Reel Returns: The Economic Mandate for Rebuilding Fisheries - Oceana Canada
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April 15, 2024

Reel Returns: The Economic Mandate for Rebuilding Fisheries

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Petty Harbour Newfoundland. Credit, Ramon Cliff/Shutterstock


Rebecca Schijns, Fishery Scientist, Oceana Canada

Canada’s wild fisheries are at a critical crossroads, facing depletion from overfishing, climate change and economic instability. With a growing global demand for seafood, Canada has a golden opportunity to rebuild healthy fish populations and secure economic prosperity for coastal communities. But there is a catch: how can Canada, once a leading fishing nation, capitalize on this growing demand for seafood when only 28 per cent of Canada’s fisheries are considered healthy? Canada’s newest Fisheries Minister, Diane Lebouthillier, has the authority, resources, and law on her side to transform Canada’s coastal communities, seafood industry and ocean ecosystems.

Oceana Canada’s seventh annual Fishery Audit paints a stark reality of the state of our fisheries and how they are currently managed. There is a widening gap between government commitments on fisheries management and implementation of those commitments by Fisheries and Oceans Canada – resulting in continued overfishing, delays in completing any new rebuilding plans, and the failure to include more stocks under the modernized Fisheries Act. A recent Auditor General’s report echoes these concerns, pointing to a failure to apply a national fishery monitoring policy that would account for all catches. The absence of strong monitoring has led to inconsistent data and an inability to sustainably manage Canada’s wild fisheries.

I had the rare chance to travel across the country last year and speak with people in coastal communities about the challenges they face with the current state of fisheries. Again and again, I heard from fishers about a desire for timely and dependable data, transparent decision-making and meaningful engagement – all elements of existing policies and laws.

However, despite available science, this past year’s fishing season exposed inconsistencies in government decision-making and an inability to respond to current threats or prepare for the future. Notably, the fate of capelin, vital to the Atlantic Ocean ecosystem and Newfoundland and Labrador communities, remains uncertain due to government-sanctioned overfishing. Canada’s previous Fisheries Minister set a quota that exceeds the critically depleted fish population’s capacity to recover, despite new data confirming critically low levels for three decades and overwhelming public support for a closure to allow these fish to return to health.

Canada’s haunting legacy of overfishing persists, epitomized by the enduring aftermath of the northern cod collapse, ushering in decades of economic and social hardships for many communities. Canada faces a scarcity of crucial forage stocks like capelin, mackerel and herring, essential food for whales, fish, seabirds, and communities alike. This imperils the entire ecosystem, jeopardizing food, nutrition, and economic stability. We must do better. For the oceans and for economic prosperity.

And we can. Fisheries rebuilding is possible and, in some cases, already happening. In her first major fisheries decision of 2024, Minister Lebouthillier reopened the redfish fishery in the Gulf of St. Lawrence after an impressive recovery from critically overfished levels, enabled by a nearly 30-year commercial moratorium and favorable environmental conditions. This means there is potential for recovery of other depleted wild fish stocks, provided the Minister follows the best available science and makes decisions that support long-term rebuilding.

Given the immense power and responsibility she carries, Minister Lebouthillier must avoid the same devastating mistakes as her predecessors in upcoming fishery decisions. She has an opportunity to change a failed approach that has left too many stocks to languish in a depleted state, depriving communities of much needed income and stability. To fulfill her duties to protect the oceans, the resource, food security and the economic health of communities, Minister Lebouthillier must champion the implementation of laws and policies that will help rebuild fisheries.

I spoke with community members in coastal hubs like St. John’s, Halifax, Quebec City, Moncton and Vancouver, who echoed priorities to build a sustainable future by restoring fisheries and their ecosystems. And they want to be involved in the decisions shaping their future. Many voices call for open access to data, collaboration and decisions guided by science and policy. The modernized Fisheries Act mandates the rebuilding of depleted fish stocks; however, the new law currently applies to only 30 of our nearly 200 stocks. Minister Lebouthillier must act swiftly to include all of Canada’s stocks under regulation, triggering legal obligations for rebuilding depleted fish populations and sustainably managing our fisheries.

The power to shape the future of our ocean community rests in Minister Lebouthillier’s hands. This is not just a responsibility; it is an opportunity to leave an enduring legacy for people across Canada and the planet. Let’s rebuild our fisheries: safeguarding not just today’s needs but the prosperity of generations to come.

Originally published in the Hill Times.