Independent media needs you. Join the Tyee.

The Hook: Political news, freshly caught

Report says science, not minister should rule Canada's fisheries

VANCOUVER -- Fisheries management in Canada places too much discretion in the hands of the federal minister, conferring "czar-like" powers that have meant the country has lagged far behind others in protecting its oceans, says a study by an expert panel of some of Canada's most distinguished scientists.

The Royal Society of Canada report concludes Canada is failing to live up to international and domestic obligations outlined in UN conventions it has signed as well as laws it has passed. That's largely because Canada has declined to adopt science-based targets for protecting fisheries in favour of leaving it up to successive ministers to make decisions, say the authors of the report.

"There's basically no statue in Canada that dictates what the minister of Fisheries and Oceans must do if a certain set of circumstances arises," said Jeffrey Hutchings, a marine conservation scientist at Dalhousie University and chairman of the panel.

He noted protection of marine bio-diversity in Canada partly falls under the Fisheries Act, a piece of legislation written in 1868 when climate change and overfishing weren't concerns.

"At that time, ministers were, in effect, like czars," Hutchings said. "They had a lot of discretionary power, which the minister of Fisheries and Oceans retains to this day."

As an example, the panel noted the Atlantic cod fishery collapsed 20 years ago, devastating coastal communities in Newfoundland and elsewhere. Since then, the fishery has been closed, except for intermittent re-openings.

"But the re-openings took place at the discretion of the minister. They were not based on science, they were not based on an overall recovery plan consistent with our national and international obligations," Hutchings said.

The panel report is entitled "Sustaining Canada's Marine Biodiversity: Responding to the Challenges Posed by Climate Change, Fisheries and Aquaculture." Panel members are professors from universities on Canada's East and West Coasts, as well as a Laval University researcher, one from Washington State and one from England. The Royal Society is Canada's senior body of Canadian scholars, artists and scientists.

A spokesman for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans said no one was available to comment on the report.

Hutchings said Canada signed the UN Fish Stocks Agreement in 1995 which pledged to follow the so-called "precautionary approach" to fisheries management. That means setting clear, science-based targets on when a fish population is safe to harvest or when fishing should be stopped.

"In other words, you have a plan," said Hutchings. "A plan for numbers and targets and limits and everybody knows what the plan is."

The U.S., Australia, and New Zealand have such targets and so do parts of Europe. Canada has almost none, including none for northern cod.

In contrast, the United States passed the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act in 1996 which requires impact assessments for individual fish stocks. For those that are depleted, it requires a rebuilding plan be put in place within two years. And there is a legislated requirement that scientific advice be followed.

In Canada, fisheries management plans are developed under guidelines, not legislation, and there are no hard targets, the panel said.

"If we had recovery targets and what are called harvest-controlled rules — rules for fishing and recovery timelines — then that would increase the transparency and accountability of the minister," Hutchings said. "If you have no plan, you cannot really be held accountable."

Canada will also almost certainly fail to meet its obligations for the 1992 UN Convention on Biological Diversity, which commits Canada to protecting areas that encompass 10 per cent of its oceans by 2020. So far, Canada has about 800 protected areas, but they cover less than .5 per cent of its ocean.

"In all likelihood, we won't make it," Hutchings said.

For more from the Canadian Press scroll down The Tyee's main page or click here.

Find more in:

What have we missed? What do you think? We want to know. Comment below. Keep in mind:


  • Verify facts, debunk rumours
  • Add context and background
  • Spot typos and logical fallacies
  • Highlight reporting blind spots
  • Ignore trolls
  • Treat all with respect and curiosity
  • Connect with each other

Do not:

  • Use sexist, classist, racist or homophobic language
  • Libel or defame
  • Bully or troll
  • Troll patrol. Instead, flag suspect activity.
comments powered by Disqus