Proceedings of the Third World Fisheries Congress: Feeding the World with Fish in the Next Millenium—The Balance between Production and Environment

Responsible Fishing in Canada

David Balfour


Canada has a large and diverse fishery on its Atlantic and Pacific coasts as well as in its Arctic and inland waters. Annual fisheries landings reached a peak of 1.7 million tons in 1987, then declined to a low of 900,000 tons in 1995. Landings have since partially recovered to levels of just over 1 million tons per annum in 2000. These changes are due in large part to the dramatic decline of demersal stocks such as Atlantic cod Gadus morhua on the Atlantic coast and Pacific salmon Oncorhynchus spp. on the Pacific coast. Landings in most other fisheries have remained relatively constant, and there has been significant growth in some Atlantic shellfish stocks such as snow crab Chionoecetes opilio and northern pink shrimp Pandalus borealis.

The major causes of the well-publicized declines of Atlantic cod and Pacific salmon have not yet been identified, and arguments continue as to whether they were caused by overfishing or environmental factors. The dramatic declines in these stocks, however, have overshadowed the fact that many of the other fisheries in Canada have been maintained at sustained levels.

The Canadian fisheries management system is one of the most complex and comprehensive in the world. It also has introduced some of the best conservation harvesting technology currently available, particularly to improve the size and species selectivity of the fishing gear used. Unfortunately, the collapse of many traditional fisheries and the devastation it has caused to coastal communities have demonstrated the need for change in how Canadian fisheries are managed and prosecuted.

For example, the negative impacts resulting from the use of various types of fishing gear are often caused as much by how the gear is operated or misused as by the intrinsic characteristics of the gear itself. In other words, the “human” factors are possibly as important in many cases as the “technical” factors.

Regardless of the type of gear, the ingenuity of fishers and the continued advances of technology often can defeat most regulatory attempts to control fishing effort and impacts. The ease with which fishing gear can be used irresponsibly and the potential for damage to the resource from such misuse varies significantly depending on the type of gear. Nevertheless, all types of fishing gear— including very simple ones such as hooks and lines—may ultimately deplete most fishery stocks.

The solution must therefore come from motivating fishers to assume more personal responsibility for the proper operation of harvesting gear. For example, if there is an aggregation of small or immature fish or an abundance of nontarget species in an area, then any fishing gear used will catch them (i.e., regardless of its technical selectivity characteristics). Responsible fishers know from experience when and how to avoid such areas.

In addition, as a fisheries resource becomes depleted, the tragedy of human behavior is that the motivation for fishers to participate in destructive practices increase because of economic pressures. Under such conditions, it is especially important to motivate fishers to adopt responsible fishing practices. Quota cutbacks by governments, and increasingly stringent regulations simply are not enough to protect fisheries resources in the long term. The real challenge, as repeatedly mentioned, is to motivate all fishers to focus more on long-term conservation and less on short-term economic gain.

This need for change is well described in the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) document on responsible fishing practices that addresses industry–government relationships. The following is a pertinent excerpt:

Sec. 164. The challenge that lies ahead in most fisheries of the world is for fisheries administrations to move into a new era of cooperation between government and industry. The partnership must be real and extend into all facets of fisheries management including scientific and technical research, regulation, enforcement, inspection, marketing and education. Direct industry participation should lead to a sense of ownership which will foster a greater sense of responsibility.