Fishy Business

First the cod disappeared. Now we're endangering other marine life. A report on what's going on in Canadian oceans. If we look at the federal government's Department of Fisheries and Oceans' (DFO) record, it's like rubbing salt into the wound to bring up the story of what happened to our cod. But it's still worth remembering why it occurred so we can learn from our mistakes. Canada to blame What went wrong was simple. The cod stock were fished out of existence. Scientists, including Dr. Ransom Myers, a fisheries biologist with the DFO in Newfoundland in the 1980s when the cod were starting to disappear, warned the government about the impending catastrophe, but it didn't listen. And Dr. Myers was not someone policy-makers should have ignored. He had won many awards for his marine research and, in 2005, was on Fortune magazine's list of "Top Ten People to Watch" over the next 75 years, because of their influence on the future. (Dr. Myers died this past spring.) Later, when events proved him right, he said, "The collapse was all blamed on the environment, on the seals, on the foreigners, when it was primarily Canadians. I saw that as the big lie, blaming it on anything but ourselves." It wasn't a secret the cod were being eliminated. Lots of people knew. But in the '80s, more than 200,000 tonnes of cod were still routinely caught each year. The warnings continued, but the federal government still didn't lower the cod quotas, because it feared becoming unpopular with Newfoundland's fishing industry. The government also gave preference (and still does) to large-scale boats that employ few people while catching huge quantities of fish. This, in the end, harmed both the fishermen and the fish. And now the industry is near dead. New and more damaging technique Decades later, the feds are once again ignoring scientists' warnings, this time about the issue of bottom-trawling, also called dragging. This fishing technique involves weighted nets that can be as wide as 300 metres that are dragged along the business ocean floor, scooping up not just fish but everything else in their path, indiscriminately destroying marine life, including a wide range of fish species and 1,000-year-old corals. Often, it's the equivalent of bulldozing the ocean floor and turning a once fertile sea bottom into a desert. Along with bottom-trawling comes bycatch, the unwanted fish thrown back into the sea. The Living Oceans Society says that between 1996 and 2002, the B.C. bottom-trawling and mid-water-trawling fleet discarded 68-million kilos of bycatch, nearly all of which die before the fish are returned to the sea, and 2.3-million kilos of habitat-forming species such as corals and sponges. Canadian government refuses to act In 2005, Canadian scientists, including Dr. Myers, sent a letter to Ottawa asking that this destructive practice be stopped. The 2006 U.N. Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea report said bottom-trawling caused damage to vulnerable ecosystems that provide critical habitat for marine life, and tended to over-fish both targeted and nontargeted species. Even Canadian Fisheries Minister Loyola Hearn said that dragging "…does damage to the stocks and it does damage to the habitat." Because of an international agreement that dragging is bad for the future of a productive fishing industry, the U.N. proposed a temporary moratorium on these practices in international waters so there could be a scientific assessment of the "destructive fishing practices." Many countries -- including the United States -- were in favour of this. But Canada, along with Iceland, Spain and Japan, refused to support the resolution. Because of this, in December 2006, a weaker resolution was passed, which essentially leaves large swathes of the ocean unprotected. Why did Canada take this stance? Because we drag in our own waters and plan to continue to keep on dragging, so it would be much more difficult to continue if there were proof that dragging in international waters is harmful. Again, despite scientific warnings, Canada is opting for a small number of jobs today for no jobs and a more barren sea tomorrow and for years to come. Wild salmon at risk To continue the fishy story, take a look at salmon aquaculture. Packed into crowded underwater cages, farmed salmon have unnaturally high levels of sea lice, which infect and kill the wild fish in the surrounding area. A study by biologist Alexandra Morton, director of B.C.'s Salmon Coast Field Station in the Broughton Archipelago, B.C., showed that up to 90 percent of juvenile pink and chum s more than 95 percent of juvenile wild salmon in areas without salmon farms were lice-free. Salmon farmers are trying chemical treatments to kill the lice, but questions have been raised by scientists and activists about the long-term efficacy of these chemicals, the harm they may do to other sea creatures, especially crustaceans like lobsters, and, of course, whether those chemicals could harm us. No one knows, yet. In the spring, the B.C. Special Committee on Sustainable Aquaculture released its recommendations, calling for a halt to any new open-netcaged salmon farms on B.C.'s north coast and a research-and-transition program to move from open-net cages to closed-containment systems, which is like a huge aquarium, disconnected from the ocean - though it's more expensive Fish farms may not be the solution If this happens, it will be wonderful for the future of our wild salmon. However, despite the committee's recommendations, the DFO is showing a strong bias in favour of fish farms. A June 2006 DFO fact sheet titled "Why farm fish and seafood" says, "With the decline of wild stocks and commercial fishing, aquaculture has become a mainstay on the east and west coasts, helping to sustain Canada's coastal and rural communities." This statement would be funny if it were not so sad, because it overlooks the reasons why wild stocks are declining -- namely that the DFO allows over-fishing and harmful fishing techniques like bottom-trawling, and is also encouraging open-net-caged fish-farming that kills even more wild fish Of course, everyone is in favour of sustaining coastal communities, but feel-good fishing policies that cause the decline of wild stocks is not the best way to sustain these communities. Just ask a Newfoundlander. Three simple ways to help our fish:
  • Only buy fish or eat fish in restaurants that are sustainably harvested. Go to Endangered Fish Alliance where you can download several wallet-sized cards that tell you which fish are fine to eat, which you should only eat occasionally and which you should avoid altogether.
  • Don't buy farmed salmon until closed containment systems are enforced.
  • Write or e-mail Canadian Environment Minister John Baird ( or Canadian Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Loyola Hearn ( and ask them to follow the Living Oceans 10 steps to ensure sustainable fisheries.
  • If Canadians follow these guidelines, we can have our fish and eat them, too -- for generations to come. Mary Anne Brinckman was the Editor in Chief for Green Living Magazine.