Commercial fisheries and ecosystem recovery

The common thread running through the many examples of commercial fishery recovery has been the establishment of “no fishing” or “no take” marine protected areas.

The recent news of east coast cod stocks slowly rebuilding failed to acknowledge a major contributing factor to recovery of groundfish on the eastern Scotian Shelf. Commencing in 1987 after many protests from fishers and fishing communities and the collapse of haddock stocks in that area, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans closed an offshore zone south and east of Halifax to all bottom trawling. That  area is now known as the Haddock Box. It encompasses over 4000 nautical square miles of what has been identified as groundfish spawning grounds. In 1994, shortly after the introduction of the cod moratorium, that closure was extended to include fishing activity from all gear types. Similarly in the 1990s, ocean scientists, with the assistance of the World Wildlife Fund, identified another area further east on the Scotian Shelf known as the Gully as a unique bio-diverse ecosystem. In 2004  this area of approximately 2000 square kilometers  was designated a Marine Protected Area and closed to fishing activity.

Given the experience of Marine Protected Areas(MPAs)  in other jurisdictions around the world,  which do not permit fishing, the outcomes on the Scotian Shelf are very predictable.  Countries which have identified and closed areas containing abundance and biodiversity to promote ocean recovery from over fishing have experienced significant commercial fisheries recovery directly linked to ocean recovery. These areas include: the coral reefs near the coast of New Zealand,  the Great Barrier Reef on the eastern side of Australia,  the Bering Strait off Alaska in the North Pacific,  the Barents Sea, the North Sea, MPAs off the Faroe Islands in the North-east Atlantic,  the west coast of the continental United States, and a section of Georges Bank off the New England states.

The common thread running through all of these commercial fishery recoveries has been the establishment of  “no fishing” or “no take” marine protected areas with commercial fishing occurring outside these closed areas.  The concept is not new as various countries have instituted closed areas to protect various sensitive ocean habitats for decades. In the South Pacific certain reefs have functioned as conservation no-take zones for centuries. France instituted closed nursery areas in its coastal waters to protect specific fisheries and fish stocks over two hundred years ago. In the twentieth century the benefits of closed areas were realized in the North Sea in the aftermath of World War II. There fishing  crews recorded high catches following five years of closure due to war.  In New Zealand in the 1960s ocean scientists began noticing major ocean and commercial fisheries recovery when once productive areas where closed to fishing activity. This experience has been repeated in many of the aforementioned areas above. In response to this positive experience some countries and regional fisheries management organizations(RFMOs)  have moved to close large areas of ocean,  often thousands of square kilometers from fishing activity. The results in many cases have been fairly dramatic as some jurisdictions have recorded major increases in their historic commercial fisheries.

In Canada while there has been much discussion about establishing Marine Protected Areas there has been little action.  Much of this stems from the official fog of denial which still clouds government policy as to why fish stocks collapsed in the first place. Many have still not come to terms with the implications of technological advances of the past 60 years. In hindsight it would seem that because we have the technology to fish everywhere does not mean that we should fish everywhere.  Similarly there are those who cling to opinions that single species management is possible when the best scientific information points to ecosystem management.

However in practical terms the evidence coming out of the eastern Scotian Shelf and the experience of  “no take” marine protected areas elsewhere in the world are fundamentally good news stories.  We can learn from, and build on, these positive outcomes.  There are other areas inside Canada’s two hundred mile economic zone which have been identified as excellent locations for marine protected areas. These need to be closed so commercial fishing can recover and ocean ecosystems can rebuild.


Fred Winsor

Conservation Chair, Atlantic Canada Chapter, Sierra Club Canada

This letter to the editory was originally published in the Telegram on Aug 8, 2011. It has been republished with the permission of the author.

Photo: Sourced from Flickr Create Commons, photographer: derekkeats

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