Auditing Vital Fish Stocks to Ensure They Will Be There

As the auditor general of Canada’s Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, I have the privilege and responsibility of overseeing audits that examine some of Canada’s most fragile and valuable resources.

The audits inform Parliamentarians and Canadians about how government departments and Crown corporations manage these resources.

Recently, a team of environmental auditors from the office of the auditor general of Canada focused on one of Canada’s oldest and most enduring industries — fisheries. Managed sustainably, this renewable resource provides a livelihood for some 600 communities and is a food source for many more. Fisheries generated $6 billion for Canada’s economy in 2015.

I recently presented Parliament the results of this audit, which examined whether Fisheries and Oceans Canada had identified and implemented effective management plans to ensure the conservation and sustainability of Canada’s fish stocks.

Auditors found management plans were in place for 110 of 154 of Canada’s major fish stocks, but that plans were missing or out of date for the remaining 44. Fisheries and Oceans Canada classified fewer than half of Canada’s major fish stocks as healthy and were uncertain regarding the abundance and health of 80 of 154 stocks. Of 15 major fish stocks classified as critical, 12 had neither rebuilding plans, nor timelines for developing them. This increases the risk that depleted stocks won’t recover.

The audit included a case study of Canada’s Greenland halibut (turbot) stocks. Fisheries and Oceans Canada was unable to classify the Atlantic stock’s status. Valued at $102 million in 2014, it is one of Canada’s most valuable fish stocks. So the lack of information is particularly concerning.

Many Canadians will remember the collapse of the Atlantic groundfish fishery in the 1990s and the moratorium placed on Northern cod fishing. With the ban still partially in effect, it serves as a grave reminder of the importance of sustainable fish stock management practices, especially given the added pressure climate change places on marine ecosystems.

It is important to acknowledge Fisheries and Oceans Canada faced significant budget cuts between 2011 and 2016. These harmed its integrated fisheries resource management and fisheries resource science programs. In the 2016 budget, the federal government increased the department’s funding to $197.1 million, spread over five years. The funds will be committed to ocean and freshwater monitoring and research.

In late October, at Oceana Canada’s Science Symposium, Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc announced his department had published the results of its annual sustainability survey for fisheries. For the first time since the inception of the department’s sustainable fisheries framework in 2009, members of the public and fisheries stakeholders can access detailed information about the state of all major fish stocks.

The minister also indicated that Fisheries and Oceans Canada is working to implement the audit’s recommendations.

These actions point to an emerging trend of greater transparency and accountability in the department’s approach to the management of one of Canada’s most valuable resources.

We encourage continued vigilance — by Canadian fishers, scientists, policy makers and non-profit organizations to ensure our fish stocks remain a reliable food source and provide a dependable livelihood for Canadians now and in the future.

Julie Gelfand

Julie Gelfand is Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development and has 30 years of experience in promoting sound environmental and sustainable development strategies in NGOs and in the private sector.

This letter appeared in the Nov. 29 issue of The Halifax Herald.

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