Canada hasn’t got the key tools or resources in place to monitor and protect vital commercial fisheries despite promising to rectify the problem seven years ago, a federal audit released Tuesday shows.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) isn’t collecting reliable, timely information on fish catches needed to make sure commercial stocks aren’t being overfished, a new audit by environment and sustainable development commissioner Jerry DeMarco shows.
The massive economic and social fallout from the collapse of Canada’s cod fishery in the 1990s illustrates it's far more expensive and difficult to revive important fish stocks than to keep them healthy in the first place, said DeMarco at a press conference.
Approximately 72,000 Canadians make a living from Canada’s ocean fisheries, which are valued at $4.6 billion. Yet none of 156 key commercial stocks on all three coasts were being fully monitored in line with DFO’s own policy requirements, the report said.
DFO has spent about $31 million on a national integrated information system designed to provide quick access to catch data. Yet, the system is only in the initial stages of deployment and the deadline for a full rollout in all regions has been strung out by a decade, from 2020 to 2030.
The new report’s key concerns and recommendations are much the same as they were when a similar audit was done in 2016, DeMarco said.
“It was disappointing to find that many of our recommendations from our office from seven years ago still apply today,” DeMarco told Canada’s National Observer.
It’s critical DFO acquires sufficient information within a reasonable time frame so it can get a “better handle” on whether fish stocks are being managed sustainably, he said.
DFO also hasn’t set up a comprehensive framework to assess the quality of information being collected. Fishing data is collected by fish harvesters or contracted observers either at sea and on docks with log books or onboard cameras. Yet it’s not clear if that data meets monitoring requirements, the report said.
Information on the type and number of fish caught or released, captured accidentally, or the kind and amount of gear used on each trip is critical for accurate stock assessments and for setting sustainable fishing quotas and enforcing regulations.
“The department’s oversight of the information it receives has not improved since it was flagged as being poor seven years ago,” the report noted.
DFO developed a fishery monitoring policy in 2019 after the last audit but hasn’t put action plans or resources in place to follow it, DeMarco said.
“It’s just a policy on paper,” he said.
DeMarco is calling on DFO to expedite its monitoring policy and the rollout of its integrated information system and to review its third-party observer programs to deal with compliance issues, including the lack of disclosure of conflicts of interest.
The unflinching review of the federal government's lack of progress on key components for sustainable fisheries reflects long-standing concerns, said Josh Laughren, executive director of Oceana Canada.
The ocean conservation group’s own annual fishery audits show less than a third of Canada’s wild fish stocks are considered healthy and less than 20 per cent of critically depleted populations have recovery plans in place, Laughren said.
“This is not simply a dry, esoteric discussion about data,” he stressed.
Canada’s inability to tally the total number of fish pulled from the water across its commercial, recreational and bait fisheries almost always results in an undercount of already declining fish stocks. Coupled with climate change stresses in the ocean, the health of stocks, fisheries and the communities and people who depend on those fish are increasingly at risk, he said.
Fully monitoring fisheries with data gleaned either by electronic means or observers is commonplace in sustainable fisheries around the world, Laughren said.
However, that effort needs to be a priority for federal politicians and DFO staff backed by enough funding and, ideally, industry support, he added.
The audit results were discouraging, said DeMarco, but he’s somewhat hopeful the federal government will act given it agrees with all the recommendations and provided some detail on how and when benchmarks will be met.
DFO said prioritized stocks will be fully managed by 2029. However, the department did not reveal which types of fish or how many stocks fall into that category.
The federal agency will also consider speeding the rollout of its integrated information system, but full implementation of the network is currently slated for 2027.
Additionally, the review and framework to deal with concerns over the quality of information from third-party observers, including potential conflicts of interest, is expected to be in place by 2026.
Federal Fisheries Minister Diane Lebouthillier issued a statement but did not take questions during a press conference Tuesday or respond to those sent to her office by Canada’s National Observer.
Ensuring quality catch-monitoring information is a government priority, noting DFO relies on a number of information sources to monitor and make decisions to protect fisheries, Lebouthillier said.
“That said, better is always possible,” she said, adding that many actions are already underway to meet the report’s recommendations.
“DFO will continue to work closely with his office and … continue to sustainably manage the harvesting of commercial marine fisheries for future generations.”
DFO’s past performance suggests it isn’t safe to assume the federal agency will act decisively on the audit’s recommendations, Laughren said.
“Past behaviour is the best indicator of future performance, right?” he said, adding DFO doesn’t lack for good policy to protect fisheries but rather fails to act on it.
“This is a question of the department implementing what they've already got on the books.”
Rochelle Baker / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada's National Observer
— With a file from The Canadian Press
Rochelle Baker, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canada's National Observer