HALIFAX — A new report says Canadian fisheries management has "fallen short" over the last five years, with nearly one in five fish stocks still "critically depleted."
More than 80 per cent of the critically depleted stocks lack rebuilding plans to restore them to healthy levels, says the fifth annual audit report released Tuesday by Oceana Canada, an independent charity dedicated to ocean conservation.
Robert Rangeley, the advocacy group's science director, called that percentage "extraordinarily high."
"We have a challenge in our oceans where we are not managing them effectively," Rangeley said in a recent interview. "There's no sense of urgency and we are not delivering on commitments."
Oceana Canada's audit investigated 194 Canadian fish stocks and listed 33 in critical condition and the health of 71 as uncertain.
The report said the health status of a third of the stocks remains uncertain because of insufficient data — leaving the federal Fisheries Department operating "mostly in the dark" as it makes critical decisions on fishing quotas.
Rangeley said there is another pressing issue that needs to be accounted for: a changing climate. "We have this increasing pressure of climate change and we don't know what the vulnerability of many of these stocks are to (that)," he said.
The report noted that the status of about two dozen stocks changes each year. And while species such as deepwater redfish in the Gulf of St. Lawrence have steadily improved, others, like North Coast Haida Gwaii razor clams, have steadily declined. Some species, like snow crab on the western Scotian shelf, improve one year only to decline the next.
The audit also sounded the alarm about the declining numbers of forage fish — a development it said puts entire ecosystems at risk. Forage species include bony fish, such as sardines, anchovies, mackerel, herring and capelin, as well as invertebrates like krill and shrimp.
"These essential contributors to ocean ecosystems and Canada’s ocean economy face serious threats," the report said. "Of the forage fish that are harvested commercially in Canada, there are few healthy populations — and none in Atlantic Canada."
The audit cited the critically depleted Atlantic mackerel, a forage species that provides food for other fish, marine mammals and seabirds. It also serves as bait in lucrative lobster fisheries.
The report said there are currently no monitoring or reporting requirements for the Atlantic mackerel stock, adding that it's only recently that bait harvesters in some areas have been required to submit records on landings — defined as the part of the catch that is put ashore. Those shortcomings, the audit said, limit the federal government's ability to set meaningful timelines and rebuilding targets.
Rangeley said the overfishing of forage species, which he called the "linchpins of the marine ecosystem," needs to stop, adding that more of the fish need to be left in the water.
"Those stocks will go up and down naturally," he said. "The problem that's been seen elsewhere in the world is when you keep fishing them hard and then the stocks crash and you are still fishing them — the depletion goes further down and stays down longer."
Compounding the problem is an overreliance on four commercial species groups — lobster, shrimp, snow crab and scallops represent 77 per cent of fisheries revenues in Canada.
Oceana said the Fisheries Department has yet to publish most of its promised rebuilding plans, and those that have been released fall short of global standards.
As well, accompanying regulations have not been created two years after the Fisheries Act became law. Rangeley said that's led to a management performance gap that has to be addressed immediately in order to rebuild faltering stocks.
"Some of those stocks will benefit in the near term while some are so depleted that it will take a long time," he said.
The report said the Fisheries Department has published new rebuilding plans this year for two critically depleted stocks — Atlantic mackerel and northern cod. But Oceana said the plans lack adequate timelines and targets to help the fish populations recover to healthy levels.
Meanwhile, no rebuilding plans have been developed for 26 of the 33 stocks Oceana listed as in the critical zone.
Oceana, however, said it sees some progress regarding greater transparency, substantial new investments in science, new national standards for monitoring stocks and a modernized Fisheries Act.
But the group says Canada needs to "speed up" the implementation of modern, proven fisheries management measures.
"The urgency is before us now," Rangeley said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 16, 2021.
Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press