Canada’s Commercial Ocean Fisheries in Danger

In 1992 the North Atlantic Cod fishery was closed along Canada’s east coast, and 25 years later has still not re-opened. Once again we are hearing reports calling for cuts to fishing quotas along Canada’s coastline. Here to help make sense of what it all means is Lawrence Gunther, President of Blue Fish Canada and host of the Blue fish Radio show. Lawrence, welcome back.

(Transcript of Lawrence Gunther’s bi-weekly 12-minute segment on Live from Studio 5 broadcast over AMI TV and Audio across Canada)

Q. Welcome back Lawrence, are we again at risk of having yet another fish stock collapse similar to what happened to the Northern cod Fishery?

A. The federal commissioner of the environment and sustainable development, working on behalf of the federal auditor general, looked at the management of wild fisheries in Canada between 2013 and 2016 and concluded DFO lacked the key information it needed to manage major fish stocks. Of 15 depleted stocks deemed in critical condition because of continued unsustainable commercial fishing, the audit found only three had in place mandated stock rebuilding plans. Of the 154 major ocean fisheries, 44 were missing or had out-dated integrated fish management plans. DFO is failing to carry out planned scientific surveys, and there are systemic problems with fishery observer programs needed to collect information on catches at sea.

Q. According to the World Wildlife Federation, populations of smaller ocean fish stocks are also in trouble. How does this impact the overall situation?

A. Smaller fish are caught for use as bait for larger fisheries, such as crab and lobster, and for producing feed for fish pen operations or aquaculture. Forage fish are also vital to whales, seabirds and other predators, and are critical to the recovery of commercial fisheries such as northern cod. Unfortunately, the actual status of small fish ocean stocks was unknown in 75 per cent of the fisheries, including all capelin and herring fisheries, and all the fisheries in British Columbia. These are species that represent, if not the foundation, the main floor of the food chain.

Q. Are all these sea life population declines another example of economic priorities winning out over environmental sustainability?

A. There’s a lot of uncertainty in the science and there’s so much we don’t know about what’s happening … So there’s a lot of reluctance to take a precautionary approach to managing the species because of economic implications. More effort needs to be put into gathering information about both forage and commercial fish stocks. We can’t manage them if we don’t know how well or how badly they’re doing, and if we don’t know what factors are influencing their health. It needs to be made a priority because it’s hard to manage a species well when you have no idea what its status is.”

Q. Do we know what is causing fish stocks to decline?

A. For all these fisheries, an important factor in the decline can be attributed to changes in the environment. Warming water temperatures, ecological change due to the elimination of certain species, acidification of the ocean itself, are just some of the variables influencing marine life populations.

Q. Is Canada the only country in the world struggling to sustainably manage its commercial fisheries?

A. Canada is doing better than most other countries by far, which is really quite scary when you think about it. Compared to what the United States has been able to accomplish, we are totally falling behind. While the U.S. removes fish species from their at risk list, we are still trying to figure out where we stand.

Q. Just how important is seafood? 

A. It’s estimated that over 2 billion people around the world consume fish as their primary source of protein, and it’s growing quickly. To satisfy this growing demand, the UN estimates 81.2 million tonnes of seafood was harvested from the world’s oceans in 2015. However, the UN estimates 90 percent of the world’s fisheries are either fully exploited or facing collapse. But it may be worse. According to the University of British Columbia, only half of what is actually caught is being reported by different countries to the UN. China, a country with over 2,100  long-distant fishing vessels that travel throughout the world, may be reporting less than 20% of what they catch, most of it from the shores of African countries.