Most Canadian aquaculture fisheries meet new U.S. standard for wildlife protection
In 2023, all seafood entering U.S. will have to show it was harvested with American-style protections
Most Canadian aquaculture operations have been exempted from a new U.S. rule requiring that seafood imports prove they do not harm whales, seals and other marine mammals. However, most of Canada's wild-capture fisheries will have to demonstrate they meet the new American standards.
Starting in 2023, all seafood entering the United States that hasn't been granted an exemption will have to demonstrate it is harvested with protections equivalent to those used in American fisheries — a so-called comparability finding now required under the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Countries had until Tuesday of this week to apply for the comparability finding.
Since the pending rule change was announced in late 2016, the U.S. has created a list of foreign fisheries with just two categories: those that are "exempt," meaning a fishery poses little to no risk; and "export," meaning there is more than a remote likelihood the fishery will kill or seriously injure marine mammals.
On Dec. 1, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) released a list of where the Canadian fisheries stand following submissions by Canada and screening by U.S. authorities.
DFO said 166 Canadian wild-capture fisheries have been designated as "export" and 112 are "exempt." Nine aquaculture fisheries are classified as "export" and 36 are "exempt."
The list will remain in place for the next four years.
Canadian officials said they are confident fisheries here will meet the new U.S. standards.
"Canada believes that we have a very strong, world-class fisheries management regime that takes the protection of marine mammals very seriously," said Adam Burns, director general of fisheries resource management for DFO, adding Canada has implemented new protection measures in recent years.
Tim Kennedy, of the Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance, believes all of Canada's aquaculture fisheries will eventually be exempted. "I feel very confident that … the remaining will be put on the exempt list," he said.
In 2018, the industry voluntarily committed to not killing mammals — in this case, nuisance seals eating the harvest or damaging gear.
DFO later stopped issuing nuisance seal licences for any fishery. Previously, nuisance seal licences were issued to fishermen who reported seals causing damage to fishing gear or catches.
The measures were cited by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in its decision to exempt most, but not all, Canadian aquaculture fisheries.
Aquaculture fisheries designated as "export" could have been categorized as such due to very few incidents.
For example, all aquaculture fisheries in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick — including salmon farms and shellfish operations — are exempt. All aquaculture fisheries in British Columbia and Newfoundland and Labrador, however, are deemed export.
"It's regional. Even if there's two farm sites and there are 100 farms in the region, that puts the whole region on a sort of watch list or the so-called export list. But that's just because of particular incidents that happened over the last five years," Kennedy said.
"It's not a restriction on exports; it's just something that needs to be clarified over the next few years."
Endangered whales entangled in gear
Since 2018, snow crab and lobster fishermen in Atlantic Canada have been adapting to measures imposed to protect critically endangered right whales from gear entanglement.
Twenty died in the Gulf of St. Lawrence over a two-year period, although entanglements were implicated in two of the deaths.
There have been sweeping fishing-area closures after whales are confirmed in an area.
Canadian sensitivity over the issue was demonstrated earlier this year when Fisheries and Ocean Canada openly rejected U.S. claims that fishing gear from Canada was responsible for the entanglement of a right whale found dead off South Carolina.
DFO issued an unusually blunt statement, saying its investigation showed American fishing rope was found on the dead whale.
DFO 'confident' in achieving comparability findings
DFO says Canada's track record on sustainable fisheries management is among the best in the world.
"We close about a 2,000-square-kilometre area around the observation of a single whale in the Gulf of St. Lawrence," said Burns.
"Harvesters are, you know, very co-operative with that. We get the gear out of the way to avoid those entanglements, and we continue to work with the fishing industry throughout Atlantic Canada and Quebec on implementing whale safe gear as well."
The federal government has justified its measures on ecological grounds and the need to satisfy the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act to maintain access to the lucrative U.S. market.
In 2019, Canadian seafood exports to the U.S. were worth $4.5 billion, more than half from lobster and snow crab caught on the East Coast.
Both trap fisheries and others — including those using trawls, long lines and gillnets — have been designated as "export" and will need a comparability finding in the coming year.
Sarah Uhlemann, an environmental lawyer based in Seattle with the Centre for Biological Diversity, says Canada has responded to the rule by imposing a number of measures, like mandatory reporting and banning outright killing of marine mammals. But she says Canada still has work to do.
"There are over 150 fisheries that the Canadian government is going to need to prove meet the U.S. government's very high standards. It's not totally clear that all of them do," Uhlemann said.
"There's some great policies on the books in Canada that sound really nice. There's a bycatch policy. But at the end of the day, those policies don't require Canadian fishermen to do very much."
Bycatch is the accidental capture of species not targeted by a fishery. According to DFO's bycatch policy, it will gradually phase in measures in management plans for individual fisheries.
Uhlemann says Canada needs to be more transparent about licence conditions that limit or reduce the number of species caught accidentally.
DFO said it is committed to addressing bycatch to ensure "sustainable fisheries."