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The need for Evidence-Based Fisheries Management: Where we’re at with modernizing the Fisheries Act

Fisheries expert Hillary MacDonell summarizes the government’s recent review of the Fisheries Act, and what should be done to ensure the strength and health of Canada’s fisheries

Fisheries in Canada are economically and culturally significant, and have been since before the country’s inception. Canada’s Fisheries Act was first enacted in 1868, and only substantially revised twice since: once in 1977, when habitat protection was added and pollution prevention provisions were strengthened, and again in 2012. In 2012, the Harper federal government had an opportunity to modernize and strengthen provisions of the Act. However, this was not what resulted: instead there were a number of changes that favoured industry over ecological sustainability, and weakened fish and habitat protection measures.

These 2012 changes were widely panned by the scientific and conservation community because they refined and replaced provisions of the Act responsible for protecting fish and fish habitat. Provisions preventing the “killing of fish by any means other than fishing” and prohibiting “any work or undertaking that results in harmful alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat” were replaced by a single prohibition against carrying on “any work, undertaking or activity that results in serious harm to fish that are part of a commercial, recreational or Aboriginal fishery, or to fish that support such a fishery.”

These changes were problematic because they do not support precautionary or ecosystem-based approaches to fisheries management, ultimately hindering the ability of managers to effectively manage marine systems sustainably, while simultaneously weakening regulatory oversight on industry developments. They also only protect fish species of commercial, recreational or Aboriginal importance, which are but a small part of the large, interconnected ecosystems that support the species of fish we eat.

Recognizing the severity of the problem, the federal government began to address the state of environmental legislation in Canada by launching the Review of Environmental and Regulatory Processes in 2016, including a review of the Fisheries Act. Parliament’s Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans received submissions and heard from Indigenous organizations, scientists, industry representatives, and numerous non-governmental organizations from across Canada. On February 24th, the Committee submitted its review to Parliament, including its recommendations to enhance the protection of fish and fish habitat and the management of Canadian fisheries. The review highlighted a need for whole ecosystem management, restoration of depleted stocks, and enhanced baseline and site monitoring.

We summarize a few key recommendations:

  • Restore fish and fish habitat protection by returning the Act to its wording prior to the 2012 amendments
  • Taking an ecosystem approach to protect fish habitat and extend protection to all ocean and natural freshwater habitats
  • Enhance monitoring to approve accountability and transparency, making sure that project proponents are accountable and public has access to up-to-date monitoring
  • Ministerial decisions must be transparent and made public
  • Provisions for recovery of depleted fish stocks
  • Improve collection of baseline data, which is particularly important for identifying regulatory gaps and adapting to climate change

The full report, including all 32 recommendations can be found on the Parliamentary website. We are looking forward to the upcoming spring release of the government’s options for a revised Fisheries Act, and hope it will result in the return of strong evidence-based environmental law in Canada.


Hillary MacDonell received her Master’s in Marine Management from Dalhousie University in 2015, and is a member of Evidence for Democracy’s Network of Experts. She would like to acknowledge the ongoing volunteer support of Leah Afework, an undergraduate student at uOttawa.


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