The Crisis in Canadian Fisheries

Journal of Business Administration and Policy Analysis, Annual 1996 | Go to article overview

The Crisis in Canadian Fisheries


This paper will provide an academic perspective on the status and future of Canadian fisheries. It tries to draw some lessons about what the people of Canada will probably have to do if we want to maintain those precious resources. Fish touch all of us in Canada. There are a very few Canadians who are not deeply interested in one way or another in fish - whether fish to eat, fish to catch for recreation, fish as an industry, or fish as the basic support for key parts of our culture. I do not think that any Canadian was untouched three years ago with the closure of the East Coast Cod Fisheries and the enormous social and economic devastation that caused for people in Newfoundland and the Maritimes. The key principle I will follow here is that when we talk about fisheries, we are talking about a public resource, a heritage to all Canadians and to our children. Much of my work and my perspective is drawn from the notion that we deserve better.

Much of this presentation is drawn from my attempts to understand the data represented in Figure 1. This figure compares trends in harvest of the two most valuable fisheries in Canada. On the east coast, we are looking at about 100 years of history of the Newfoundland Cod Fishery, from 1880 until it was finally closed in 1992. In stark contrast is the history of our salmon fisheries on the Pacific coast where not only have catches been sustained, but in the last thirty or forty years we have actually seen increasing abundance of some salmon stocks. We need to stop and ask how it could be that these two situations could diverge so dramatically. How could it be that in a system that has the same system of governance, the same public policy conservation objectives, the same laws, the same massive Fisheries and Oceans bureaucracy, we could end up with two such starkly different outcomes? And we must also ask whether the east coast outcome is in our future here in British Columbia. We cannot explain this monstrous difference as being due to any of the simple things you read about in newspapers, like massive fishing technologies and the power of fishermen to destroy the resources. Our British Columbia salmon fishermen, since at least 1930, have had the technology to destroy our salmon resource in BC in about a week or two of fishing, radically faster than the cod resource was destroyed, yet it is has not happened.

Further we cannot explain the cod-salmon difference as being due to simple matters of salmon being visible and easy to count, or because they come into streams to spawn. They come into streams to spawn after we do the damage to them, after they are harvested. So the best we can do with salmon from a knowledge perspective that is different from the east coast, is to know a little sooner how bad a job we did. Being able to count salmon in spawning streams does not help us to manage them except by making it a little easier to see over many years how many spawners are needed for good production.

We also cannot explain the difference between BC and the east coast just by the enormous biological diversity of our salmon population. If you look at a map of BC, and blow up any part of our province like Vancouver Island, what you see is an extraordinarily network of streams and waterways - most of which support salmon that are genetically adapted to the particular conditions they find in those streams. We guess that there are roughly three to five thousand genetically distinct races of salmon in British Columbia. You might argue that the big difference between us and Newfoundland is just that we have so many stocks of fish. Well, that's not true at all, because we do not manage all of those thousands of stock separately. Instead, what we do is to harvest them mainly in a few very large areas when they're mixed together off the west coast of Vancouver Island, or in the Georgia Strait, or up by the Queen Charlottes. And practically nothing that we do is aimed at trying to maintain that extraordinary diversity. …

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