A leading ocean conservation group sounded an alarm over the state of Canada’s fishery Thursday in a new report that reveals that less than 25 per cent of the country’s fish stocks are considered healthy and the status of almost half is unknown.

In the most comprehensive public study ever conducted on the state of Canada’s fish, the report outlines the extent to which overfishing and decades of poor management practices have severely depleted Canada’s fish populations.

The status of a whopping 45 per cent of stocks couldn’t be determined due to an absence of basic or up-to-date information, which the report attributed to a lack of transparency in Canada’s fisheries.

The report called the latter a “long-standing problem, exacerbated by the previous federal government’s cuts to Canada’s once world-class fisheries science capacity and by the rigorously enforced policy of discouraging scientists from speaking about their work.

“This lack of transparency — and therefore public scrutiny — and absence of up-to-date information creates an environment in which it is all too easy for officials to ignore scientific advice and avoid the tough decisions required to rebuild vulnerable stocks.”

Josh Laughren, executive director of Oceana Canada - the organization that commissioned the research - called the findings extremely concerning.

"We need public scrutiny and accountability to ensure our fish populations are sustainably managed, and the political will to implement rebuilding plans where they are urgently needed,’ Laughren said in a statement.

“Fisheries and Oceans Canada has a responsibility to steward this precious resource, and they have to date been unwilling or unable to share basic information on the state our fish populations, and actions needed to bring them back."

A lobster fishery collapse would be devastating

The depletion of the Canada’s fisheries is a recent phenomenon, the bulk of it occurring within the span of a single lifetime, Laughren notes in his introduction to the report.

He calls it a story of too many boats chasing too few fish, of destructive gear and enormous waste, with science too often falling by the wayside.

“It’s not just cod numbers that plummeted. We’ve seen a drop in abundance of all kinds of species.”

The report titled Here's the Catch: How to Restore Abundance to Canada's Oceans, comes nearly 25 years after the collapse of the cod industry in 1992, which led to tens of thousands of people out of work and financial losses of $4 billion.

Currently, the Canadian seafood industry is concentrated on a few key species, including lobster, crab, shrimp and scallops, but the report says the lack of diversity in catches makes communities and economies vulnerable.

A lobster fishery collapse would be devastating, for instance, because the value of the shellfish is high and fishers would have no other options to turn to in the event of a collapse, the report said, citing the similar collapse in the early 2000s of Southern New England’s lobster fishery from disease and climate change.

The report noted that the challenges the researchers faced in compiling their information were “disturbing.”

The report’s authors, marine scientists Julia Baum and Susanna Fuller, spent months tracking down basic data from Fisheries and Oceans Canada, often from individual scientists. Even so, in some instances the information was unavailable because some scientists refused to share their data.

“Without this data, Canada cannot manage fish stocks properly or assess the health of our oceans. Nor can we judge the effectiveness of management and rebuilding efforts,” the report pointed out.

Nonetheless, the report found it encouraging that the new federal government has committed itself to being more open and providing better access to science information.

Royal Dutch Shell, Shell Canada, Dominic Leblanc, Catherine McKenna, David Miller, Carolyn Bennett, Lancaster Sound, Arctic, Oil, WWF-Canada, Pavarti.org, Imperial Oil, Exxon, BP, Michael Crothers
Fisheries and Oceans Minister Dominic LeBlanc delivers his first major speech in his new portfolio on June 8, 2016 at WWF-Canada Oceans Summit in Ottawa. Photo by Mike De Souza.

Newly-minted federal Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc said earlier in June that his goal would be to continue to protect oceans, noting that they feed billions of people, support countless jobs and are a valuable source of clean energy.

“The oceans might appear to be in good health, but we know… that human activity is their greatest threat,” LeBlanc said. “Overfishing, the loss and destruction of habitat. Marine pollution, and the warming of the sea temperatures is endangering the oceans and their ecosystems… Together we must do more to protect our oceans and this is why we are here and you are here today.”

He added that the federal government understands that healthy oceans contribute to healthy people and a healthy economy, supporting trade, commerce and development.

“We think it’s critical for Canadians and for the world to hear what scientists are telling us,” LeBlanc said. “We think one of the most important things our government has done in the few months we’ve been in office is to invite scientists to speak freely and openly and publicly about the challenges facing our planet, our oceans and a whole myriad of issues that Canadians are concerned about.”

Baum and Fuller, identified the most important commercially harvested fish and seafood stocks in Canada and those of greatest conservation concern, arriving at a list of 165.

Keep reading

Although this article is concentrated on the fishery, it is a story that could be repeated again and again with respect to every resource exploited in the Canadian economy. The pursuit of profit has been dominant and the notion of environmental stewardship has been virtually nonexistent.

Given the amount of plastics in the ocean, a total recovery of the fishery may be a long way off if possible at all.

With respect to other resources, the evidence continues to mount that the concept of environmental stewardship is little understood or respected.

If this continues, future generations will pay for it big time.