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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.

“It was disappointing to find that many of our recommendations from our office from seven years ago still apply today,” said Jerry DeMarco, Canada's environment commissioner, on an audit showing DFO's failure to fully monitor commercial fisheries.

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.

Less than a third of Canada's wild fish stocks are considered healthy, says Josh Laughren, executive director of Oceana Canada. Photo Neil Ever Osborne / Oceana

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

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While DFO has spent the last 50 years twiddling their thumbs and trying to figure out ways to “manage”our fish stocks, those fish stocks are disappearing.
The biggest runs on BC’S coast used to be the sockeye, the chums and the pinks. Not a lot of fishing pressure on pink salmon either sport or commercial so those stocks are doing well.
Coho after the collapse and the following moratorium on catching them have managed after almost 30 years of intensive hatchery production, made a bit of a come back. Enough that for the first time since the late 90’s a “wild” coho was an allowed catch. Hard to tell if it truly was wild though since hatcheries only mark about 20% of all the fish they release. And the Chinook seem to holding their own, also thanks to massive hatchery output.
But this year the chum run return was only 40% of estimates by DFO and so small that both commercial and sport fishing was stopped. As for the sockeye, a fish that used to number in excess of 50 million returning fish per year to the Fraser River, their numbers are so low that NO sockeye fishing, not even for First Nations is allowed because there are virtually none!
DFO has presided over the extirpating of almost ALL the salmon on the west coast. They have been informed over and over and over again as to what they should be doing, and for some reason they always move like they are walking in quicksand. Slower than molasses, don’t care, can’t be bothered, and by the time they DO get this system up and running there won’t BE any salmon stocks left that will be healthy enough to fish!

Starting about 25 years ago I was visiting a former colleague from work, who had moved to Nova Scotia because her husband, a marine biologist, had landed a job with DFO. He was going to sea on a regular basis with various fishing fleets to monitor the catches, and the by-catch as part of the effort to establish base lines for the species of commercial value and the effects on the by catch. For several years he laboured with his colleagues to conduct these surveys, to make their reports and to make recommendations about species management. He rapidly became aware of what everyone working there already knew. Most of their reports and recommendations never saw the light of day and were buried in the department archives. The final decisions about fishery policy were made by the politicians who were more interested in preserving the industry and the prosperity of their constituents, as opposed to the extirpation of fish species. Eventually PM Harper came to power and drastic reductions were made to Fisheries staff, budgets, research programs, etc. without any reference to the rapidly diminishing stocks . It appeared that the disappearing fish were the excuse for shutting DFO down to a pitiful rump operation. The Harper Government perceived no value in throwing federal money into the ocean to prop up dead and dying fisheries. Then came the killing blow, The DFO archived collections of years of research and monitoring, reports and recommendations were to be removed from Halifax and taken to Ottawa. There was no explanation for the move and no guarantee that the decades of information would be preserved. My friend's husband hung on to his job until he retired by which time there was almost no one left in the offices. I have lost contact with this family and so my inside source has disappeared. I do not know what functionality remains of the DFO. I do not know if the archives still exist. The fight over fish farming is all I hear in the media these days and if asked I would probably guess that almost nothing remains of Canada's fishing fleets, and most likely nothing useful is being done to track, monitor or regulate off shore fisheries.

What I have learned is that the forage fish stocks are disappearing and that the commercially useful fish are literally starving. So are the seabirds; those who depend on the forage fish to feed themselves and their hatchlings are failing to reproduce, to rear the hatchlings, and rookeries are being abandoned. Both east and west coasts are experiencing famine in their waters.