Fisherman on fisheries boat in Canada
Jake Rice, Chief Scientist Emeritus, Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada
Jake Rice
Chief Scientist Emeritus - Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Canada’s Marine Economy Must Be Sustainable, Climate Resilient and Diversified

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Takeaways

  1. We must bring all stakeholders in the marine economy together for dialogue in order for the most feasible and inclusive decisions about marine sustainability and economic growth to be made.
  2. Steps must be taken now to ensure commitment to sustainable practices and to combat the effects of climate change. Considering the large investments that have to be made into the marine economy, ensuring the longevity of the ocean’s natural resources is crucial to the continued viability and competitiveness of Canada’s marine economy.
  3. Aquaculture represents a significant opportunity to diversify our marine economy, generate value for coastal communities, and ensure food security.

Action

Many things we are now doing to improve the sustainability of Canada’s natural resources are locking us into systems that will not be flexible in responding to climate change. We must reopen the dialogue on how to ensure the sustainable use of our resources while being nimble in responding to the pressures of climate change because climate change is too eminent and too swiftly changing to ignore.


How has the fisheries industry been impacted by COVID-19 and what would you like to see, and from who, to help it through the recovery?

The first point to make is that being based in Ottawa and not travelling during the COVID-19 pandemic, I do not have opportunities to observe first-hand what is happening on the water, docks and processing plants, or to speak directly with fishers and processors.

I see the same media coverage as any member of the public, and of course pay attention to what I see, but the media can be its own filter—intentionally or not—on any story it covers. Consequently, a lot of my answer is based on logical inference from experience, not direct information about what the industry is actually experiencing and how it is responding.

“I can’t think of any major aspect of either harvesting or processing that is amenable to social distancing.”

I can’t think of any major aspect of either harvesting or processing that is amenable to social distancing. Not only are vessels not designed to have a lot of space for each crew member to work in isolation from the other crew members, there are many tasks that are inherently not one-person shows, and there would be real safety issues were crews to work in strict isolation. The same can be said for operations within processing plants—although I am less familiar with details of operations within plants.

A third impact is the end marketing. I frequent the fresh fish counter of my main food store every single week, and I readily pay a modest premium for high quality and very fresh fish right here in Ottawa. I get to talk to a very knowledgeable fish-cutter at the counter about what’s special that week, get custom cuts and the like. Come COVID-19, the counter is closed because there is too much handling of product and too much close contact. There is still fish in Styrofoam backings wrapped in layers of plastic, but supplies are very limited, and turnover is slow, so freshness is rare.

So, what is affected by COVID-19? Catching, processes and consumption. The fisheries sector is unquestionably hit as hard as any sector in the food supply chain and harder than most because of both the incremental safety concerns of social distancing at sea and the reality that people might be happy with “aged beef” but an “aged cod fillet” is a very different story.

“The fisheries sector is unquestionably hit as hard as any sector in the food supply chain and harder than most because of both the incremental safety concerns of social distancing at sea and the reality that people might be happy with “aged beef” but an “aged cod fillet” is a very different story.”

Whose responsibility is it to help the industry through these challenges? Local, provincial and federal levels of government can all contribute. The private sector, in theory, could as well. But the entire food industry is being challenged in many ways, and that is particularly true for the fishing sector, which never had a lot of wealth to sandbag for rainy days. The responsibility falls on the various levels of government. And in this pandemic, any resources available for local communities and provinces to spend on COVID-19 related costs are being swallowed up by healthcare demands and the disruptions of education systems. The federal government is in the picture almost immediately—particularly given how much it is doing to finance, design and implement pandemic responses to other industries that have always had a provincial presence as well.


What is your perspective on the economic importance of Canada’s fishery industry, both for the communities that directly depend on it and for our overall economy?

The most recent official statistics put the commercial value of Canada’s fisheries industry at around $7 billion dollars, which is a noteworthy amount. In terms of the industry’s impact in terms of national employment, the official figures are around 45,000 Canadian jobs. But these are only the people directly involved in fishing. If we consider multiplication factors in terms of overall employment, livelihoods, and households supported we would reach a number much larger than 45,000. It’s crucial to note that in the regions of Canada where those fishing-related jobs are located, there are not many other alternative source of employment or income that people can pursue. The regional dependency on the sector is much larger than those numbers indicate. 45,000 out of 30 million Canadians looks like a small number, but to important parts of Canada’s coasts, this is an important industry.

I had the pleasure of spending 15 years in Newfoundland at the beginning of my professional career. I often traveled around the island into local communities and the culture of these communities is strong — they can visit several generations of their ancestors in the village graveyard, and you can see in their music and in the legends they tell that the stories about their ancestors from Ireland, Scotland, France and other parts of Europe live on.

Indigenous people are also major players in some fisheries and Canada is working hard to make sure that they regain some fishing opportunities. Fishing has been with their culture, not for a few generations, but for several centuries and even millennia.


How important is it to balance the continued development and growth of our fishery industry with a goal to protect and conserve the resource?

There is a lot of money that goes into investing in a fishing business. This goes beyond just the millions of dollars spent on fishing vessels. There are also processing plants that require millions of dollars in order meet today’s standards for health and the market demands for product quality.

As such, processing plants will want to be sure that they have a long-term supply of high-quality fish in order for the investment to make sense. A long-term, constant catch also means stable employment and supply.

