III. Some current and future issues
The federal fisheries department sometimes speaks of a "fishery of the
future" marked by environmental sustainability, economic viability,
international competitiveness, a fleet balanced with the resource, and
a greater role for participants in making decisions. These goals are
broadly similar to those of the more elaborate policy statements in the
1970s and early 1980s.
Despite policy statements then and later, there remain many situations
with no clear guiding principles. This is especially the case with regard
to allocations. Everybody has his own ideas, argued all the more strongly
in the absence of an agreed public-policy framework.
DFO currently has an Atlantic Fisheries Policy Review in process, with
public consultations taking place during 2001. The AFPR hopes to set
some guiding principles for fisheries management.
One can group the many aspects of fisheries management under three broad
headings: understanding the resource; providing basic conservation and
protection; and using the fish in the best way. Each subject area faces
its own questions; and each affects all the others.
IIIa. Understanding the resource
Though university-based research has increased, DFO's own scientists and
technicians remain the chief biological and environmental investigators
in Canada. Over a thousand scientific and related staff study the fish
and oceans directly, with hundreds more working on habitat and
environmental science. Researchers study the life history and migrations
of fish; and, particularly for finfish, they assess and forecast stocks.
Conservation was already a key issue before the codfish collapse; but
until then, most people thought the situation was more or less under
control. Since the crash, conservation has loomed larger in government
and industry consciousness. Recommendations of the Fisheries Resource
Conservation Council have kept a tight lid on quotas.
DFO scientists and fisheries managers now clearly place conservation as
their core mandate. They take a cautious approach (indeed, the Oceans
Act of 1997 explicitly calls for a precautionary approach erring on the
side of caution). Despite government-wide funding cutbacks in the 1990s,
scientists have made some improvements in their techniques and data, and
they now spell out more explicitly the degree of risk in different levels
Among the broader public, many environmentalists take a hard line on
conservation, stressing preservation. The fishing industry by contrast
stresses practical use, and tends to give the benefit of the doubt to the
fishery. DFO tends to take a balanced line, with the attitude that
conservation comes first, but one cannot avoid all risks to all stocks
and species. A reasonable approach can still foster sustainability and
Researchers now try to involve the fishing industry more closely in
science, with good results in some instances. In particular, smaller,
more homogenous, and better-off fisheries, such as offshore scallops
and Gulf of St. Lawrence snow crab, often co-operate in gathering data.
Fishermen's representatives now routinely attend scientific assessment
meetings; and the Fisheries Resource Conservation Council holds public
meetings on their recommendations.
The stock assessment system:
For finfish such as cod and herring, assessments rely heavily on catch
statistics collected by fisheries management. In addition, research
vessels do systematic surveys, documenting fish abundance with acoustic
soundings and with sample trawls.
Scientists form an idea of the abundance of particular fish year-classes,
then add them up to get a total picture. This system is much more accurate
for the older year-classes, which have a longer history recorded in catch
statistics. For younger year-classes, researchers must make educated
assumptions. Scientists today tend to say that even for the best-understood
stocks, their assessments of biomass size could be out 25 or 30 per cent.
Researchers face many handicaps in assessing and forecasting finfish
stocks. They are unable to predict "recruitment" -- that is, the survival
of spawned fish and the entry of young into the fishable stock. And
assessments and forecasts have sometimes suffered from statistical defects
stemming from unreported dumping and discarding by fishermen, and from
misreporting and concealment of catches.
There is no comparable system of forecasting shellfish biomass, partly
because of difficulties in telling the age of the animals. Stock assessment
does take place, though in a more general way, for snow crab, scallops, and
to some degree, shrimp. Quotas often apply for these fisheries in different
areas, but not for inshore lobsters.
The groundfish scarcity:
While cautious fishing has resumed on some groundfish stocks, the moratorium
continues on northern cod, which was the biggest stock of all. Scientific
thinking has moved towards a consensus that overfishing caused the crash,
aided by environmental factors. (Indeed, the abundance and robustness of
some fish stocks declined even where there was no fishery.)
It appears that fishing pressure was already very heavy in the mid-1980s,
with high quotas compounded by dumping, discarding, and misreporting; but
environmental conditions then were more favourable. When they changed,
continued heavy fishing brought on the collapse. For groundfish stocks
that straddle the 200-mile zone, foreign fishing significantly increased
the pressure. But nobody has conclusively weighed all the different
factors, partly because of a lack of accurate data on what was caught.
Within Canada before the crash, industry lobbying and decisions by fishery
managers and Ministers sometimes allowed higher than recommended quotas.
DFO has also acknowledged the limitations of its assessment techniques in
the first place.
