Lifelines: Canada's East Coast Fisheries

Key issues in Atlantic fishery management

by Joseph Gough, M.A.


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 of fishing.

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 bio-diversity.

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 areas.

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 processing.

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 interested parties.

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 conservation consciousness.

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 Atlantic fisheries.)

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 communities.

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 resource.
  • 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 help conservation.
  • An end to the "social" fishery, whose attributes included frequent subsidies or make-work programmes, high use of Unemployment Insurance, and lower efficiency.

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 employment.
  • 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 grounds.
  • 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 directions.

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.

Aboriginal fisheries:

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 decision.

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 regarding professionalization.

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 broader-scale councils.

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.

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