For 151 years, Canada—home to the longest shoreline in the world (151,019 miles) and some of the world’s largest riverine systems—managed its fisheries under the same legislation. That changed June 21, when an amended Fisheries Act became law, bringing Canadian fisheries managementinto the 21st century in an effort to rebuild depleted fish species, incorporate Indigenous knowledge, and improve and modernize fisheries management.
To learn more about how this legislation will affect Canada’s ocean ecosystem and economy, Peter Baker, who directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ work to conserve marine life in New England and Atlantic Canada, spoke with Katie Schleit, senior fisheries adviser of Oceans North, a Canada-based conservation organization. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: Why are these amendments to the Fisheries Act important?
A: These amendments restore habitat protections that were removed from the act in 2012—a move that made it easier for industrial activities to occur in fish habitat. The amended act now requires that government use modern, best management practices for fisheries. It enshrines the precautionary approach and the ecosystem approach and mandates rebuilding plans for stocks that are at a critically low level.
Q: What changes will people see on the water?
A: One of the important pieces is fisheries habitat restoration. We hope to see more government scrutiny of industrial and other activities that degrade fish habitat, and more environmental impact assessments of those activities. Secondly, we hope to see fish stock recovery as the government has to make fisheries rebuilding plans. Currently, a lot of our fish stocks are at critically low levels, and having these rebuilding plans is a first step in making sure that we can have more fish available to the Canadian public.
Q: Will the new law help small fishermen? Small businesses?
A: It will help both in Atlantic Canada. Another big piece to the Fisheries Act is that it sets into law a policy for owner-operator fishermen preventing corporate control of licenses and the vertical integration of fish companies. Now vessel owners will operate the ship and control the licenses, which translates to coastal communities that can protect their rights and access to fish.
In Atlantic Canada, there are about 10,000 independent fishermen, and this act protects their access to licenses and prevents ownership by people who aren’t on the water, who don't live in the community, from owning and operating fishing licenses.
Q: Will the amendments help rebuild fish stocks, especially in Atlantic Canada, where a large number of species are depleted?
A: We certainly hope so. In the face of climate change and other pressures, having major rebuilding plans is important, because climate change is here and having impacts. We're about 28 years after the collapse of northern cod, and there's still no building plan for the stock, which remains critically low. The new legal mandate for rebuilding plans allows us to set more on the path to rebuilding some of these species.
There are 47 critically low stocks in Canada and 20 in Atlantic Canada. A lot of action is needed to make sure that these species can rebuild.
Q: How do the amendments address Indigenous knowledge, and why is that important to the future of Canada's fishing industry?
A: The act acknowledges Indigenous people’s constitutional rights and their historical rights to fish and includes consideration of Indigenous knowledge in policy that is separate from other scientific knowledge. Part of Canada’s path toward reconciliation is the undoing of more than 150 years of colonial management, but more needs to be done. Specifically, work to ensure that the Fisheries Act meets the requirements under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Q: We hear a lot about fish species moving north due to warming waters. How should Canadian and U.S. managers work together to manage species that we share on the East Coast?
A:It's increasingly important that Canada and the U.S. share science around the health of fish stocks and the impacts of climate change. Also, decision-makers should think about how much fish is being removed from both countries’ waters when they're setting policy for their country. That will be better for everyone than taking a “your fish and my fish” approach.
Q: What are the next steps?
A: The next step is the development of various regulations. For example, we expect that regulations will require timelines for the development of rebuilding plans and will establish how long it should take for fisheries to be rebuilt.
Q: How should these regulations be enacted? And what do you think the future of Atlantic Canada's fish species could be?
A: Hopefully we'll see some growth in the stocks that are at dangerously low levels, which will mean more fish available for Canadians, the fishing industry, recreational fishers, and the ecosystem that relies on these species. We are in a challenging time, with many of these stocks at such low levels that there are questions about whether these species can get back to the levels they were in the past.
There's also increasing threats from climate change. But again, having a mandate to examine the ecosystem approach and the precautionary approach should mean that decisions about fisheries don't occur in isolation. Fish are vital to the health of the broader ecosystem, and the Minister needs to consider that when setting catch limits for individual species.
Q: How much good can one country do by improving its policies to better conserve wild fish populations?
A: Having a modernized act that's in line with best management practice is good for the country, its fish stocks, and the people. The Fisheries Act states that fish are managed for the public good. Not one industry or any individual owns them.
There is only so much one country can do—so many fisheries issues require global solutions—but having domestic laws that hold the government to account will be helpful. We've seen that with the U.S. Magnuson-Stevens Act—a domestic law benefiting the U.S. position in terms of fisheries on a global scale. Canada having a strong domestic law is going to help the country be a stronger international player.
Q: Anything you would like to add?
A: This is a historical moment for Canada and for fisheries management. Let's hope that moving forward, the right decisions are being made and that the regulations will allow the kind of management decisions that our fish stocks need.