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Focus on fisheries declines

Significant changes could be coming to the way fisheries are managed in Canada, giving hope for the rebound of some species and the protection of others, says an ocean conservation group.

Josh Laughren, executive director of Oceana Canada, said proposed amendments to the Fisheries Act would prompt the government to rebuild stocks that fall below sustainable levels.

And while the changes still include an "off ramp" for government to make decisions in the interest of short-term economics over longer sustainability, they would require those decisions to be made public, which Laughren said is a step toward ensuring past mistakes aren't repeated.

"We've kind of sleep walked through this incredible decline in abundance, and it's been hidden by some of the economics of it," Laughren said in an interview.

More than half of the entire value of Canadian fisheries now comes from Atlantic invertebrates like lobster, crab and shrimp, he said, pointing to a 2015 report by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Not only does that make the industry more vulnerable to pathogens and disease, but the profitability of those fisheries have obscured the depletion of others like groundfish. Since 1970, Canada has seen fish biomass decline by 55 per cent, an expert panel convened by the Royal Society of Canada found.

In the United States, fisheries laws have more bite because they clearly define "overfishing," and when it occurs, action to stop and reverse the impacts is required within months. Forty-five stocks have been recovered since the law was introduced and 28 of the most successful ones were generating 54 per cent more revenue than when they were overfished, he said.

Bill C-68 was introduced a month after the Liberal government was sworn in and had its second reading in the Senate in December.

Laughren said he's very hopeful the bill could improve biodiversity in a way that also creates more economic opportunity.

"Abundance provides options, abundance makes allocation a hell of a lot easier and provides more value. I think we've kind of forgotten about how important that is," he said.

Others are more wary.

Paul Lansbergen, who represents commercial fisheries as president of the Fisheries Council of Canada, said that beyond protecting fish stocks the law should also protect "sustainable" fishing rights.

"The most significant policy issue facing the sector is a concern of stability of access to the fishing resource," he told the Senate standing committee reviewing the bill.

"The use of fisheries is missing in the current wording of the bill."

Lansbergen said the council will reserve an opinion on the law until accompanying regulations are revealed. But he told the committee it represents a significant change that will have long-standing implications for the sector and the health of the oceans and fish resources.

Canada's seafood industry employs 80,000 people and accounts for $7 billion in exports to more than 130 countries.



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