Another cod-like collapse possible under DFO watch, says federal audit

A new federal audit report warns another fish species collapse could happen again under the watch of Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

'From my perspective, we are still at risk of having another stock potentially go into collapse'

A federal audit report found of 15 'critical' depleted fish stocks, only three had the required rebuilding plans. (CBC)

A new federal audit report warns another fish species collapse could happen again under the watch of Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

"From my perspective, we are still at risk of having another stock potentially go into collapse, similar to what happened to the [Northern] cod," said Julie Gelfand, federal commissioner of the environment and sustainable development, who released the audit this week.

Working on behalf of the federal auditor general, the commissioner looked at the management of wild fisheries in Canada between 2013 and 2016 and concluded DFO lacked the key information it needed to manage major fish stocks.

Among the findings:

  • Of 15 depleted stocks deemed "critical" because continued fishing poses a threat, the audit found only three had required rebuilding plans.
  • Of the 154 major stocks, 44 were missing required integrated fish management plans, or those plans were out of date.
  • The department failed to carry out planned scientific surveys due in part to mechanical problems on board coast guard vessels.
  • There are "systemic" problems with fishery observer programs — a vital source of information on catches at sea.

Case study: Fisheries Observer failures

The audit followed up on changes in the DFO made by the previous Conservative government.

One was a 2013 change that required fishing companies — not DFO — to hire third party observers. That left the department little leverage when observers fail to comply with program requirements.

The only recourse was to revoke their designation, which in turn would disrupt access to catch data. As a result, no revocation has ever happened despite complaints.

The department is also struggling with the potential for conflict of interest in dockside monitoring companies. There is a policy that fisheries observer companies can have fewer than half of board members with ties to the fishing industry.

However the audit reported, "For at least four dockside monitoring companies, the Department was aware of a serious potential conflict of interest, but took no action to ensure it had been mitigated."

Big budget cuts too

The audit says significant budget cuts between 2011 and 2016 eroded DFO's ability to fulfil its mandate.

The budget for DFO's key tool for sustainable management — the Integrated Fisheries Resource Management Program — was reduced by more than 25 per cent. The budget for its Fisheries Resource Science Program was reduced by almost 20 per cent.

Environmentalist Susanna Fuller of the Ecology Action Centre says the previous Conservative Government is 75 per cent responsible for today's problems at DFO.

"Budget cuts and strategic reviews have eaten up huge amounts of senior management time and really devastated the morale," Fuller said.

"The fact they agreed to every single recommendation in the report is quite telling. It means they recognize those problems internally. I think we've had a decade of budget cuts, we've not had a lot of importance given to our fisheries over the last decade either."

Liberals promise action

On Wednesday, federal Minister of Fisheries Dominic Leblanc told CBC News the Liberals take the environment commissioner's audit report very seriously.

"We fully intend to act on her recommendations. We think it validates some concerns we've had for a long time," LeBlanc said.

In its spring budget the federal government increased DFO's budget by $197 million.

In its response to the findings, DFO pledged to develop integrated fisheries management plans where none exist and to update those that are out of date by next spring.

The department promised better scientific monitoring and technology upgrades that will allow the department to share information between its six regional offices.

A failure to communicate between the two regions that share management of the Greenland halibut fishery — formerly known as turbot — resulted in a catch that was 50 per cent over limit.

The overfishing only came to light after the fishery season ended.