The overall status of Canada’s marine fish and invertebrates remains poor. DFO continues to fall short of implementing its own policies and commitments, all of which are necessary to address well-documented fisheries management challenges.
Since Oceana Canada’s first Fishery Audit in 2017, the health of Canada’s fish stocks has not improved. What has changed is the composition of depleted stocks. An increasing number of invertebrates are now in the critical or cautious zones, including populations of economically important species like snow crab and shrimp. Meanwhile, there are few healthy forage fish stocks, and no healthy shark or skate stocks.
Overall assessment: 33 stocks in critical condition, 71 uncertain
Climate change is affecting ocean ecosystems and putting further pressure on species that are already vulnerable. For example, British Columbia’s intense heatwave this year drove up the temperature of coastal waters, resulting in die-offs of sea cucumbers, starfish and crabs. As climate change continues to accelerate, DFO’s plans must take these impacts into account, starting with an increased investment to assess species vulnerability.
Encouragingly, some elements of Canadian fisheries management have improved over the past five years. In 2018, the government committed more than $100 million to assess and rebuild fish stocks. There have been significant increases in the percentage of stocks with LRPs over the past five years. Meanwhile, transparency has improved, with nearly all stocks now included in publicly available IFMPs.
Although those achievements are laudable, there have been no significant increases in the percentage of stocks with USRs. Many of Canada’s most valuable seafood species — lobster, snow crab and scallop — are still missing key reference points needed to protect them.
Most concerningly, almost 80 per cent of critical stocks still lack rebuilding plans. For more than a decade, DFO has had a policy that requires rebuilding plans for critically depleted stocks. Now, the 2019 Fisheries Act makes it the law. But the rebuilding requirements under the new law don’t apply to stocks until the regulations are in place — and those haven’t yet been finalized.
To realize the Fisheries Act’s potential to increase the abundance of our wild fish stocks, this government must make strong regulations a priority and require plans to include timelines and targets for rebuilding depleted wild fish to healthy levels.
Five years should be enough time to expect to see a reversal in decline for depleted stocks. It is definitely enough time to make measurable progress on implementing policy commitments and international best practices for rebuilding depleted stocks. That hasn’t happened. To reduce significant risks to Canada’s economy and ecosystems, the pace of progress must accelerate — and quickly.
Canada’s fisheries management performance is assessed using indicators developed from globally accepted best practices and from DFO’s policy framework and is based on data from 194 index stocks† published on DFO websites.
to understand how healthy stocks are today and how different factors will affect them in the future
to determine how many fish are harvested and discarded each year
Good management decisions
based on data that consider the entire ecosystem and prioritize long-term health and abundance over short-term and dwindling profits
In the past five years, little has changed in the overall health of our fisheries. But a deeper dive reveals that the status of about two dozen stocks changes each year. Some have consistently improved, like deepwater redfish in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Others have steadily declined, like North Coast Haida Gwaii razor clams. And some, like snow crab on the western Scotian shelf, improve one year only to decline the next.
Some fluctuation is normal. For example, many forage fish go through natural boom-and-bust cycles. But when overfishing happens during those bust periods, it can make the lows lower and longer lasting. That’s why precautionary management is so crucial: we must proceed carefully in the face of uncertainties. With it, wild fish should be more resilient to natural changes in ecosystems and make a strong comeback when conditions are favourable — allowing catches to increase in the process.
For full details, see the appendices at oceana.ca/FisheryAudit2021.
† The Fishery Audit index stock list (194 stocks) was created for the 2017 Fishery Audit. It is based on marine fish and invertebrate stocks included in Oceana Canada’s report, Canada’s Marine Fisheries: Status, Recovery Potential and Pathways to Success, combined with those included in the first public release of the DFO’s Sustainability Survey for Fisheries and any stocks with newly available information from government reports that year.
DFO has three categories of fish stock health. They are defined relative to the stock biomass that would produce maximum sustainable yield or (BMSY). Maximum sustainable yield (MSY) is the largest volume of fish that can theoretically be harvested without reducing the size of the population over the long term.*
A stock is considered healthy if its biomass is greater than 80 per cent of BMSY. When a stock is in this zone, fisheries management decisions are designed to keep it healthy.
A stock falls in the cautious zone if its biomass is between 40 and 80 per cent of BMSY. If a stock falls into this zone, harvesting rates should be reduced to avoid seriously depleting it and to promote rebuilding to the healthy zone.
A stock falls in the critical zone if its biomass is less than 40 per cent of BMSY. If a stock moves into the critical zone, serious harm is occurring and conservation actions become crucial.
* MSY is a globally accepted standard for fisheries management. The Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, to which Canada is a signatory, indicates governments or other agencies responsible for fisheries management need to adopt appropriate measures, based on the best scientific evidence available, which are designed to maintain or restore stocks at levels capable of producing maximum sustainable yield.