As the Climate Changes, So Does Managing Fisheries

Over 20 years ago, DFO recognized that “changes in climate cannot be ignored.” Why is it taking so long to put this insight into practice?

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Dr. Frédéric Cyr has two hands on the line he’s releasing into Trinity Bay. At quick glance, it looks as though Cyr is handlining cod. But there’s no bait in his boat and no hook on the end of his line.

Instead, the line connects to a sophisticated oceanographic instrument.

The SeaExplorer ocean glider is a bright yellow, dolphin-sized robotic underwater vehicle that measures a range of parameters like ocean temperature and salinity, transmitting that data back to shore. Deployed for weeks at a time, the glider, like other oceanography tools and instruments, provides data that offers climate change clues about the ocean, the fish, and the entire marine ecosystem. 

Frédéric Cyr stands with the SeaExplorer ocean glider onboard the CCGS Hudson. Ocean gliders are autonomous unmanned vehicles guided with satellite communication and capable of carrying measurements in the water for several weeks. (Photo: D. Desbruyères)

Data like this populates the Newfoundland and Labrador (NL) climate index, which describes the environmental conditions on the NL shelf (the continental shelf extending from Labrador to the east coast of Newfoundland, including the Grand Banks) and in the Northwest Atlantic as a whole. At the beginning of May, Cyr—who is a research scientist with the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Centre at Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) in St. John’s—released the first-ever publicly available version of the climate index along with an accompanying scientific paper (co-written with colleague Peter Galbraith), describing its use.

Cyr says the public release of the NL climate index aligns with DFO’s modernized Fisheries Act, which promises greater transparency in decision-making. 

“There’s no more closed doors,” Cyr told The Independent. “This allows the public to collaborate with academics. It’s the new generation of doing science.”

The NL climate index “provides continuity in the production of advice for fisheries management and ecosystem status on the NL shelf,” write Cyr and Galbraith. But a new report, also released in May by Oceans North—a non-profit focused on marine conservation in partnership with Indigenous and coastal communities in Atlantic Canada, the Arctic, and Greenland—argues Fisheries and Oceans Canada is failing to incorporate climate change into fisheries management decisions. 

DFO formally recognized the need to take climate change into greater consideration in fisheries management decisions five years after the 1992 east coast cod fishery collapse. In 1998, the federal government established the Atlantic Zonal Monitoring Program (AZMP), which follows  climate change and variability in the Northwest Atlantic. (The NL climate index is predominantly populated with data from scientists affiliated with this program). In the AZMP’s founding document, the authors argued: “changes in climate cannot be ignored as an explanation for fluctuations in marine resources.” 

Fast-forward twenty years, and with more climate data than ever before, DFO still doesn’t routinely rely on the existing data to make fisheries management decisions.

Climate Data Not Yet Factored Into Fisheries Decisions

“While climate variables are increasingly incorporated into stock assessments, the management plans and related quota decisions have yet to integrate the impacts of climate change into how fisheries are managed,” writes Alex Tesar, communications specialist with Ocean North in the press release announcing the Oceans North report.

Climate-driven changes in Atlantic Canada and the Eastern Arctic are projected to be abrupt and to occur in the next 20–30 years. The most rapid changes are projected on the Scotian Shelf, the continental shelf southwest of Nova Scotia, and nearshore Newfoundland and Labrador. Oceans North says commercial fisheries must become more resilient in the face of climate change. Chief among their recommendations is for DFO to develop a national fisheries and climate framework that clearly identifies a process for how climate information can go from data to decision-making. 

When it comes to data, the NL climate index has more than half-a-century worth, collating ten datasets from a range of primary and secondary sources. The index allows generating long-range trends, examining correlations in datasets, and offers both season-specific (e.g., winter atmospheric pressure at sea-level, icebergs and sea ice season severity) and annual cycle data (e.g., air temperature and seasonal sea surface temperature).

Whenever DFO in NL holds a scientific stock assessment for any commercial fishery, Frédéric Cyr is on hand, highlighting relevant oceanographic trends—which offer clues about the marine ecosystem and marine species. What’s missing in the data, however, is the translation: exactly how are fish populations responding to climate impacts? And what does the ongoing climate crisis mean for their survival and the future of wild fisheries?

“Where there’s still a missing gap, but it’s a work in progress, is that I speak about the ocean conditions but we don’t necessarily relate these conditions to the fish themselves,” Cyr told The Independent.

