Today is a landmark day in the history of the B.C. trawl industry and marks a precedent-setting change in how the groundfish bottom trawl fishery operates in B.C.'s rich ocean environment. A suite of measures was announced that will reduce the impacts of this fishery on sensitive seafloor habitats. This announcement was the result of a collaborative effort between environmental organizations and the trawling industry, which was then supported by government.
For years environmental groups have been pressuring the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to reduce the environmental impacts of bottom trawl fisheries in Canada. In fact, my first task at the David Suzuki Foundation in 2006 was to prepare a report on bottom trawling in Canada. Although DFO has recently developed some policies for addressing habitat damage resulting from bottom trawl fisheries, there have been no actual changes on the water. Until now.
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About three years ago, DSF started engaging in casual conversations with the groundfish bottom trawl industry about how the fishery could be improved. There was distrust on both sides. Industry claimed environmental organizations were wrongly portraying their fishery. We responded that industry needed to defensibly demonstrate they were addressing habitat impacts. This led to additional conversations involving other environmental groups, particularly the Living Oceans Society, and resulted in measures that both industry and the environmental organizations involved feel are a new standard for the management of bottom trawling habitat impacts in Canada.
One of the driving factors behind these changes has been an increased demand for sustainable seafood in the marketplace as a result of programs like SeaChoice. Most of the fish caught by this trawl fishery are sold to North American markets. Within this market, nearly every major retailer has committed to a sustainable seafood procurement policy. In recent years, SeaChoice secured sustainable seafood partnerships with the Overwaitea Food Group, Safeway Canada, Federated Co-op, and Whole Foods Canada, leading them to demand more sustainable seafood products from producers. The SeaChoice program currently ranks several species of fish coming from the bottom trawl fishery as 'red' (avoid), primarily due to the unaddressed habitat impacts, including damage to sensitive cold water corals and sponges. In order for the B.C. groundfish bottom trawl fishery to maintain and expand markets, it needed to reduce the negative effects it was having on sensitive habitats.
There are three primary changes that will take effect on April 2:
- defined boundaries for the fishery,
- individual limits on coral and sponge bycatch, and
- a reporting and review protocol if a combined catch of coral and sponge in excess of 20 kg occurs in a single tow.
In addition to these management measures, a review committee has also been formed to ensure that the new measures are working as planned and to address other issues concerning habitat impacts.
In terms of numbers, the overall allowable trawling area is now about 20% smaller or ~ 8200 km2 less than where the fishery has operated historically. In very deep waters (over 800m), the allowable area has been reduced by 65% from the historically trawled area. The use of individual bycatch limits for coral and sponge is the first of its kind anywhere in the world. Since 1996, each vessel has carried an onboard independent observer who records the catch of all species and now will also be responsible for recording the catches of coral and sponge. If a vessel exceeds their allowable individual limit they will need to either purchase additional quota from other vessels or be tied to the dock. The idea is that the individual skipper takes full accountability for their behaviour.
The combined new management measures have been designed to provide assurances to conservation organizations and seafood retailers that the B.C. bottom trawl industry is reducing their impacts on sensitive seafloor habitats. In the coming years we will continue to work with the groundfish trawl fishery to help realize the successful implementation of these measures and evaluate their effectiveness. We will continue to report on progress and undertake renewed sustainability assessments of this fishery once the measures have been implemented and evaluated.
No one stands to benefit more from a healthy marine ecosystem than those who harvest fish. The long term viability of any wild fishery is dependent on a healthy ecosystem, which of course includes habitat. This shared value between harvesters and conservation organizations provides a focus for continued improvement to how we manage fisheries.