Significant changes could be coming to the way fisheries are managed in Canada, giving hope for the rebound of some species and the protection of others, says an ocean conservation group.
Josh Laughren, executive director of Oceana Canada, said proposed amendments to the Fisheries Act would prompt the government to rebuild stocks that fall below sustainable levels.
And while the changes still include an "off ramp" for government to make decisions in the interest of short-term economics over longer sustainability, they would require those decisions to be made public, which Laughren said is a step toward ensuring past mistakes aren't repeated.
"We've kind of slept walked through this incredible decline in abundance and it's been hidden by some of the economics of it," Laughren said in an interview.
More than half of the entire value of Canadian fisheries now comes from Atlantic invertebrates like lobster, crab and shrimp, he said, pointing to a 2015 report by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
Not only does that make the industry more vulnerable to pathogens and disease, but the profitability of those fisheries have obscured the depletion of others like groundfish. Since 1970, Canada has seen fish biomass decline by 55 per cent, an expert panel convened by the Royal Society of Canada found.
In the United States, fisheries laws have more bite because they clearly define "overfishing," and when it occurs, action to stop and reverse the impacts is required within months. Forty-five stocks have been recovered since the law was introduced and 28 of the most successful ones were generating 54 per cent more revenue than when they were overfished, he said.
Bill C-68 was introduced a month after the Liberal government was sworn in and had its second reading in the Senate in December.
Laughren said he's very hopeful the bill could improve biodiversity in a way that also creates more economic opportunity.
"Abundance provides options, abundance makes allocation a hell of a lot easier and provides more value. I think we've kind of forgotten about how important that is," he said.
Others are more wary.
Paul Lansbergen, who represents commercial fisheries as president of the Fisheries Council of Canada, said that beyond protecting fish stocks the law should also protect "sustainable" fishing rights.
"The most significant policy issue facing the sector is a concern of stability of access to the fishing resource," he told the Senate standing committee reviewing the bill.
"The use of fisheries is missing in the current wording of the bill."
Lansbergen said the council will reserve an opinion on the law until accompanying regulations are revealed. But he told the committee it represents a significant change that will have long-standing implications for the sector and the health of the oceans and fish resources.
Canada's seafood industry employs 80,000 people and accounts for $7 billion in exports to more than 130 countries.
Lansbergen said Canada is already a "global leader" in sustainable fisheries management, noting that 80 per cent of wild seafood production is certified by the Marine Stewardship Council.
He warned against forcing commercial fishermen to give up their licences.
"Taking away long-standing licences and quotas does not respect past investments and has eroded the sector's confidence to invest and could undermine conservation efforts," he said.
Martin Mallet, executive director of the Maritime Fishermen's Union, said he's hoping the bill passes without too many hiccups, adding most fishermen associations in Atlantic Canada support the bill.
Mallet said the union particularly likes the way the bill would enshrine an existing owner-operator policy into law so it can be better enforced.
It would give stronger protection to East Coast fishermen against unaffordable quota costs that have made fishing more expensive than it's worth in some other jurisdictions, he said.
"The West Coast fisheries are an example of what could happen if you don't have this type of regulation. You end up having companies and investors basically buying the rights to the fish," he said, with fishermen then leasing the quota from them.
It can mean less economic benefit funnelled into local communities, he said.
Bill C-68 also provides new authorities for Indigenous participation in the fisheries along with their co-management.
Terry Teegee, regional chief with the British Columbia Assembly of First Nations, said he generally supports the bill but would like even stronger protection for First Nations' inherent and constitutionally protected rights.
Many of the sections regarding Indigenous participation use language like "may" instead of "shall," which means it doesn't compel action, he said.
Teegee said Indigenous knowledge systems should be recognized on a level playing field with government science. Committing to rebuild fish stocks and habitat restoration could be seen as an act of reconciliation, he said.
"I think the bill itself is better than it was but certainly I think there can be improvements and more commitments to Indigenous people," he said.
The clock is ticking on the bill head of the federal election this fall but Teegee said fisheries protection shouldn't depend on who holds power.
"Right now we're seeing climate change and we're seeing fish stocks declining. We need to really fix things and make some interventions," he said.