Oceana Canada audit claims country has mismanaged fisheries over last seven years

A fisherman in Canada cleaning a recently caught cod.

Oceana Canada’s recently released “Fishery Audit 2023” claims the Canadian government and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) Canada has made virtually no progress at rebuilding and maintaining the sustainability of its fishing stocks. 

The report is the seventh time Oceana Canada has assessed Canada’s fisheries management, and in that time DFO and the Canadian government has made little progress, the organization said.

“Once again, less than a third of Canada’s marine fish and invertebrate populations can be considered healthy and nearly 40 percent of fisheries lack enough information to assign the health status needed to properly manage them,” Oceana Canada Fishery Scientist Rebecca Schijns said. “Even worse, there has been a decrease in the number of healthy fisheries and no significant improvement in Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s performance against science, monitoring, and management indicators since Oceana Canada’s very first audit in 2017.”

According to Oceana Canada, the number of healthy fish stocks has declined, the number of depleted stocks has increased, and the DFO isn’t meeting its own expectations on rebuilding stocks. Canada passed a new Fisheries Act in 2019, which requires DFO create action plans to rebuild depleted fisheries. Under criteria in the Fisheries Act, Canada must create rebuilding plans for stocks that are considered critically depleted within certain time frames.

Currently, DFO has not published rebuilding plans for 13 critical stocks, despite legal requirements to do so by April 2024, Oceana Canada said.

“This year’s audit uncovers a troubling truth: Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s efforts to rebuild fish populations continue to fall short of meeting policy commitments and the legal requirements of the modernized Fisheries Act, putting at risk the health of Canada’s fish and fisheries,” Schijns said.

In addition to not creating new rebuilding plans, Oceana Canada claims that the DFO is also ignoring scientific advice and evidence when it makes decisions on quota.

“In several instances in 2023, DFO rolled over quota levels from last year contrary to advice based on new evidence and in direct opposition to the government’s rebuilding commitments,” Oceana Canada’s audit said. “One example is capelin in northeast Newfoundland and Labrador. This crucial forage species feeds other fish and marine life, including the historically overfished and culturally significant northern cod. But the minister set the 2023 quota at 14,533 [metric tons] – higher than this critically depleted population can support.”

Quota announcements were also delayed without explanation, and with no indication when information can be publicly accessible, Oceana Canada said.

In other instances, Canada was making its decisions without any information at all. According to the audit, the status of 40 percent of all marine fish and invertebrate populations were classified by the DFO as “uncertain” due to a lack of stock status information.

The lack of information is one of the metrics that is improving, Oceana Canada said. More stocks have upper reference points than they did before, providing key information on the rebuilding of stocks. However, the percentage of stocks with sufficient data to provide health statistics hasn’t changed since 2017 and has sat at 64.9 percent over the last seven audits.

Oceana Canada’s report indicating stagnation in Canada’s fisheries is contrasted by a recent Marine Stewardship Council's  "MSC Canada State of the Water Report 2023." According to the report, 61 percent of Canada’s wild-caught seafood by volume is certified to the MSC standard. 

However, the certification applies to some of the largest-volume fisheries in the country. Whitefish, crab and lobster, clams and scallops, and shrimp make up the four main sources of landings under the MSC program, and account for 60.4 percent of landings in Canada according to the MSC. A remaining 38.5 percent of landings by volume – covering 292,000 metric tons of seafood – comes from other fisheries. Those fisheries includes many of the those Oceana Canada called poorly managed, including capelin, Atlantic herring, and northern cod.

Oceana Canada said that the Canadian government can and should follow the lead of the U.S., which since the year 2000 has rebuilt 49 stocks and has rebuilding plans in place for 84 percent of its overfished stocks. In April, NOAA reported in its “2022 Status of the Stocks” reported continued improvement, with 93 percent of the 492 stocks it tracks not being subject to overfishing.

“The Canadian government knows what’s needed to rebuild wild fish. It has made commitments and significant investments in solutions. But the pace of implementation is devastatingly slow,” Oceana Canada Executive Director Josh Laughren said. “By overcoming the inertia we have documented in Oceana Canada’s last seven audits, Fisheries and Oceans Canada can ensure fishing communities and marine ecosystems flourish.”  

Photo courtyesy of Oceana Canada/Nicholas Hiscock


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