Atlantic cod under a shipwreck (NOAA FishWatch)

A new report on how and why climate change should be incorporated into fisheries management in Atlantic Canada and the Eastern Arctic begins with an ominous passage that serves as a stark reminder of just how tragically wrong we humans can be about the limits of the natural bounty on this planet.[i] 

The report was  prepared for Oceans North by Daniel Boyce of the Ocean Frontier Institute at Dalhousie University.

It goes like this:

In 1883, T.H. Huxley famously stated, “I believe, then, that the cod fishery … and probably all the great sea fisheries are inexhaustible: that is to say that nothing we do seriously affects the number of fish. And any attempt to regulate these fisheries seems …to be useless.”

Of course since Huxley’s time, according to the report, “our understanding of how humans and fishing affect marine populations has changed considerably, as has our approach to their management and conservation.”

But, as the report documents, that still hasn’t served the fish in our oceans very well.

It’s only been three decades since Atlantic Canada’s groundfish stocks collapsed because of over-fishing. Today invertebrates — lobster and other shellfish — account for 65% of all Atlantic Canadian fisheries landings, while groundfish make up a trifling 12%.

The report provides a worrisome list of starkly negative trends for fish populations:

Fishery stock assessments suggest declining abundance trends for most large predator species including American plaice (−63%), Atlantic cod (−46%), cusk (−86%), deep-water redfish (−35%), Greenland halibut (−92%), porbeagle shark (−56%), spiny dogfish (−45%), white hake (−95), winter flounder (−39%), and witch flounder (−76).

And many fish stocks are clearly suffering:

The Sustainability Survey for Fisheries suggests that nationally, almost half (44%) of stocks within the AOS [Area of Interest – Atlantic Canada and Eastern Arctic] were classified as uncertain, 22% as cautious/critical, and only 34% as healthy. Only 15% of the populations in the Gulf [of St. Lawrence] region were healthy, whereas 69% were categorized as cautious or critical. Newfoundland and Labrador and the Eastern Arctic had low proportions of healthy stocks (19–25%) and high degrees of uncertainty (58–75%). Stocks within the Maritimes [Atlantic coast and Bay of Fundy] had 55% of stocks classified as healthy and a relatively low degree of uncertainty (23%).

Worldwide, 34% of fish stocks that have been scientifically assessed “are considered overfished,” says the report.

And several groundfish species in Atlantic Canada remain in the “critical zone,” having never recovered from overfishing in the early 1990s.

In other words, Canada’s fisheries management appears to have involved a fair amount of mismanagement.

Unless climate change considerations are brought into the equation, the report suggests there is little chance the situation will improve.

Climate change already taking a toll

The Oceans North report says that a contributing factor to the “shortcomings of many fisheries management approaches around the world,” may well be the extent to which “fisheries incorporate environmental, ecosystem, or climate considerations” – which, it notes, is “generally low.”

To try to rectify this, says the report, “many nations are now incorporating climate change considerations into the management of their fisheries.” Among them, the United States, Ireland, and Australia.

Oceans North summary report

And yet, despite Canada’s “long coastline, extensive fishing fleets, and a culture that is deeply connected to the ocean,” our country “lacks a clear climate change adaptation strategy for its fisheries,” and “it is unclear to what extent climate change is being considered in the management of its fisheries.”

A condensed version of the Oceans North report offers a list of climate change impacts that are already affecting fish populations in Atlantic Canada. It is hardly reassuring:

  • Warmer water temperatures, in particular in the Gulf of Maine, the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Scotian Shelf which can lead to: Increased threat of deoxygenation which can cause species death; Northward migration of species; More invasive species
  • Earlier sea ice melting, impacting the timing of phytoplankton blooms and in turn spawning of commercially caught species
  • Decrease in overall size of most species
  • Impeded growth of shrimp, lobster, and phytoplankton due to ocean acidification
  • Increase in vulnerability to disease

On the bright side, however, the report notes that, “studies indicate that fisheries management measures, taken at the right time, can improve fish population status and can in part offset climate change effects.”

But is Canada actually taking such measures to offset the effects of climate change on fish populations?

Climate change absent from the Fisheries Act

As surprising as it may seem, Canada’s revamped Fisheries Act, which came into force in 2019, doesn’t even contain the term “climate change.”

Asked why not, a spokesperson for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) answered:

While climate change is not specifically mentioned in the Fisheries Act, the Minister may consider a number of things when making a decision under the Fisheries Act that could be related to climate change, including the application of a precautionary approach and an ecosystem approach; the sustainability of fisheries; scientific information and Indigenous knowledge that has been provided to the Minister.

