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Federal Fisheries Department doing poor job of monitoring fishing industry: report

OTTAWA — The federal Fisheries Department's failure to properly monitor the country's commercial fishing industry could lead to overfishing, a new audit from Canada's environment commissioner says.
Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development Jerry DeMarco responds to a question during a news conference, Tuesday, November 7, 2023 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA — The federal Fisheries Department's failure to properly monitor the country's commercial fishing industry could lead to overfishing, a new audit from Canada's environment commissioner says.

Jerry DeMarco's report released Tuesday said Fisheries and Oceans Canada lacks the ability to collect timely and dependable data on what and how much is being caught.

"Many important monitoring requirements that would improve the timeliness and dependability of fish-catch data remain absent or incomplete," the report said. 

The Fisheries Department said in a statement that it considers ensuring dependable and timely catch-monitoring information a priority.

"DFO has a number of sources of information that enable us to effectively monitor fisheries and incorporate data into the decision-making process," the department said in the statement, though it acknowledged that "better is always possible."

Without reliable catch data, the department won't be able to set seasonal catch limits that will ensure a sustainable industry, DeMarco's report said.

“The collapse of the Atlantic cod population in the 1990s — with its far-reaching economic and social impacts — has shown that it is far more expensive and difficult to recover depleted stocks than it is to keep them healthy in the first place," the commissioner said in a statement.

Northern cod were once the backbone of Newfoundland and Labrador's 400-year-old fishing industry. But the population collapsed in the early 1990s because of overfishing, mismanagement and changing environmental conditions.

A fishing moratorium imposed in 1992, which was eventually extended to other groundfish stocks, wiped out more than 30,000 jobs, marking the largest mass layoff in Canadian history. Within a year, the entire $700-million enterprise — and way of life — was gone.

"It is important to monitor fisheries catch to avoid repeating mistakes of the past," DeMarco's report said.

"The collapse of the cod fishery had an impact that went far beyond environmental matters ... creating social and cultural instability on Canada’s east coast."

The ongoing problem, DeMarco said, is that the Fisheries Department has failed to deliver on most of the corrective measures it committed to seven years ago, when another audit called for changes to ensure sustainable management of the industry.

DeMarco's audit said the department responded by creating a new fishery monitoring policy, but he said that policy has yet to be implemented. As of this year, none of Canada's 156 federally managed commercial fish stocks has been assessed for adequate monitoring, the report says.

As well, the audit found that the department has been slow to modernize its information systems, even though it has spent about $31 million on integrating information across regions to provide access to catch data.

Implementation of this new system is now 10 years behind schedule and won't be available to all regions until 2030, DeMarco's report said. "As a result, the department still does not have a complete picture about the amount of fish harvested and their biological characteristics to make informed decisions."

The department uses a variety of monitoring tools each fishing season, including fishing log books, electronic devices and data collected by third-party observers. 

Under an interim protocol introduced in 2017, the companies that employ third-party observers must declare conflicts of interest, such as family or business ties with fish harvesters. As well, the department was required to maintain a national list of declared conflicts and monitor mitigation measures.

"We found that the interim protocol had not been fully implemented at the time of our audit," the report said. 

One of the department's six regions did not maintain a list of conflicts. Another did not receive any declared conflicts of interest. The other three regions maintained lists, but two failed to take action when mitigation measures were not implemented. And one region failed to assess whether mitigation measures were implemented.

As well, the department did not maintain a national list as required. 

"Without the full implementation of the interim protocol, the department faced increased risk of relying on inaccurate catch and bycatch data to support management decision making," the report said.

DeMarco is recommending Fisheries and Oceans Canada implement its fishery monitoring policy, speed up the rollout of its integrated information system and review its third-party observer programs to deal with compliance issues.

The department said in its statement that it agreed with all of the recommendations in DeMarco's report.

"DFO will continue to work closely with the commissioner's office and thus continue to sustainably manage the harvesting of commercial marine fisheries for future generations," the statement said.

As of 2021, about 72,000 Canadians were making their living directly from fishing and related activities, generating about $4.6 billion in revenue, the report said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 7, 2023.

— By Michael MacDonald in Halifax.

The Canadian Press