When northern cod went under moratorium in 1992, many within the fisheries
community expected a recovery within a few years, seven at most. Nine
years later, cod are still very scarce, and no one is making confident
forecasts about recovery. Some suspect that seal herds may be helping to
slow the rebuilding; others point mainly to environmental factors.
Although waters off the east coast did get colder in many areas,
environmental factors affecting the groundfish are only partly understood.
Some speculate that some form of far-reaching environmental and ecological
change -- a "regime shift" -- is taking place, which will continue to
discourage groundfish survival and stock recovery.
The shellfish boom:
Why have lobster, shrimp, and crab increased? Again the answer is
unclear. The decline in groundfish may have cut down predation; and
environmental effects seem to be at work, but it is unclear what they
are. Snow crab and shrimp may have benefitted from cooler water
temperatures in some areas; but there is no readily-apparent relation
between recent temperature changes and lobster abundance.
The Fisheries Resource Conservation Council has warned of the fishing
pressure on lobster in particular, most of which get caught before they
reproduce. DFO has recently undertaken conservation measures to encourage
more egg production. Cyclical declines are likely in crab and shrimp.
That being said, shellfish have often confounded scientific expectations.
Other conservation issues:
Although most conservation questions relate back to numbers caught, size
and age at first capture, or environment, there are many variations in
the approach. Some suggest that besides the usual regulations, government
should outlaw the most destructive fishing methods and support the least
harmful fishing gear.
DFO has taken some measures to encourage selective and passive fishing
gear. But the department generally takes the attitude that almost any
gear type can be destructive if used improperly, and conservationist if
used properly. Some gear types are the only way to catch fish in certain
Fish depend on healthy habitat, and the Fisheries Act has strong
environmental powers. DFO must constantly deal with such issues as dams,
road and housing construction, and offshore oil and mineral exploration.
Marine Protected Areas have recently drawn attention. The Oceans Act
provides authority for these. DFO has set up one, and is looking at
others. Although they can be a help, the effectiveness of MPAs still
depends on what happens around them; and many species are highly migratory.
The idea of taking an "eco-system approach" has also become popular.
But scientists are only beginning to give this phrase real meaning,
because the eco-system is so complex.
Some urge new efforts to build a "conservation ethic" among resource users.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has rarely undertaken major public
campaigns for conservation. The department does however encourage
development and use of selective fishing gear. It gives awards and some
publicity for responsible fishing. Industry and government together have
worked out a Code of Conduct for Responsible Fishing. The question remains
whether this is enough.
Overall, can the fishing industry and other Canadians count on reliable
stocks of fish in the future? Although there has been progress in science
and management effectiveness, industry sharing of responsibility, and
conservation consciousness, risks remain. Even the best system offers no
guarantee against ecological factors.
Prospects will be better if and when the east coast has a fleet with
fishing capacity appropriate to the resource (at the moment, overcapacity
remains prevalent despite some fleet reduction), and if the amount of fish
caught and the size at capture are restrained within reasonable limits.
IIIb. Providing basic conservation and protection
The Fisheries Act and other legislation give the federal Minister of
Fisheries and Oceans authority to control who can fish, when, where, how,
for what, and how much. Federal regulations also govern the handling of
fish. The provinces licence plants and control most other aspects of
DFO enforces Atlantic fishery regulations through a corps of several
hundred Fishery Officers, working on land and in patrol craft large and
small. They enforce thousands of different regulations. In addition,
many fisheries have annual, detailed fishing plans set by policy; ideally,
these come about through extensive consultations with industry and other
The common property fishery has always required a high degree of policing.
Enforcement expenditures are substantial, even after government cutbacks
in the 1990s. The law already provides for significant fines (although
judges don't always apply them), and the Minister can withdraw licences.
Yet compliance remains an obvious problem, though of undetermined
magnitude. Certain fleets are said to have exceeded their quotas
twice over during the 1980s and 1990s. The high fishing power of today's
vessels makes rule-breaking more dangerous than ever for conservation.
Why don't fishermen obey the rules out of self-interest in conservation?
Despite individual quotas in many fisheries, the fishery remains a common
property. Many fishermen take the attitude that a fish in the net today
is worth two in the future.
That being said, compliance has greatly improved in the lobster fishery
in recent years, and the groundfish collapse brought some increase in
Some people declare that individual quotas have improved self-enforcement
in certain groups. Others say that particularly for groundfish, the
subdivision of Total Allowable Catches into thousands of individual quotas
made enforcement that much more difficult. (To offset that tendency, the
department imposed fishermen-funded Dockside Monitoring Programmes in most
Canada and other states have vessels patrolling the waters outside the
200-mile zone. It is the responsibility of the flag state to punish
infractions. This system has posed grave difficulties, with some foreign
fleets behaving irresponsibly in the 1980s and 1990s. Canada has pushed
for a United Nations Fish Agreement, now near ratification, which will to
a degree increase coastal state enforcement power.