Dr. Daniel Boyce, a research fellow in marine ecology at the Ocean Frontier Institute at Dalhousie University in Halifax and lead author of the Oceans North report, says the practice gap relates to an overarching policy problem.

“One of the things that’s missing is a clear mandate from DFO leadership that climate change and ecosystem information is a priority in fisheries decision-making in Canada,” Boyce told The Independent. “If it’s not required, then there’s a good chance it won’t be considered or incorporated into the decision-making process. It has to start with making a clear statement, in the Fisheries Act or otherwise, that it’s a priority in Canada to include ecosystem information and climate change in our fisheries science and decision-making.”

Canada’s Oceans Act (Canada 1996) arguably provides the legislative basis for a broader, more holistic ecosystem-based management approach. In 2008, the Federal Sustainable Development Act further supported a holistic approach, acknowledging the need to integrate environmental, economic, and social factors in all federal decision-making. Meanwhile, recent revisions to the Fisheries Act requiring greater protections for fish and fish habitat, biodiversity, and habitat restoration do not compel fisheries managers to base their decisions on ecosystem information and climate change.


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Some of the key factors of the ocean’s physical environment (based on the NL climate index) offering climate change clues. (Image:  J Thornhill Verma)

From Single Stock to Ecosystem-Based Fisheries Decisions

In terms of exacting the available climate data on fisheries decision-making, oceanography science shows the North Atlantic is trending warm, for example, especially if you look at sea ice condition trends. The annual number of icebergs is increasing—from an annual average of 495 over the last 121 years, to 771 over the last ten years (1991–2020). Between the early 1980s and mid-90s, as well as in 2014 and 2019, there were a staggering 1500 icebergs counted annually. 

An iceberg drifts along the coast of Labrador in July during the Atlantic Zone Monitoring Program summer survey aboard the CCGS Teleost. (Photo: F. Cyr)

Now, for example, take the case of Atlantic Cod, one of the most contentious commercial fisheries in Canada (given its storied history and still uncertain future). The Rebuilding Plan for Atlantic Cod, which outlines DFO’s objectives and management measures for helping northern cod (a population of Atlantic cod) out of the critical zone, acknowledges environmental conditions, especially warming waters as a primary contributing factor to cod’s natural mortality.

So, how does the rebuilding plan respond by way of fisheries management measures? Nothing to do with addressing warming waters—in fact, the plan does not cite the word “climate.” Instead, it focuses on controlling fishing pressures, without ways to mitigate cod’s degrading environment.

“This is basically what we’ve been doing for as long as there’s been fisheries management,” Cyr told The Independent. “We count how many fish are in the ocean and then we decide, ‘Oh, next year we can fish so much,’ without taking into account the environment. But what if right now, the environmental conditions are not good for building the population? Then maybe we should take it easy on our [fishing] removal rates.” 

Dr. Pierre Pepin is a senior scientist at DFO in NL. Back in 2016-17, Pepin says DFO undertook an assessment to understand the degree to which the department was using available environmental data at the point of fisheries management decision-making.

“Even though about half of the advisory documents made some mention of environmental variability somewhere in the documents, only about a quarter of the documents actually used that in the provision of advice,” Pepin, who leads DFO’s national working group on an ecosystem approach to fisheries management, told The Independent. The working group has representation from all of DFO’s regional offices, with members experienced in stock assessments, resource management and ecosystem research.

According to Oceans North, currently available climate data offers a number of worrying trends about marine species due to the negative consequences of climate change. This includes: 

  • Warmer water temperatures leading to an increased threat of deoxygenation which can cause species death; northward migration of species; and more invasive species
  • Earlier sea ice melting, impacting the timing of phytoplankton blooms and in turn spawning of commercially caught species
  • Decrease in overall size of most species
  • Impeded growth, metabolism and condition due to ocean acidification (particularly true of shrimp, lobster and phytoplankton)
  • Increase in vulnerability to disease

Among the management measures DFO may take to compensate for the negative effects of climate change in fisheries management is to move from decision-making centred on a single species in isolation to decision-making that considers each species within the marine ecosystem—from the natural environment to human activity.  

“Although Canada has been nipping at the heels of an ecosystem-based approach for years, there remains an inexplicable reluctance to meaningfully move beyond single-species fisheries management,” Dr. Jeff Hutchings, fisheries biologist at Dalhousie University, told The Independent.

