Top marine scientists are denouncing Canada’s management of fish stocks as a commercially driven approach threatening to wipe out species at risk.
The attack comes from two senior members of the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) — the body mandated by federal law to advise the government on species at risk.
They note the federal government has consistently refused to list several endangered fish under the Species at Risk Act, which would make their fishing or trade illegal. They include Atlantic cod, cusk and porbeagle shark.
During the act’s 10-year history, “there has not been a commercially exploited fish — assessed as endangered or threatened — that has been included on that list,” says Jeffrey Hutchings, a biology professor at Dalhousie University and member and former chair of COSEWIC.
Commercial interests always trump ecological ones, Hutchings charges. A stark example, he insists, is the porbeagle shark, whose population has declined by at least 85 per cent since the 1960s. It was assessed by COSEWIC as endangered in 2004. The government refused to list it as a species at risk because a handful of Canadians were fishing it.
Today, a dozen fishermen have licences to fish porbeagle in the Atlantic. No one used the licence to fish them this year and only one fisherman did so in each of the last two years. Yet Canada, which fishes more porbeagle than any other country, was roundly criticized last month for blocking a European proposal at an international conference that would have ended porbeagle fishing.
“Our (international) reputation is very poor,” says Alan Sinclair, a COSEWIC expert on fish populations who retired from the federal Department of Fisheries and oceans three years ago.
“We used to be a leader internationally in conservation and protecting our fish resources back in the 1970s and ’80s,” he adds. “Now people look at us and I’m sure they shake their heads and wonder what the heck is going on in Canada.”
Frustration hit a boiling point when Canada pushed for an increase in the bluefin tuna fishing quota at a meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas(ICCAT) in November. At the same time back home, the government was consulting Canadians on whether to list bluefin tuna as a species at risk, a process triggered by COSEWIC’s 2011 assessment of bluefin as “endangered.”
“This risk level,” the government consultation document notes, “indicates that the species is likely to become extinct or extirpated in parts of its range unless something is done to address the threats it is facing.” (Extirpated means found in the wild somewhere, but not in Canada.)
Sinclair and Hutchings point to Canada’s tuna quota push at ICCAT to insist the federal government has already made up its mind: “They won’t list the bluefin,” Hutchings says flatly.
Listing a species under the act would oblige the federal government to set targets for recovery. It hasn’t even done that for Atlantic cod, Hutchings says, despite the collapse of the stock in the early 1990s. COSEWIC concluded certain types of Atlantic cod were threatened or endangered in 2003 and found them in even worse shape in 2010.
Also in worse shape is cusk, a slow-moving member of the Atlantic cod family. COSEWIC, which includes experts from the federal, provincial and territorial governments, described cusk as threatened in 2003. The federal government, citing scientific uncertainty, didn’t list it. In mid-December, the latest COSEWIC report predicted an even bleaker future for the fish, assessing it as endangered.
Jean-Jacques Maguire, who spent 20 years as a scientist in the fisheries department, many of them heading the research division, cautions that COSEWIC assessments “are not gospel.” Still, when it comes to setting recovery targets, Canada lags internationally.
“We’re not ahead of the game,” says Maguire, who left the department in 1996 and now works as an international fisheries consultant. “The U.S. has a considerably more strict management system.”
Faith Scattolon, regional director of Fisheries and Oceans Canada in the Maritimes, insists that Canada’s management of fish stocks is based on peer-reviewed scientific advice. Porbeagle fishing quotas have been slashed. Cusk hasn’t been commercially fished since 1999 and “bycatch” quotas — the amount fishermen can land by mistake — have been cut to 650 tonnes from 900 tonnes annually.
Scattolon headed Canada’s November delegation at ICCAT, a commission of 48 countries and the European Union. ICCAT assesses the size of the Atlantic tuna stock, projects its future health, and sets annual fishing quotas. It rejected Canada’s proposal to boost the annual bluefin quota in the western Atlantic to 2,000 tonnes from 1,750. (For the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean, the total allowable catch for 2013 was set at 13,500 tonnes.)
“We’re certainly disappointed with the approach that Canada took at this meeting,” says Amanda Nickson, director of tuna conservation for the PEW Environment Group, a nonprofit conservation group based in Washington, D.C. “Canada was out of step.”
Bluefin tuna is highly prized, especially in Japan, with international prices as high as $1,000 a kilo. In Canada, there are 777 people with bluefin fishing licences. They caught 483 tonnes in 2012 — Canada’s share of the ICCAT quota. Catches are mostly by rod and reel and restricted to one per person each year. (Seventy-eight swordfish licence holders can also keep bluefin tuna they happen to hook on long-lines.)
Even the government’s toughest critics describe Canada’s bluefin fishery as tightly controlled and monitored. The annual value of bluefin tuna caught runs from $8 million to $10 million, according to federal officials. Most of the catch is in the Gulf of the St. Lawrence and around the Atlantic provinces. The largest portion of Canada’s quota — 30 per cent — goes to fishermen in Prince Edward Island.
Michael McGeoghegan, president of the PEI Fishermen’s Association, says his group pushed the government to request a bigger bluefin quota. Tuna numbers are healthy, he says, and fishermen venture no more than 20 minutes from shore before quickly hooking one.
“There would be more money in it if we could catch more than one fish,” he says.
In its May 2011 report, COSEWIC used ICCAT numbers to put the population of mature bluefin tuna in the western Atlantic at about 65,900 – a decline of 69 per cent since the 1970s. It describes continued overfishing as the largest threat to the species and notes it’s unclear how the massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, where western bluefin spawn, will impact birthrates.
Scattolon doesn’t dispute COSEWIC’s figures. But she notes that stocks have been relatively stable since the mid-1980s. And she insists the outlook is good.
The last few years have seen a clampdown on illegal bluefin tuna fishing in the eastern Atlantic. As stocks rebuild in the east, so will those in the west because a portion of the Atlantic population mixes, Scattolon adds.
Scattolon insists the 2,000 tonnes Canada wanted to fish would have allowed the bluefin population to increase over time. ICCAT scientists don’t agree. Their assessment report in September states that fishing 2,000 tonnes a year, under the scientific scenario most favourable to Canada’s proposal, would not increase the population by 2019 — the target end date for ICCAT’s 20-year stock rebuilding program.
Predicting future bluefin populations is a guessing game. Scientists use two scenarios: the “high recruitment” one is based on a common-sense prediction — the more tunas mature enough to spawn, the more baby tunas produced. Those who embrace this scenario argue for less fishing.
The “low recruitment” scenario instead argues that environmental conditions, including limited amounts of food, restrict the number of baby tunas that survive no matter how big the spawning stock. So you may as well fish more adult tuna because leaving them to spawn won’t make a difference.
“We don’t have the data to say which hypothesis is the correct one,” says Maguire. “You go on faith.”
ICCAT will be setting up workshops with scientists and government officials to try to resolve what Scattolon calls the recruitment “conundrum.” Until then, critics say Canada should err on the side of caution.
In Canada, Hutchings doesn’t see stock management improving until Canadians become better informed about what he describes as a dire state of affairs.
“There are few if any political costs in this country to making bad ocean management decisions,” says Hutchings, who recently chaired the Royal Society of Canada’s expert panel on marine biodiversity. “If there were political costs, we wouldn’t see these types of decisions being made on an almost routine basis.”