DFO is failing to manage fisheries sustainably. That’s the verdict of Canada’s environment commissioner.

An audit by the commissioner’s office found the federal fisheries department has failed to collect the catch data it needs to properly manage marine fisheries.

“Without dependable and timely data on fish being caught, Fisheries and Oceans Canada does not know whether commercial stocks are being overfished,” said Mr. DeMarco.

The commissioner audited the department in 2016 and flagged the failures then. Seven years later, the department has yet to deliver on the corrective measures it promised then.

And it’s not because DFO doesn’t have the tools to do so. In fact, the department has a Fishery Monitoring Policy that would improve fish catch data. It just hasn’t put it into action.

“It’s not surprising, the report, but it is really frustrating,” says Greg Taylor, a fisheries expert and consultant to Watershed Watch Salmon Society.
Canada’s catch monitoring policy and bycatch monitoring policies, which include guidelines on how managers should implement them, are world-class… on paper, he says.

The problem is even worse in B.C. because the discarding of stocks and species DFO does not believe can withstand harvest pressure is the main conservation tool DFO has here for both commercial and recreational fisheries, he adds.

“Without adequate monitoring of species that they consider endangered or threatened, we have no idea what the harvest impacts are on those stocks,” Greg says.
For example, in the 2023 South Coast recreational chinook fishery this summer about 65 per cent of the almost 370,000 Chinook salmon caught in the recreational fishery were discarded. Many of these fish were from populations considered to be of serious conservation concern.

Because these policies have never been implemented, the 65 per cent is a “best guess.” We don’t have any verifiable estimates of how many chinook are discarded; survive to spawn after being released by anglers; or what chinook populations are being impacted, and to what degree.
This failure is a choice, Greg says.

“It’s not, ‘Oh, we just haven’t got to it, or we’re getting to it or, gee whiz, this policy just came out and we need some time to read it.’ This is a choice made by senior DFO people not to implement Canadian policy. I think they need to be called to account for that.”

The minister’s response offers little comfort.

Diane Lebouthillier issued a statement saying “DFO has a number of sources of information that enable us to effectively monitor fisheries and incorporate data into the decision-making process” but “many actions are already underway to implement the recommendations.”

Unfortunately, in DFO’s view, their clients are fish harvesters – not the public – and harvesters don’t want the policies in place, Greg says.
The department also refuses to release to the public the third-party monitoring data it does collect.

All species are affected by this failure but it’s a particular concern for many Chinook stocks on the south coast, small sockeye caught in major fisheries, Thompson steelhead, stream-type Fraser Chinook, Chinook on the west coast of Vancouver Island, Skeena steelhead and chum on the north coast.

For example, in the north coast commercial fishery this year, four of the six salmonid species encountered by commercial fishers must be discarded. The lack of monitoring means there is no verifiable public accounting of how many fish are discarded, and how many of the discarded fish survive to spawn.

In his report, Mr. DeMarco cited the decimation of the East Coast cod fishery in the 90s as an example of the price for failure.
It could happen here, Greg warns.

“I think we’re going down the same road. A lot of populations here in BC are facing the same thing cod did,” he says. “There is climate change and habitat loss. A lot of the stocks are in serious trouble and are struggling… and we’re fishing on top of it, without knowing the full extent of our harvest impacts.

Read the full story from CBC here.