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April 29, 2022

The law that can rebuild Canada’s lost fish

 

The rules governing fisheries in Canada have changed thanks to Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) publishing new regulations.

In essence, amendments passed in 2019 in the Fisheries Act direct the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans to rebuild depleted fish populations, and the new regulations outline actions they must take to accomplish this. A legal requirement to rebuild is greatly needed, as less than 1/3 of Canada’s fisheries are currently considered healthy due to past and current overfishing. These depleted fisheries hurt communities, cost jobs and deprive the world of a sustainable and healthy source of protein, wild fish.

This shift in how fisheries will be managed in Canada did not come about overnight. To understand how we got here we must go to the beginning.

It starts with fish

Since time immemorial, Indigenous Peoples across what is now called Canada looked to fishing – whether it be salmon, char or cod – from coast to coast to coast, to provide, in a reciprocal, life-giving relationship with the lands and waters.

Fish are a mainstay of the culture and economy for coastal communities – Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike. Despite their importance, the Canadian government has mismanaged fisheries over time, in large part because the laws were insufficient. Until 2019, Canada’s fisheries law was silent on the need to sustainably manage the world-class abundance of fish, providing Fisheries Ministers with absolute discretion. Time after time this resulted in too many fish being taken from the ocean; decisions by DFO to curtail fishing were either taken too late or not at all.

Now that this law has changed, we can begin to return our once-abundant fish populations – and our fisheries – to health.

A chance for change

Oceana’s mandate around the world is to increase ocean abundance for the benefit of people and nature. Our goal is to save the oceans and feed the world.

When Oceana first started working in Canada in 2016, we had a clear vision of what was needed: if we want more fish for the oceans and for people, we needed to change the laws governing how they are managed.

Oceana Canada, along with many passionate supporters, campaigned to do just that. We made a strong case with government decision makers, including six fisheries ministers over several years, to make rebuilding part of Canada’s Fisheries Act.

We succeeded in 2019, when the Fisheries Act was amended to include a requirement to rebuild depleted fisheries. But the important details on how stocks would be rebuilt still needed to be developed in regulations to support the Act. Earlier this month, those regulations were completed.

The details matter

The Act lays out the direction, but the regulations provide the binding details; the how, what and when of it all.

The regulations outline the elements required in a rebuilding plan — that a target must be set to rebuild a stock, a timeline by which it will be achieved and what actions are required to make this change happen. This is a level of detail and direction on rebuilding critically depleted fish populations that has never existed in Canada.

There are also new levels of transparency in the regulations, requiring the Fisheries Minister to publish any decision to extend timelines for meeting rebuilding objectives. And, while a rebuilding plan is being developed, any fishing allowed on a stock must be consistent with growing the population out of the critical zone, the point at which conservation action is of the highest priority. This means a stock cannot continue to be overfished while important and necessary consultations are underway with stakeholders and rightsholders.

Now that Canada has a law to rebuild fish, Oceana Canada will work to ensure it is properly implemented. This is urgently needed as some of Canada’s fish populations have waited decades for intervention to support their recovery. Also, the rebuilding requirements in the Fisheries Act apply only to stocks listed in the regulations: currently only 30 stocks are listed, with more to be added over time. It is essential that the Minister move quickly to add all stocks under the regulations, so this new law applies equally to all marine fish in Canada.

What’s next

Winning a strong fisheries law was Oceana Canada’s top priority. Now that we have it, we’ll continue to fight to ensure the intent of the law and regulations are followed.

That means strong plans for critically depleted populations that are designed to bring them back to health. It means decisions on fishing quotas that support abundant fish and sustainable fishing, that does not harm the population, and it means that decisions and plans must be public and transparent so we can track progress and hold the government to account.

This is a landmark moment in ocean conservation in Canada and it’s important we celebrate the progress made possible by thousands of ocean supporters across Canada. There is a lot of work ahead of us, but this new law provides the hope and expectation that we can succeed in rebuilding abundance in our oceans.