The Examiner also asked if DFO would be including climate change as a specific consideration when the Fisheries Act is next reviewed, as it must be every five years.

The spokesperson replied, “The review may consider a number of elements that impact decisions under the Fisheries Act, including climate change.”

Increasing concerns

Katie Schleit, senior fisheries advisor at Oceans North, tells the Halifax Examiner there are growing concerns about the way climate change is affecting fisheries in the Atlantic region, which she notes, “supports the most lucrative fisheries in all of Canada and supports thousands of livelihoods.” Says Schleit:

We’ve been seeing lots of reports come out about the impacts of climate change globally, [and there are] a few reports here and there from government, but we haven’t seen a compilation like this report that really looks in detail at what are the climate change impacts on fisheries in Atlantic Canada and the Eastern Arctic.

She says one of the reasons for the Oceans North study was to see how well DFO is currently considering climate change in its decisions about fisheries management. What they found wasn’t very encouraging:

Our perception from attending fisheries management meetings, being a part of scientific processes, is that we weren’t really seeing climate change being taken into account at the point of decision making. As part of this research, we analyzed documents – basically everything from the scientific literature, academic peer-reviewed literature, DFO literature, to the management documents – to see how frequently climate change appeared in these documents, and how often the information went from the scientific data into decision making and [fisheries] management. What we found was that it’s very rare.

Sometimes you have something in a scientific report talking about the impacts of climate change. But when you get to the [fisheries] management document, either the impact of climate change on that species isn’t in there, or it’s not something that really informs a management decision. For us, that confirms what we already suspected, but it was eye-opening in terms of the fact that there’s a long way to go.

Schleit concludes: “So, DFO’s not doing a great job of incorporating climate change right now.”

Katie Schleit (Contributed)

She says there is also a problem with transparency in how decisions are made in fisheries management; decisions don’t always seem to reflect what is decided at advisory committee meetings, nor is the precautionary principle always being applied.

“A lot of our stocks in Atlantic Canada are critically depleted,” says Schleit. “And if you follow closely the law around that and what the science is saying, you should be allowing only very small to nil quotas. We’re not seeing that in a lot of cases.”

Schleit thinks that Canada’s whole approach to climate change is leaving oceans out of the conversation, “in terms of recognizing the role that oceans play in sequestering carbon,” but also the capacity for oceans to continue to do that, and the effects of climate change on oceans, all of which need to be addressed.

The Oceans North summary report notes that the effects of human activities driving ecological change — “stressors” such as climate change and fishing — are highest in nearshore areas, particularly in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, around Newfoundland and Labrador, and on the Scotian Shelf. Of note — and concern — is that these waters are even “more heavily impacted than the global average.”

“Whereas climate change considerations are not currently specified in Canada’s Fisheries Act, incorporating them into management will be essential to meet DFO’s mandated objectives of ensuring healthy and sustainable fisheries,” says the report.

Big challenges ahead

Pierre Pepin is a senior research scientist with DFO, and also lead author of a 2020 review of Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s science advisory process, which looked at incorporating climate change into fish population assessments.[2]

He tells the Halifax Examiner that because groundfish stocks have not recovered, there have been major changes in the Atlantic fishery, which has gone from being dominated by groundfish to an industry dominated by invertebrates — lobster, crabs, and other shellfish.

Pierre Pepin (contributed)

In addition, Pepin says, “Other species have come into play, either they were there already or they have increased in abundance, or there have been shifts in distribution.”

This “shift in ecosystem structure,” according to Pepin, is a combination of fishing pressure and environmental change. However, he adds that trying to “demonstrate that climate change is impacting the dynamics of stocks is challenging,” as is getting evidence that the environment is affecting stocks accepted by the peer review process.

Pepin says that for many “stakeholders” involved in consultations with DFO during the advisory process on fisheries management, there is only limited willingness to accept recommendations that involve environmental variables, including climate change.

Pepin chairs a working group that is doing a pilot project called the National Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries, which he says is looking at how environmental information can be integrated in the advisory process on fisheries management.

“We’re not just looking at doing better science,” Pepin tells the Examiner. “We’re also talking about making sure it carries through in the decision-making process, and in the consultation, and in the final decisions.”

Pepin doesn’t think that climate change needs to be specifically mentioned in the Fisheries Act because, he says, you can’t look at climate change in isolation from the other changes that are taking place in the oceans, be they natural or caused by human activity.

However, he says, “I don’t think you can come up with any plans around the effects of environmental change on [fish] stocks without including climate change in your thinking.”