IIIc. Using the fish
Who should benefit from the fish, and how? This riddle came strongly to
the fore after management became more interventionist in the 1970s. Today
it involves such factors as:
- Economic and social goals
- Allocation and access
- Quality and marketing
- Aboriginal fisheries
- Governance of the fishery
Each of these is examined below.
Economic and social goals:
The 1976 Policy for Canada's Commercial Fisheries made various statements
about optimum benefits for Canadian society, and the Minister of the day,
the Hon. Roméo LeBlanc, said he favoured inshore fishermen and their
In practice, however, the system of quotas, zones, and licences which came
into place largely enshrined the existing shares of the fishery, and made
no major redistribution to the inshore or other sectors. Policy-makers
hoped that increasing abundance, limiting the number of boats, improving
quality and marketing, and giving fishermen more power would improve the
situation for all.
Following the corporate crisis in the early 1980s, the federal Task Force
on Atlantic Fisheries said that policy priorities should be: first,
economic viability; second, maximum employment; and third, Canadianization.
Under the heading of viability, the Task Force looked forward to the
closing or consolidation of some sizeable plants. But communities waged
major battles against closure, and the "restructured" companies kept
operating most plants until the groundfish collapse of the early 1990s.
Through the 1980s and 1990s, proponents argued about the merits of what
came to be called the "social" versus the "economic" fisheries (the terms
were often misleading).
Broadly speaking, larger companies operating larger vessels argued for:
- More corporate freedom of operation, with more secure access to the
- An end to the "owner-operator" rule, the 1970s policy which prevented
larger companies from taking over independent boats. The corporate sector
(processing companies and some other vessel-owning companies) argued that
they should be allowed to acquire those licences. If independent fishermen
could buy processing plants, why couldn't plants take over independent
boats? (In some areas, corporations have got around the owner-operator
rule through other means.)
- More use of quasi-property rights. Companies favoured increased use
of transferrable quotas, by which they could gain more secure access to the
resource. Transferrable quotas would foster a more entrepreneurial system,
encourage efficiency, enable better "fishing to market," enable a less
seasonal fishery, and encourage a sense of resource ownership which would
- An end to the "social" fishery, whose attributes included frequent
subsidies or make-work programmes, high use of Unemployment Insurance, and
By contrast, smaller-boat fishermen and some community representatives
typically argued that:
- Smaller and midshore boats could be equally cost-effective, even if
more seasonal; and seasonality was not the worst of problems.
- These fleet sectors, given the necessary allocations, could provide
as much processing employment as the larger operators, and more fishing
- Fishing communities were the economic, social, and cultural foundation
of the Atlantic coast; government should prevent companies from closing
down major plants in such a way as to devastate communities.
- The owner-operator rule remained necessary on both economic and social
- Individual quotas (or "Enterprise Allocations") held by large
corporations amounted to the privatization of a common-property resource.
These conflicting trends of thought remain, but the rhetoric has cooled
somewhat in recent years. In the groundfish fishery, usually the most
contentious, many independent fishermen have themselves adopted individual
quotas. And the major plants have mostly closed.
Provincial governments today seem less inclined, as some once were, to
encourage new or expanded fish plants as a means to employment. The
codfish collapse made it more evident than ever that the fishery was
finite and could never support everybody. Most parties now share the
view that the fishery can no longer be, as it once was, the employer of
last resort ("I can always go fishing").
Allocations and access:
Arguments over economic and social benefits generally crystallize around
issues of who gets the fish, through licences and quotas. When dealing
with access and allocations, DFO and its advisory bodies consider a list
of factors including physical adjacency to the resource, historic shares,
and several others. But the department sets no specific weight on the
different elements. Thus, one can argue any allocation issue from all
Unresolved issues often revert to ministerial level. The ultimate decision,
no matter how equitably it comes out, may raise charges of undue lobbying
or "politics." One hears frequent cries to "depoliticize the fishery."
DFO has occasionally put forward the idea of some kind of arm's length
agency to deal with access and allocation, according to a firmer set of
rules. But there is no consensus on the matter. The Atlantic Fisheries
Policy Review may address the issue.
Quality and marketing:
DFO for many years carried out an active fish inspection programme to
ensure safe products and encourage higher values. The Canadian Food
Inspection Agency now does similar work. DFO in the 1980s called for
widescale systems to grade products and improve marketing. Although this
concept faded, the technical discussions involved, industry-based training,
the big-company restructuring, and market factors produced significant
improvement in both quality and marketing.
