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May 10, 2016

What is Ottawa hiding in our oceans?

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Topics: Transparency

Oceana/Robert Rangeley


*Previously published in iPolitics

The new government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was elected on a platform of openness and change; the first six months of the new administration have shown promise and progress in this regard. Nowhere is that transparency needed more than in the management of our fisheries and oceans.

And Ottawa can start by taking simple actions — such as making public a list of Canada’s fisheries and their status, and releasing the Fisheries Checklist used to assess the health of stocks.

The Canadian government is responsible for protecting our oceans and fisheries but, for years, the officials tasked with this important job have been withholding basic, critical information from Canadians. In fact, we really don’t know what’s going on in the ocean’s depths because there is little transparency when it comes to the state of Canada’s fish and how we manage them. We don’t know which species are healthy and which are in critical condition; in many cases we don’t know if there’s a plan in place for species at risk.

The situation is quite different in other nations, such as the United States and all EU countries. In the U.S. the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association reports annually on the state of all of its fisheries and makes this information and its recovery plans, where needed, accessible to the public. Environment and Climate Change Canada, on the other hand, reports on the percentage of species that are healthy or critical — but they won’t, or can’t, tell us which species fall into each category, or how they have assessed the state of the fish stocks. We have no way of knowing the health of key species, whether recovery plans are in place or what tools were used to inform these critical decisions.

The Atlantic cod collapse of the 1980s and resulting moratorium in 1992 show how risky it is to operate a fishery without an open, transparent understanding of how well the fish are doing.

The murkiness surrounding the state of our marine resources, and how the government intends to manage them, makes it all too easy for officials to ignore scientific advice and avoid tough decisions about rebuilding. There is a great deal of discretion on the part of the minister to determine whether recovery plans are needed for fish species — unlike in other countries, where recovery is mandated. With a lack of public scrutiny, governments have not been compelled to follow practices already committed to in policy, nor to share how important decisions are being made.

At this moment, Canada’s fisheries are making more money than ever. However, this economic success is precariously balanced on only a few profitable fisheries, such as lobster, shrimp and crab. Without a clear understanding of the full picture of our oceans and fish, it is impossible to understand, and mitigate, the risks to our fisheries and the communities that rely upon them.

How did we let things get so bad? We’ve been slowly and quietly sliding down the international ranking for productive fisheries for decades. In the 1950s, Canada was the seventh most productive wild fishery in the world. Today we have sunk to twenty-first place. There has been far too little public discussion and outcry about it, largely because Canadians have been kept in the dark.

A 2015 Oceana Canada-commissioned research poll found that 87 per cent of Canadians thought our oceans were as healthy as or healthier than those of other developed countries. This is a critical issue, with economic and environmental impacts: According to the Ministry of Fisheries and Oceans, more than 78,000 people are employed in Canada’s fisheries and we export $4.9 billion in fish and seafood products. Canadians deserve to be kept informed.

Oceana’s work around the world has demonstrated that transparency about the state of our publically owned resources and how decisions are made affecting these resources is critical for healthy oceans and thriving fisheries. Globally, and in Canada, there are many examples of successfully rebuilt fisheries. In virtually every case, recovery depends on following the science, setting goals, meeting timelines and reporting publicly on progress and results.

The government of Prime Minister Trudeau was elected on a platform of openness and change. This transparency is needed in the management of our fisheries and oceans and it can be created by taking such actions as making public a list of Canada’s fisheries and their status, and releasing the fisheries checklist that is used to conduct stock assessments.

By delivering on their election promise to increase transparency, the Trudeau government and Fisheries Minister Hunter Tootoo have an historic opportunity to restore our oceans to their healthiest potential, for now and for generations to come.

Josh Laughren
Executive Director, Oceana Canada