Last week's announcement of a marine scientist hiring spree by Hunter Tootoo, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and Canadian Coast Guard, is great news for Canada's fisheries, a critical reinvestment in science capacity and a positive step toward the sustainable stewardship of our fisheries. In fact, it even has the potential to pave the way for a Trudeau government legacy: reversing the long, slow decline of Canada's fish populations and returning our oceans to health. This depends, of course, on how this welcome influx of science capacity is used.
First, the context: many of us have heard that Canada's fish were significantly depleted through overfishing, especially from the 1970s to the 90s. What's less well known; however, is that we still haven't allowed our fish populations to recover, and most of them are still in bad shape.
Making matters worse, our previous government similarly depleted Canada's once world-class fisheries science capacity and discouraged scientists from speaking about their work, eroding the collective understanding about the state of our fisheries and our ability to address a significant problem.
The tragic 99 per cent decline in the Atlantic cod in the 1980s and early 90s, which led to tens of thousands of people out of work and financial costs of more than $1 billion annually, didn't result in a cod recovery plan, and almost 25 years after a moratorium was announced, we still do not have one in place.
And it's not just cod. Today, Canada's global ranking of wild fish production has dropped from seventh to 21st place, and by the government's own analysis, fewer than 50 per cent of our major fish stocks are considered healthy.
How did we let this happen? Two reasons. One, we're making a lot of money on the few stocks that are left, mainly crab, shrimp and lobster. This means the total value of our seafood remains high, hiding the pervasive decline in abundance. Two, a systemic and historical lack of government transparency regarding our fish populations means it's nearly impossible to understand where things stand and where we're headed.
With the current available information, even a very experienced marine scientist would have tremendous difficulty piecing together how Canada's fisheries are doing. The only summary information available is on Environment and Climate Change Canada's website, which tells you that another government department classifies 48 per cent of our stocks as healthy, 26 per cent as cautious, 10 per cent as critical and 15 per cent as unknown. They cannot or will not tell you which fish fall into which category (we tried), or what assessment was used to arrive at these classifications.
So while the announcement about an investment in science is a welcome relief, it can only lead to healthier fish stocks if the government gathers and shares information about them, and uses the science to allow depleted species to rebuild -- something successive governments have ignored.
This isn't a pipe dream. We CAN change this. The wonderful thing about most fish is their incredible ability to reproduce quickly. There is enormous potential for a return to abundance. If managed properly, Canada has the opportunity, and the responsibility, to provide up to 50 per cent more fish on a sustainable basis than we do now.
Canada is synonymous with a beautiful and vast natural landscape, and we have the longest coastline in the world. This natural wonder provides significant employment and economic returns for industries and communities, and should be a source of pride. However, the current state of our fisheries is not something we as Canadians can be proud of.
Minister Tootoo's announcement delivers on the government's commitment to investing in science. To realize the full potential of this investment, Minister Tootoo can also commit to conducting and releasing a comprehensive review of our fish populations and set targets to rebuild our depleted fisheries. The U.S. and Europe, among other countries, report regularly and publicly on how stocks are doing against such targets.
At Oceana Canada, we are hopeful that our government's stated commitment to openness and its recent investment in our oceans and marine scientists will result in abundant and sustainable marine resources. In turn, this would provide communities with stable jobs and income, and people in Canada and around the world with a healthy and sustainable source of protein for years to come.
Follow HuffPost Canada Blogs on Facebook
ALSO ON HUFFPOST:
With fish stocks rapidly depleting in the oceans, the industry of fish farming has continued to grow in response. In 2006, Americans ate an average of 16.5 pounds of fish per person, surpassed only by Japan and China. That same year, fish farming accounted for 47% of the world’s fish food supply.
Large-scale fish farm operations force fish to live in conditions much more crowded than they would in the wild, sometimes leaving each fish less room than an average bathtub. The excess of fish waste and unconsumed feed pollutes the surrounding waters. Additionally, living in such close proximity gives rise to increased disease and infection, which is usually responded to withc antibiotics, further polluting the surrounding environment.
Many of the chemicals banned in the US are still used in international fish farms for disease and parasite control. Due to a lack of regulation, these chemicals make their way to our dinner table through the large amount of fish we import from other countries.
Many fish farms operate with netpens in open waters. These systems are extremely susceptible to being ripped open from predators or storms. When the fish escape, they cause irreparable harm to the local ecosystems, corrupting gene pools, competing for food sources and breeding territories, and spreading disease.
Tilapia are one of the most environmentally friendly fish to farm. They are herbivores, so they don’t require the mass amounts of fish byproduct that carnivores do. In addition, they can be farmed in large tanks rather than outdoor pools, making them much more accessible for aquaculture.
Shrimp farming is one of the most destructive types of aquaculture. Mangrove forests protect coastlines, provide food and shelter to countless wildlife, and supply multiple resources to impoverished coastal people who rely on them for daily sustenance. Unfortunately, they also occupy many ideal locations for shrimp farming, and are uprooted and destroyed as a result. In addition, shrimp farmers are often quick to abandon the locations and move to new ones for better production results, destroying more mangroves along the way. Shrimp farms also raise the salinity of surrounding water and soil, ruining the land for agriculture.
Some carnivorous species, like salmon, can be very high maintenance to farm, requiring much more food than they produce. For every 1 lb. of farmed salmon, 2 to 5 lbs. of smaller fish are needed to feed it.
Bivalves, such as oysters and mussels, rank highest when it comes to environmentally friendly aquaculture. Because they are filter feeders, they actually make the water in their ecosystem cleaner, and due to their lack of mobility, they are much easier to contain than fish.
Recirculating Aquaculture Systems are the most eco-friendly. The ultimate water use is minimal, and they have the least environmentally hazardous waste removal methods. Developing aquaculture farming systems in tandem with agriculture is becoming a more popular environmentally-friendly option, as well. When done right, the systems produce very little waste, as they benefit from each other’s byproducts. Fish waste fertilizes the plants, which can in turn filter the water and provide needed nutrients back to the fish. Rice farmers in Asia have long farmed fish alongside their crops, using certain species of fish to fight pests that harm their rice paddies.
Follow Josh Laughren on Twitter: www.twitter.com/OceanaCAN