Canada’s Bluefin Tuna Management: Time to Get it Right

by Heather Grant & Katie Schleit

Back in August, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) released its recommendations on whether or not to list several marine species as endangered or threatened under the Species At Risk Act (SARA)—one of which was Atlantic bluefin tuna. Listing under SARA means the species is protected under Canadian law, and it becomes illegal to kill, harm, harass, capture or take an individual and prohibits the possession or trade of products made from them. DFO’s recommendation on bluefin was to not list bluefin under the Act, mostly citing the socio-economic impacts that would result from closing the Atlantic Canadian bluefin fishery if listed. Regardless of whether the government lists the species on SARA or not, these bluefin need more attention as they are currently at just 55% of their already depleted 1970s levels.


via Giphy


Before a species is considered for protection under the Species At Risk Act, it must be assessed by a body of independent Canadian scientists called the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (or COSEWIC, for short). The Committee looks at the amount a population has declined, the vulnerability of its habitat, the kinds of threats it faces and various other factors, and determines if and to what degree the population or species is at risk of disappearing from Canada.

COSEWIC designated the species as Endangered in 2011 because the population had undergone decline of 69% over just three generations. The justification for this, according to the committee, included the decline of abundance of spawning fish, and the fact that efforts to rebuild had met little success. The committee was also concerned about the potential impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. A paper recently published suggests that more than 5% of bluefin predicted spawning ground was oiled with potentially detrimental impacts for a population that shows little evidence of rebuilding.

Once assessed by COSEWIC, a species is then passed to the federal government, who must decide whether or not a species shall be listed for formal, legal protection under SARA. This brings us back to the present and the impending decision on whether or not to list bluefin under SARA.


via Giphy


Maintaining the Status Quo?

The problem with DFO’s recommendation to not list bluefin is that the Department has not outlined any significant new actions that would help to protect the species in lieu of the much stricter rules under SARA. The population has experienced significant declines, and although the most recent science shows some signs of improvement in stock health, the population still hasn’t recovered and there is a great deal of uncertainty in the science.

Luckily, DFO already has a policy for dealing with this kind of situation – in December 2013, the Department released its Species at Risk Act Listing Policy and Directive for “Do No List” Advice, that has so far not actually been used as no new species listing decisions have some down the pipeline until now. Not-so-luckily, it’s not clear whether, in the recent recommendations on bluefin, DFO is actually following this policy, which we’ll call the No Listing Policy. This directs the Department to provide a clear rationale on why a species is not being listed, what additional actions will be taken to protect or rebuild a species in lieu of listing and include any activities “incremental to the status quo”, and if no additional actions are being taken, DFO must give a good reason why.


via Giphy

In DFO’s rationale for the “Do Not List” advice for bluefin, there is mention of actions that will be undertaken, but unfortunately these actions are pretty much the status quo. The Department says it will continue to manage bluefin through the international body which governs it, which is no different from what has been done in the past. DFO also mentions the need to update the Integrated Fisheries Management Plan (IFMP), a document meant to “guide the conservation and sustainable use of marine resources”.

However, this is something the Department has been promising for more than three years, and the document hasn’t been updated since 2008. Updating the IFMP is a part of normal fisheries management practice, and shouldn’t constitute a new or additional activity to protect the species. DFO also committed to reviewing at-sea observer coverage, which if too low creates issues for data collection and enforcement of fisheries regulations, however this, too, is something that has long been promised but not achieved.

The Auditor General’s report on Sustaining Canada’s Major Fish Stocks, released on October 4, 2016 used Atlantic bluefin tuna as one of its case study species. The review was critical of the lack of IFMPs as well as the robustness of objectives, many of which were not specific or time-bound. The review also notes significant concerns with observer programs, data collection and stock assessments and a lack of reference points for all stocks.


via Giphy


A New Way Forward

The current commitments by DFO for bluefin tuna do not appear to go beyond the status quo, which has not yet been effective at rebuilding this species. Canada had the opportunity to help to rebuild Atlantic bluefin, even if they are not being listed on SARA by using additional tools at their disposal and implementing the “No Listing Policy”. More action is needed, especially since the international rebuilding plan, put in place in 1998, will likely not succeed by its 2018 deadline. Additional stressors such as the potential ramifications of the Deepwater Horizon spill only magnify the need for precautionary action. Canada has a real responsibility and an opportunity, given that the species is assessed as Endangered, and still faces threats in our waters, to put in place additional, precautionary measures to protect them.

We will be looking for Canada to maintain the quota at current levels until there is a new stock assessment that shows that at a higher quota is possible and continue to advocate at the international level for the adoption of harvest strategies in the near term. We will be releasing more detailed recommendations on the management of Atlantic bluefin internationally in the near future, so stay tuned. In the meantime, we hope that Canada will take initiative and deliver on the commitments they have long been making, both by truly implementing their own “No Listing Policy” and by fulfilling the actions identified in their recent SARA recommendations.


via Giphy

For more information on Canada’s bluefin tuna fishery, click here (PDF will download automatically). 

Heather & Katie are marine team staff at the Ecology Action Centre—they have both been working on bluefin tuna management and conservation for several years and have been trying to improve management both nationally and internationally.


One thought on “Canada’s Bluefin Tuna Management: Time to Get it Right

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