance, depleted fish populations can come back. It is time to allow our oceans and wild fish populations the chance to recover.
Today’s fisheries decline is not just a continuation of the groundfish collapse that happened in the 1990s. Now it also includes invertebrates such as shrimp and crab, and forage (or prey) fish, such as capelin, mackerel and herring. Alarmingly, a mere 26.5 per cent of Canada’s wild fish populations can confidently be considered healthy – down eight percentage points since 2017 – and 17 per cent are in the critical zone, where conservation actions are crucial.
There is also an alarming gap growing between government commitments and action. While there have been encouraging investments in fisheries science and management made in recent years by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, 2020 is another year of delayed action and poor results on the water. There have been no comprehensive or meaningful rebuilding plans released this year, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada only delivered on 14 per cent of its published priorities. At this rate it will be 37 years before all critically depleted populations have a plan to rebuild them back to healthy levels.
So, are Canada’s wild fish populations doomed? Short answer is no – but immediate action is necessary to ensure fish populations are provided the chance to recover and our oceans are restored to abundance. The COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, habitat destruction and persistent overfishing have made it more urgent than ever that we invest in our oceans as the earth’s largest life-support system.
Canada has an opportunity to think about the future we want and need as we set on a path to recovery for our resource-rich nation. Failure to act now risks squandering the hundreds of millions of dollars of recent federal government investments to improve fisheries management. It would also mean losing out on the massive long-term potential of the original blue economy, wild fish, to support our planet. Canadians and our coastal communities deserve well-managed fisheries for the future of their livelihoods and for food security.
Visit FisheryAudit.ca to learn more about the state of Canada’s fisheries and Oceana Canada’s recommendations for the year ahead to rebuild fish populations.