Canada is one of the world’s top 30 fishing nations, catching nearly 1 million metric tons of fish each year, or 1.1% of the world’s wild fish catch by weight. But it could be so much bigger! Compared to its famously abundant past, Canada’s waters are much depleted. The collapse of cod in the 1990s – and the thousands of people left unemployed in the aftermath – remains a telling and agonizing case study of the dangers overfishing poses to marine life and coastal communities. It’s a cautionary tale that Canada still has not fully addressed. The good news is that now, thanks to a recent fisheries law that Oceana helped drive through Parliament, Canada has the opportunity to rebuild many of its depleted fisheries – including its iconic cod fishery. What will it take? Fully implementing the science-based fisheries management required by the new law. Canada also has the potential to become a leader on combatting other ocean issues, like the tsunami of plastic bottles and packaging waste entering the world’s oceans.
Below you will find a recent conversation I had with Josh Laughren, Executive Director of Oceana in Canada, about what Oceana is doing to restore the abundance of Canada’s oceans. Since helping to start Oceana in Canada in 2015, Josh and his team and allies have won many policy victories for our oceans including banning the import and export of shark fins (the first G20 country to do so), passing a modern, science-based Fisheries Act into law in 2019 (as mentioned above), and creating the 1,000 square kilometer Banc-des-Américains marine protected area.
Andrew Sharpless: You’ve dedicated a long career to environmental conservation. What keeps you inspired to continue advocating for our oceans and planet?
Josh Laughren: Since my first job as an educator at a science center, I’ve been driven by a passion to protect the environment, which has led to a career in conservation that now spans 30 years.
In that time, ocean conservation in Canada was born – we’re literally helping to lead the first wave of effective policy-making for ocean conservation in the history of our country. We’ve gone from less than 1% of Canada’s oceans protected to 15%. We went from a national fishery law with no scientific management standards whatsoever to a fully modernized approach that includes mandates to rebuild our depleted ocean. Public support for action on climate change, nature protection, and reducing plastic waste has skyrocketed. That gives me great hope. But our natural systems are still in steep decline. While there is progress, we are still not on the right track. In Canada, Oceana is striving to return our oceans and fisheries to abundance in our lifetime. That to me is inspiring.
As I watch my own son learn and discover the world around him, I’m more driven than ever to protect the ocean, to ensure he can live in a country and on a planet rich with natural spaces that provide for us all.
AS: How important are the oceans to life in Canada?
JL: Canada has the longest coastline in the world, and the oceans are a defining element of our national identity, connecting us to the Arctic, Pacific, and Atlantic Oceans.
Those who live on the coasts, including many Indigenous communities, depend on healthy marine life for jobs and for food as well as for social, cultural, and ceremonial purposes. Oceans are also a big contributor to our national economy.
The decline of fish populations off Canada’s coasts due to overfishing has had a devastating impact on communities, which is why Oceana works alongside Canadian fishers, community members, scientists, and the government to rebuild these depleted populations, stop overfishing, and protect marine habitat.
AS: How has the coronavirus pandemic impacted Canada and Oceana’s campaigns to restore Canadian oceans?
JL: As it has all over the world, the coronavirus has hurt families, communities, businesses, and Oceana. Here at Oceana, thanks to the support of our funders, we have been able to keep focused on our mission, and we’ve continued to make progress, although it’s been slowed at times by limits on our activities imposed by the virus. We’ve changed how we work and what tactics we prioritize but stuck tight to our pre-pandemic policy campaign goals.
We shifted some of our campaign activities, including postponing our national symposium on rebuilding fisheries and a science expedition with the Labrador Inuit, sharing knowledge, resources, and expertise to help inform marine protection in Nunatsiavut, Northern Labrador. The pandemic has also slowed government action on key priorities, such as the creation of a new marine protected area off the coast of British Columbia, and regulations to implement the new Fisheries Act.
We’ve adapted to the current landscape by hosting digital events, including workshops on Zoom and Instagram Lives, and virtual meetings with key government decision-makers. We’ve also submitted recommendations to the federal government on how ocean conservation and rebuilding abundance can contribute to a post-pandemic recovery as part of a blue economy strategy.
AS: What is the state of Canada’s wild fisheries? How is Oceana in Canada working to restore abundance?
JL: Canada’s fisheries are still declining, despite significant – and welcome – commitments and investments by the federal government to their rebuilding. Just over 26% of our fisheries are now considered healthy according to Oceana in Canada’s 2020 Fishery Audit. The number of healthy fish populations has decreased by almost eight percentage points since our first Fishery Audit was released in 2017.
As we consider how we build back from the pandemic, we have to think about the future we want and need. We need to realize the massive long-term potential for the original blue economy – wild fish – to support our planet.
This past year, Oceana focused on the health of Canada’s forage fish, since so much depends on them. For example, capelin are a key food source for seabirds, whales, cod and many other commercially valuable fish. Capelin are in steep decline, and we’re calling on the government to close this fishery until it recovers.
Oceana has also been identifying opportunities to develop and strengthen rebuilding plans, which are a key tool for modern fisheries management. The development of these plans in Canada has been terribly neglected, and the ones that do exist lack timelines and targets for rebuilding fish populations. Strengthening them is the single most important thing we need the government to do for our wild fish populations, like cod, and for all who rely on them.
AS: Earlier this year, the Canadian government classified plastic as “toxic” and proposed a ban on six single-use plastic items. What comes next for Oceana’s campaign in Canada to end ocean plastic pollution?
JL: We got a huge win when plastic was declared “toxic” under Canada’s cornerstone environmental legislation. The toxic listing gives the federal government the authority to regulate plastic, including banning harmful single-use plastics. We must now ensure we get a strong ban implemented quickly.
Of course, we have a lot more to do to stop the enormous flow of plastic into our oceans. We are urging the federal government to strengthen the ban by expanding it to include other harmful plastic products and materials that are commonly found in the environment, such as hot and cold drink cups, cigarette filters, all forms of polystyrene and oxo-degradable plastics, which are designed to fragment and then become harmful and ubiquitous microplastics.
In addition to a federal ban, we need to see corporate leadership from big retail giants like Amazon stepping up to address this issue by reducing their use of plastic packaging and offering plastic-free choices to consumers. When it comes to plastic packaging, we’re faced with a lot of options, but no real choice.
AS: What is one priority that you hope to win for Canada’s oceans this year?
JL: I hope that Canada will finalize strong regulations under the new Fisheries Act that require the government to develop rebuilding plans to help stop overfishing and rebuild depleted stocks. There is no greater single action we could do to reverse decades of mismanagement and decline, which could bring enormous benefits to communities and provide the world with an abundant, renewable, and healthy source of protein. Creating a legal obligation to rebuild depleted fish populations has been a priority for Oceana since our founding, and we are at a moment of tremendous opportunity for a major win by strengthening the Fisheries Act regulations.
In 2019, the federal government responded to pressure from Oceana and others to address Canada’s decades-long fishery crisis with amendments to the Fisheries Act that require rebuilding plans for depleted commercial fish stocks. The draft regulations that bring these new rules into effect were published earlier this year, but they do not do the job. They lack the targets and timelines we know are needed to succeed in rebuilding fisheries. We are pushing hard to fix these gaps.
We need to win this one. With warming oceans and fish populations continuing to decline, every one of us at Oceana in Canada is feeling great urgency to rebuild ocean abundance.