In 1992 the Supreme Court of Canada's "Sparrow" decision opened the way
for more Aboriginal participation in fisheries for food, social, and
ceremonial purposes. DFO responded with an Aboriginal Fisheries Strategy
to foster greater participation in an orderly manner. Under an Aboriginal
Guardian programme, Native people in many areas helped to police the
fishery. Some joint scientific or enhancement work took place; and the
department assisted Native persons in entering the commercial fishery.
Matters appeared fairly stable in most areas.
On September 17, 1999, a Supreme Court of Canada decision challenged the
Maritime and Quebec fisheries profoundly. The effect of the "Marshall"
decision was that the Mi'kmaq, Maliseet, and Passamaquoddy peoples had a
treaty right to fish commercially. This brought heated claims and
counterclaims between Aboriginal representatives and commercial fishermen,
complete with clashes on the water.
A November 17, 1999 clarification by the Supreme Court spelled out more
clearly that the federal government had the power to regulate the
treaty-based fishery as it did others, within reasonable limits.
Throughout 2000 the federal fisheries department negotiated interim fishing
agreements with 30 of the 34 First Nations affected. These agreements
provided: access to boats, licences, and quotas; training; and other aid
towards a successful fishery. Many millions of dollars went to compensate
some 200 traditional commercial fishermen who chose to retire their licences
voluntarily, making them available for Aboriginal people.
Native representatives worked with DFO towards a training programme which
would acquaint more Aboriginal people with present-day fishing, and help
them develop their own trainers or "mentors." DFO also looked towards
greater Aboriginal participation in the advisory committee system. And
the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs was to lead a wider,
long-term process to address the situation.
Most Marshall bands appeared reasonably satisfied with progress to date,
though wanting more. But two bands, Indian Brook and Burnt Church,
disputed federal regulation and claimed their own right to manage
fisheries. This brought on renewed public clashes. The court decision
and the public conflicts stirred reaction elsewhere in Canada, and
kindled new fishing ambitions among some bands unaffected by the Marshall
The Marshall bands themselves number more than 25,000 people, counting
every person of every age. A year after the September, 1999 Supreme Court
decision, Aboriginal representatives said they had already gained new
employment for more than 500 people in fishing or related work. Their
expectations remain high for the future.
Some observers say it may become more difficult to find existing fishermen
willing to retire their licences. And few expect that the fishery, with
its own chequered history, will by itself solve the economic problems of
Maritime bands, which suffer the worst unemployment rates in the country.
The year 2001 may clarify the situation, as federal, Aboriginal, and in
some cases provincial representatives approach longer-term issues. These
include new variants on such old questions as: how many people can the
fishery reasonably support; who has first claim on the fish; and who will
make the decisions.
Larger corporations traditionally influenced much policy and management;
and so did fishermen, but in an ad hoc, less organized way. Their voice
became stronger in the 1970s. The department set up industry advisory
committees for every significant fishery, and also encouraged fishermen
to strengthen existing organizations or build new ones.
Advisory committees typically represent fishermen and processors, and often
Native representatives and other parties. They have taken strong root.
Although DFO retains the final decision-making authority, some committees
take a very strong role in running the fishery, and have developed almost
a veto power over government decisions.
But some fisheries advisory bodies still find it difficult to debate their
way to a decision, especially when different regions or gear types are
involved. Lack of shared information and understanding sometimes
complicates matters. Even relatively small matters are sometimes referred
to DFO for decision.
Some smaller fishermen's organizations have had less administrative
capacity than they would like, and they can encounter their own problems
in dealing with members. In Newfoundland, the most heavily organized
province, the federal and provincial governments and the fishermen's union
have co-operated in a "professionalization" programme which requires new
entrants to take training, and which certifies professional fishermen.
Quebec is moving in the same direction, and so to some degree is the
southern Gulf of St. Lawrence. Fishermen in southwest Nova Scotia and
the Bay of Fundy, traditionally among the best off, have been stand-offish
Despite various problems, the approach focussing on consultation and
"co-management" has come a long way. Co-management has progressed
particularly in more homogeneous, well-off fisheries such as northern
shrimp, crab, and offshore scallops. But in many other fisheries as
well, industry has gained more power through local management boards or
joint project agreements.
Although some people in the industry favour a strong central authority
and a no-nonsense DFO approach, most want still more consultation and
co-management. A few suggest expanding from specific fisheries to
DFO itself encourages industry to take a bigger role in management. In
the 1990s the department encouraged "partnering," which would have entailed
legislative changes to make possible more legally-binding arrangements with
fishermen. Industry suspicions and fear of down-loading responsibilities
side-tracked this initiative. The same fate overtook government proposals
for some form of board, at arm's length from government, which would deal
with controversial questions of quotas and allocations.
Despite these bumps, incremental progress has continued. The management
system, whatever its challenges, has a higher degree of industry
responsibility than ever before.