By Roger Augustine, Regional Chief, Assembly of First Nations and Josh Laughren, Executive Director, Oceana Canada
Often, the significance of a decision made by the Federal Government will quickly become clear: responding to a crisis, a natural disaster or a major world event. Other times, the consequences are less immediate and less obvious, though no less important. This is the situation that Canada finds itself in now as one of its oldest pieces of legislation, the Fisheries Act, is reviewed as part of the government’s mandate to restore lost protections and incorporate modern safeguards into the Act. The lasting effects of these changes made may not be felt immediately, but what hangs in the balance is the health of our fish and those who rely on them.
The current review of Canada’s Fisheries Act provides a rare opportunity to set Canada on a path to restore abundance in our oceans by fulfilling the legal duty to rebuild depleted stocks. More fish means more fishing. Rebuilt fish stocks means thriving coastal communities, a more vibrant economy and stronger food – and job – security.
The history of fishing in Canada’s oceans extends far back beyond Confederation 150 years ago. Since time immemorial, Canada’s Indigenous Peoples have had a reciprocal relationship with the ocean’s resources, for food, social and ceremonial purposes and also for commerce and trade.
The recent history of our fish is one of dramatic decline. Canadian fish populations declined by 52 per cent from 1970 - 2006; half of this incredible resource that sustained so many for so long, gone in one lifetime.
While actions have been taken in the most serious cases of overfishing, notably the Northern cod moratorium, too often these actions only happen after a population has collapsed and we have not yet allowed our depleted stocks to rebuild. As stocks are further depleted and there is less available, the challenge becomes how to balance the needs of stakeholders and rights-holders: fishery versus fishery, gear versus gear, recreation versus commercial, and economy versus environment. The result is a zero-sum game where a win for one is a loss for another; often leading to conflict and tension between groups.
The Fisheries Act, despite its name, is weak at preventing overfishing and ensuring the health of our fish populations. It provides no direction to keep fisheries healthy and no obligation to return depleted stocks to baseline abundance. This puts Canada behind other nations, including our major trading partners in the United States and the European Union. In the U.S., the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act requires fisheries managers to quickly implement rebuilding plans when stocks are overfished, with targets and timelines set based on the best available science.
This legal backing from the Act matters: since the provision was brought into force in the U.S. in 2006, 32 stocks have been rebuilt, generating 54 per cent more revenue than when they were overfished. The most productive fisheries have more fish in the water and on the fishing boat, including New England redfish and scallops, both commercial fisheries in Canada.
And in Canada? Despite a policy commitment from the Federal Government to develop rebuilding plans for all depleted stocks, there is currently a grand total of three such plans in place. A rebuilding plan for Northern cod is still in development a quarter of a century after its economically and socially devastating collapse.
The complexity of fisheries will always make allocation decisions difficult. Constitutional rights of Indigenous Peoples need to be respected and implemented. Tough conservation decisions will always need to be made with less-than-perfect information. Competing claims on resources must be weighed carefully, often with no easy answers. But abundance provides options and opportunities for negotiation. It provides economic stability to communities and more healthy protein to an increasingly hungry world. It provides hope.
Experience around the world shows that embedding the duty to rebuild our fish populations into the laws that govern fishing is the key to unlocking this potential. Countries that have it rebuild their stocks. Those that don’t, do not.
As the Federal Government considers reforms to Canada’s Fisheries Act and its mandate to incorporate modern safeguards, this is the significant decision that must be made. Let’s choose abundance.