“Currently the way DFO does most things is that it’s a single species stock assessment,” agreed Pepin. “Some assessments consider what the environment is doing and that qualifies under the umbrella of an ecosystem approach to fisheries management, but it’s still single species.” But, Pepin added, that evolution in DFO practice is inching Canada’s fisheries management practices closer to ecosystem-based fisheries management.

NOAA Fisheries, also known as the National Marine Fisheries Service, is an office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration within the United States Department of Commerce. They define ecosystem-based fisheries management as moving beyond fishing and annual catch limits—the preferred management tool of fisheries managers, especially when considering species in isolation—to examine broader variables at play such as: interactions with other species, the effects of environmental changes, or pollution and other stressors on habitat and water quality. 

To put it in context, most of DFO’s fisheries management decisions occur at what’s considered the lowest level of ecosystem based management practice (single species fisheries management). With Pepin and the national working group’s efforts, DFO is working toward the next level (an ecosystem approach to fisheries management, which still takes a single fish stock approach). To get to the highest level (ecosystem based management) would involve cross-sectoral and intergovernmental action, says Pepin, involving multiple departments federally and provincially.

DFO, Twenty Years Ago: “Changes in Climate Cannot be Ignored”

If “changes in climate cannot be ignored” (as the twenty-year-old DFO report suggested), then ecosystem-based management is the path for fisheries management to face the climate crisis head on. At present, no country-level fisheries decisions are routinely undertaken this way, though Pepin says the United States and Australia likely have the closest examples (adding his current work constraints don’t allow adequate time for cross-country learning: “How successful they are [in other countries], I really don’t know because, among other things, the one thing I find really challenging with this initiative is the amount of time I have to do, dealing with my own problems, as opposed to learning from other people’s.”)

A 2020 scientific paper led by Dr. Mariano Koen-Alonso, a scientist with the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Centre at DFO in St. John’s states: “most jurisdictions still rely on single-species approaches, although some are gradually moving into ecosystem-based strategies for the management of their fisheries, and the last 10 years have produced important advancements on how to approach and develop integrated fisheries management plans.”

Hutchings argues there’s no excuse for hastening DFO’s pace toward an ecosystem approach: “A simple first step would be to regularly undertake qualitative evaluations of what past, present and forecasted trends in the ecosystem are likely to portend for fish stocks. If science concluded, for example, that the ecosystem is likely to be unfavourable for future stock productivity, this could be reflected by precautionary reductions in catch quotas or restrictions in fishing effort.”

But even that suggestion is a fishing solution to a climate-crisis problem.

In 2020, Fisheries and Oceans Canada offered this report on ecosystem-based management in Canadian fisheries management plans, examining 17 fisheries management plans across Canada. It considers ecosystem-based management broken down into ecological, economic and social/cultural objectives. The report found:

  • Ecological aspects, including productivity, biodiversity and habitat, were considered with explicit objectives and analysis in all plans. 
  • Economic considerations varied among plans; objectives related to viability and prosperity of fishing operations were more prevalent and more specific; economic benefits to communities were often present but aspirational, and there was little explicit attention to employment and trading relationships. 
  • Social and cultural considerations were weakest. Apart from a widespread objective reflecting Indigenous rights (in all plans), most other considerations were vague, and there was little evidence of information relating to aspects including community well-being and adaptive/social capacity. 

Ultimately that report finds: “Implementation of a comprehensive ecosystem approach that includes integration of ecological, economic, social/cultural and institutional objectives requires a) development of data sources for neglected elements, b) improved capacity for interdisciplinary considerations, and c) development of process(es) for review, evaluation and development of advice for full-spectrum sustainability.”

What’s missing in that finding is the key motivator for change to happen, which Oceans North’s Daniel Boyce says must be enshrined in policy.

“We have clear evidence that if we account for climate change in our fisheries management decisions, we have better outcomes,” Boyce told The Independent. “So there’s a clear motivation for doing this. One of the things that could be done quickly and rapidly that would have the largest effect is a clear statement in the Fisheries Act incorporating climate change as a standardized part of the assessment process.”

Old habits in fisheries management die hard, even with new data and approaches. Why? Probably because our old habits are only now catching up with us.

“In the past, when fishing pressure was high, maybe the environmental conditions were great,” Cyr told The Independent. “But as soon as the environmental conditions started to degrade, we kept the fishing pressure high. It’s a good example of how we should take into account the environment.” 

“There may seem to be a lot of fish, but you know what? If environmental conditions are not good, maybe we should start thinking about slowing down, even though there’s a lot of fish in the ocean.”

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