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Rebuilding Canada's Fish Stocks A Rare Chance To Rewrite History

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CANADA COD
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Some Canadians may remember the collapse of the cod and groundfish fisheries in 1992, which resulted in 30,000 lost jobs and cost $4 billion dollars. As we approach the 25th anniversary of this cautionary event, we are finally seeing early signs of a fragile but broad-based cod recovery. This is a key moment in time to reflect on some critical questions: Are we prepared to address recovery differently this time? What is the overall state of Canada's ocean resources? How are we managing this world-class resource?

We set out to find the answers.

Oceana Canada commissioned scientists to assess the state of Canada's fisheries. The resulting report -- Canada's Marine Fisheries: Status, Recovery Potential and Pathways to Success by Dr. Julia Baum and Dr. Susanna Fuller -- represents the most comprehensive and up-to-date public analysis of Canada's fish stocks. The findings were very troubling.

First, less than a quarter of Canada's fish stocks can be confidently considered healthy. The status of a whopping 45 per cent couldn't be determined due to an absence of basic or up-to-date information.

Second, although most shellfish populations are in good shape, the state of many "finfish" populations remains grim, particularly for species like cod, mackerel and redfish.

It turns out that in the wake of the groundfish collapse, rather than try to rebuild, we instead relied on a handful of shellfish species to prop up the industry: lobster, crab, shrimp and scallops. This went unnoticed, because the industry was still making money - in fact, the fishing industry in Canada is worth more than ever, based on the high price-per-pound for these shellfish.

What's the problem, then? Prices are volatile and so are individual fisheries. Shellfish in Atlantic Canada alone make up 77 per cent of the value of all fisheries in Canada. If the price of shellfish were to collapse, or if lobster populations were to crash due to a pathogen or a change in environmental conditions, which happens from time to time, the impact on the fishing industry and coastal communities would be devastating - much worse than the Atlantic groundfish collapse. A sustainable, resilient fishing industry depends on a broad base of healthy stocks.

Third, determining how our commercial fish populations are doing has proven to be an extremely difficult task. As a common resource belonging to all Canadians, and supporting a multi-billion dollar industry, you might expect that information would be publicly and freely available and understandable. In the United States and the European Union, for example, a few clicks online allow any interested citizen to understand the state of fish and fisheries, including what's working and what's not.

This is not the case in Canada. The report authors spent months tracking down basic data from Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), often from individual scientists. Far too frequently, the information wasn't available. Without it, Canada cannot manage fish stocks properly or assess the health of our oceans. Nor can we judge the effectiveness of management and rebuilding efforts.

Here's the good news: this is fixable. There are many examples around the world, and here in Canada, of how stocks can rebound, often incredibly quickly, if we create the right conditions. But it's not going to happen by accident.

The foundations are in place. Canada has a government that has committed to transparency, and is reinvesting in science. We have an institutional and legal framework to build on, and we have a wealth of fisheries expertise.

What is needed is a clear, honest assessment of our fish populations and a transparent approach to making fisheries decisions based on science. We need to catch up to the rest of the developed world by strengthening Canada's laws and regulations to prevent overfishing and mandate rebuilding depleted stocks. Most of all, we need the political will to implement the policies and rules already on the books.

As we approach the 25th anniversary of the cod collapse, we have a rare chance to rewrite history. The great abundance of Canada's oceans was lost in one lifetime. It can also be rebuilt within our lifetime. The choice is ours.

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