And in his view, climate change is already present in the Fisheries Act, where he says it is “couched under environmental variables.” These, Pepin says, are included in different sections of the Act:

In [Section] 2.5 it says that the minister may consider an ecosystem approach, may consider climate change, may consider a number of different things. However, when you get to Section 6, which talks about what happens when stocks are in decline or have gone past limit reference point and require a rebuilding, it’s much more prescriptive. It says the minister shall consider a number of things and changes in the environment. So climate change is a reality that we have to live with. But to build it specifically in legislation I personally don’t think would be constructive. Demonstrating that climate change is impacting the dynamics of stocks is challenging.

Pepin says that the real challenge in applying an ecosystem approach to fisheries management is “getting acceptance that the evidence for the decisions is robust, reliable, repeatable, and based on the best scientific knowledge at the time.” This means that scientists looking at environmental considerations need to work together with people in charge of stock assessments, something he says the pilot project he leads is doing. As a result, Pepin says “there is recognition within the broader fisheries community that we have to take environments into account.”

Pepin also believes that more transparency is going to be required in decision making about fisheries management under the revised Fisheries Act, which requires the rationale for decisions be thoroughly documented.

He says it is crucial that decisions about fisheries management be “based on objective assessment” and not on “advocacy” that takes place during evaluation of information. By “advocacy,” Pepin means short-term self-interest and not reports like that of Oceans North.

Pepin calls the Oceans North report a “useful addition to the body of literature,” and says it provides more information for DFO to work with. He says when it came out, he immediately passed it on to the coordinators of the pilot project he leads.

Pepin says “it’s going to be a really interesting challenge,” following through on some of the Oceans North recommendations, but thinks that it will not be easy.

There are plenty of recommendations.

Homework for DFO

The Oceans North report recommends that, among other things, DFO:

  1. Take steps to assess nature-based solutions to climate change in the marine environment.
  2. Develop a national fisheries and climate framework that clearly identifies a process for how climate information can go from data to decision making.
  3. Improve transparency & accountability for science-based decision making by publicly posting all fisheries management decisions, making available Integrated Fisheries Management Plans updated with climate considerations and vulnerability of the target species …
  4. Reduce non-climate stressors on Canada’s fish populations by erring on the side of caution to maintain a resilient population, putting a stop to fishing populations in the “critical zone,” rebuilding forage fisheries and not authorizing commercial fisheries for new forage fish species …
  5. Implement more adaptive fisheries measures.
  6. Complete comprehensive climate vulnerability assessments of Canadian and transboundary fish species, including identifying where there are data gaps that preclude such assessments
  7. Enhance opportunities for ecosystem monitoring and data sharing …
  8. Introduce climate science and decision making into fisheries management processes.

According to Katie Scheit, the Oceans North recommendations, many with detailed lists of exactly what needs to be done, are “extremely important in addressing climate change.”

“I think DFO is slowly embarking on it,” she says. “But I think there’s been a reluctance.” Schleit explains:

One of the reasons for that is just because the system has been set up so long to be managed on a single species basis. And it gets a lot more complicated when you start to include other factors. So, I think that’s one of the biggest barriers. It’s a lot harder to follow one stock when you’re considering the health of all of the others.

Atlantic mackerel stock has been critically depleted since 2011, says Katie Schleit, and at current catch levels it has only a 50 percent chance of growth. (Vincent van Zeijst)

But, Schleit says, it is incredibly important to look at the environmental factors affecting each species, and not just look at each fish stock in isolation and how fishing is affecting it. All fish have their own places in the food chain and play specific roles in the ocean, Schleit notes.

And all of those things are going to be greatly affected by climate change.

“We just can’t continue to do things the way we were in terms of the single species,” she says.

Schleit sums up the report findings this way:

We need to rebuild the fisheries that are struggling so that they are resilient to change; we need to avoid harming the fish populations that are still doing well; and we need to make sure that fisheries management takes climate change into account.

[1] Boyce, D.G., Schleit, K. & Fuller, S. (2020). Incorporating climate change into fisheries management in Atlantic Canada and the Eastern Arctic. Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

[2] Pepin, P., King, J. Holt, C., Gurney-Smith, H., Shackell, N., Hedges, K., and Bundy, A. 2020. Incorporating climate, oceanographic and ecological change considerations into population assessments: A review of Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s science advisory process. DFO Can. Sci. Advis. Sec. Res. Doc. 2019/043. iv + 66 p.

Joan Baxter

Joan Baxter is an award-winning Nova Scotian journalist and author of seven books, including "The Mill: Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest." Website: www.joanbaxter.ca;...

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  1. Perhaps the goal is for our “critically threatened” fish stocks to become all-but extinct. Then those pesky environmentalists would be forced to shut up about the obscene open net fish farming industry.