As our country recovers from the financial impacts of COVID-19, ocean resources can play an essential role in economic rebuilding and sustainable growth. Canada’s “blue economy” provides hundreds of thousands of jobs, often in communities with few other employment options. A healthy blue economy starts with healthy numbers of wild fish.
Abundant oceans provide economic stability to communities and food for an increasingly hungry world. That means rebuilding fish populations is good for the environment and the economy.”
This marks yet another year of decline since the first Fishery Audit in 2017, despite new investments in science and management. Today, only a quarter of Canada’s fish populations can confidently be considered healthy, and we’re seeing troubling decreases in crustaceans such as shrimp and crab that drive so much of Canada’s fishing revenues. We’re also seeing declines in the small fish such as capelin, herring and mackerel that are prey for seabirds and whales as well as many commercially important fish, such as cod and tunas.
There are many reasons for these unsustainable trends. Canada continues to overfish critically depleted stocks, many of which are now even more vulnerable as a result of climate change. Too many fisheries management decisions focus on avoiding difficult choices in the short term, causing even more hardship down the road. Meanwhile, efforts to help rebuild populations have stalled, with no new rebuilding plans released in 2020.
We have seen some positive developments. Over the past four years, the federal government has restored fisheries science funding, improved the transparency of fisheries data, greatly increased the amount of marine habitat protected and introduced a national Fishery Monitoring Policy. The modernized Fisheries Act, which became law last year, now requires a plan to rebuild depleted fish stocks.
All of this is very encouraging. However, laws and policies are only effective if they are implemented. We can’t enforce Fisheries Act regulations that don’t exist. We can’t rebuild depleted fisheries without an effective plan. And we can’t set sustainable quotas based on just part of the picture of what’s actually caught.
To date, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) has failed to follow through on many of the federal government’s breakthrough commitments. In the year ahead, DFO must tackle the growing gap between the intent of laws and policies and the real-world actions on the water.
That means creating regulations to bring into force the new Fisheries Act provisions, including identifying major stocks and requiring targets and timelines for rebuilding plans. It means implementing the Fishery Monitoring Policy introduced in November 2019 and making science-based quota decisions that reflect accurate catch numbers from all sources, including recreational fishing and unintended catch. And it means developing and implementing rigorous rebuilding plans for critically depleted stocks.
Canada has an opportunity to think about the future we want — and need — as we set 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 and the future of coastal communities.