You can only have a long career as a fisherman if the fish stocks you’re harvesting are healthy and sustainable. There are well-demonstrated sustainable ways to harvest fish and many other resources. For instance, the marine mammals of our Indigenous communities have always been considered an important part of their food supply, and they have been harvested very sustainably for millennia.

“You can only have a long career as a fisherman if the fish stocks you’re harvesting are healthy and sustainable.”

There are economically viable ways to fish that do not deplete resources, have negative consequences for other species, and damage the seabed. We know how to do all these things and it is just a matter of making sure the incentives and management regulations are encouraged.

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What are some of the things that require the most immediate attention in terms of fishery-related policies and strategy changes in Canada?

The amendments made to the Fisheries Act earlier this year fixed two or three glaring issues by requiring pre-identified limits for how badly depleted a fish stock could be before closing off exploitation of it. The Act also required rebuilding targets: if a stock was depleted, you actually had to make a commitment to where you wanted to get it back to. Before, those were all open for negotiation. There was always room to fish a little more and delay the recovery of a stock by a few more years.

The challenge we face now is the fact that climate change is affecting the productivity of our oceans. That means that it will be hard to live up to the standards set by historical data on, for example, how big a fish population was 40 years ago. We cannot assume that every fish species’ population can be restored to a level of healthiness similar to what it was in 1960 now that we face challenges related to climate change.

“We cannot assume that every fish species’ population can be restored to a level of healthiness similar to what it was in 1960 now that we face challenges related to climate change.”

Climate change means water temperatures are getting warmer. As such, fish are changing their geographical distributions. The acidification of the ocean is also putting shellfish at risk. We need to be able to make our targets meaningful but responsive to the fact that the environment is not sitting still. Fishing is not the only pressure on these marine ecosystems and climate change is increasingly becoming a pressure that we have to accommodate and adapt to.


What is technology’s role in providing solutions to some of these problems and to ensuring food security?

Technology, particularly in the large-scale, fishing sector, is a double-edged sword. It can make every problem worse and it can solve most problems. If the problem is overcapacity, where there is way too much fishing power for the resource to support, technology can worsen that imbalance by making fishing power ever stronger.

Inversely, fisheries can be equipped with precision fishing technology, using echo sounders to identify a general group and map the seabed so that fisheries can identify which areas of the seabed not to disturb. The industry is adopting technologies that help reduce the loss of seabirds, turtles and other bycatch.

I worked with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and UN Development Programme on the issue of food security in the age of climate change and found that in some of the least economically developed parts of the world, fish represent a large proportion of the protein supply. Most of these people are located in regions that are suffering some of the worst effects of climate change in terms of warming waters, coral bleaching and drier summers. Their crops are also suffering. Their need for fish is escalating, and aquaculture technology is serving that need.

Just like with wild capture fisheries, there are bad practices that can be part of aquaculture, but none of them have to be part of aquaculture. If we choose to devote a part of the coast to aquaculture, it is going to change the landscape. It will be hard to fit other activities into the same coastline embayment, but we will be able to feed a lot of people. Through the use of a limited space, we can create employment and we can do so in ways that are environmentally sustainable.

“I do not think we have any choice about the fact that meeting future food security demands is going to require aquaculture.”

I do not think we have any choice about the fact that meeting future food security demands is going to require aquaculture. It is simply a matter of honing in on the practices that are sustainable, making sure they are economically feasible, and implementing the regulatory framework properly.


Looking at the fishery policies and practices across multiple coasts all over the country, are you discouraged and scared?

Was I scared? Yes. Am I discouraged? No. I still feel encouraged because I do believe fisheries can be made sustainable. We know how to do it and the incentive structures and regulatory frameworks promoting sustainable fisheries are getting more and more solid. The same can be said for aquaculture.

What scared me was that I did not realize until I was on the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change how much larger and more quickly materializing the impacts of climate change are on the ocean. These changes are going to challenge the tools that we have traditionally found to work well to sustain our fish stocks, including spatial conservation measures such as marine protected areas (MPAs). We will need to rethink most of the tools we use and we do not have a lot of time to get it right. On the other hand, the global support for sustainability is getting much, much stronger and that is making developing and implementing strong policies easier.

“I do believe fisheries can be made sustainable. We know how to do it and the incentive structures and regulatory frameworks promoting sustainable fisheries are getting more and more solid. The same can be said for aquaculture.”

Nowadays, we are seeing more and more voices come together to present a range of perspectives talking through the issues. The common foundation on which to move policy ahead should be by bringing Indigenous knowledge, experience from local communities, and scientists together to develop a program that will work.

Before this, there was disconnect between scientists and the rest of the community — their conversations were happening separately. It is important to bring those discussions together. It means it often takes longer to get to a decision, but it is a decision with a higher compliance level as the people whose lives are affected by the decision actually participated in how the decision was made.

If we get this right, I see the Canadian marine economy becoming more globally competitive in 10 years’ time. We must keep trying to diversify the ways that our coasts provide employment and wealth for Canada. We use our oceans and coasts for relatively few purposes now.

“The common foundation on which to move policy ahead should be by bringing Indigenous knowledge, experience from local communities, and scientists together to develop a program that will work.”

This does not mean that fishing will become less important. It will still be an important employer, and will remain the backbone of some regions of Canada, but I think we will see a more diversified ocean economy. These industries do not exist yet, so we have a small window of time to figure out these opportunities and how to tap into them in a sustainable manner.