Canada’s ocean stewardship criticized as key fish stocks still critical

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the northern cod fishery off the coast of Newfoundland, which through thousands of Maritimers out of work and launched years of finger-pointing and recrimination.

The once abundant cod stocks, exploited by fishermen for four hundred years, diminished to the point Ottawa finally had to order much of the fishing fleet mothballed.

Now comes a report that cod and other fish stocks have not recovered and are still below "critical limits."

Postmedia News says a hefty report by a 10-member panel recommends major changes to the way the government manages fisheries, including limiting the minister of fisheries and oceans' "czar-like" powers.

The panel, which spent two years assessing ocean biodiversity and challenges posed by climate change, fishing and fish farming, found the department is in a basic conflict of interest because it's responsible for both exploiting and conserving fisheries.

The report blames overfishing that has seriously depleted many species and disrupted the marine food chain.

"Now we find cod and some other species in a position where they are headed for extirpation,'' panel chairman Jeffrey Hutchings of Halifax's Dalhousie University told a media briefing.

The report estimates fish abundance in Canada's oceans declined an average of 52 per cent between 1970 and the mid-1990s and most commercially fished stocks are well below conservation targets.

Canada has not fulfilled commitments to become a world leader in ocean and marine management, the panel contends.

"We made promises and we haven't kept them," said Hutchings.

The United States, Norway and New Zealand have done more to protect and rebuild fish stocks, says the report.

Hutchings said east coast cod stocks are only about one-tenth their former size, yet are still being over-fished, in part because federal fisheries ministers have stepped in to allow fishery openings.

"The reopenings took place at the discretion of the minister,'' said Hutchings. "They were not based on science, they were not based on an overall recovery plan.''

The minister's discretionary powers need to be reduced, the panel report says, and the minister must become more transparent and accountable for fisheries-management decisions.

The science magazine Nature's news blog also noted the report found Canada was not living up to international commitments it has made.

Nature noted other countries have been able to overcome the kinds of institutional conflicts faced by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

"In the United States, the Magnuson-Stevens Act requires recovery plans for over-fished stocks and provides impact assessments for fisheries," it wrote. "It also mandates the following of scientific advice, says Dave VanderZwaag, the Canada Research Chair in Ocean Law & Governance at Dalhousie University, and one of the panel members."

Hutchings said he and others would like the department's responsibility for fishing transferred to Industry Canada.

The department said it would not comment until it had reviewed the report.