Bill C-68 would update the Fisheries Act so all decisions address Indigenous rights. It could spur major improvements to Indigenous and coastal communities.

Canada’s GDP and the well-being of many rural communities in this country are tightly tied to our natural resources. Therefore, real sustainability in the primary resource sectors demands equal attention to ecology, economics and the people whose cultures and livelihoods depend on trees, minerals, fish and so on. Bill C-68, An Act to Amend the Fisheries Act and Other Acts in Consequence, tabled in February, has the potential to take Canadian fisheries management farther in this direction than ever before.

Notably, C-68 would update the Fisheries Act to require that all decisions taken under it address Indigenous rights affirmed in the Canadian Constitution. The minister of fisheries, oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard would also have new latitude to develop policy that incorporates local economic, social and cultural considerations alongside long-standing biological and macroeconomic objectives.

As marine policy researchers, we think of the bill as enshrining “human dimensions” in Canadian fisheries law and believe that there are many good reasons to be doing so. First, fish are integral to food and trading, social and ceremonial practices in many Indigenous communities. A good number of Indigenous groups also see fishing as a cornerstone of local economic development. Second, fish stocks are a publicly owned resource. This means that they must be monitored and managed with transparency, with attention to whether and how corporate entities or foreign firms control fishing licences and quotas, and with opportunities for public participation and feedback. Third, fishing and fish processing employment is in decline in many coastal communities at the same time as Canada is exporting billions in seafood around the globe. This disconnect requires urgent attention, because coastal people should play a central role in harvesting and packing, and because as experienced workers in the seafood sector retire, maintaining and expanding opportunities for next-generation harvesters and shore workers will help keep residents, money and jobs in rural communities.

The devil is in the details. Wording in C-68 suggests that traditional and community knowledge; social, economic and cultural factors; and the interests of active fish harvesters who own and operate their own vessels could be formally incorporated into decision-making. Things like the status of negotiations with Indigenous nations, local values ascribed to fishing and the number and viability of commercial opportunities for smaller-scale harvesters could be on the table, along with marine habitat health, fish stock status and aggregate revenues.

If C-68 passes, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans will be responsible for operationalizing amendments through policy frameworks, regulations and management. A first step should be to develop and adhere to an Indigenous reconciliation framework. In addition to dialogue with First Nations, this framework should reflect relevant case law and findings from the National Indigenous Fisheries Institute’s Indigenous Program Review. Second, the department should determine how the fisheries management plan in place for each commercial species will incorporate community and traditional knowledge. Because this knowledge is best gathered through surveys and interviews with people, departmental personnel and funding will be needed to develop collection, storage, privacy and integration protocols. Finally, it will be necessary to define what Bill C-68 means by “the preservation or promotion of the independence of licence holders in commercial inshore fisheries.” Without a clear and agreed-upon interpretation, and guidelines that describe how “independence” relates to licensing and quota policy, this intention will remain a lofty platitude.

There are examples that we can learn from. First, there already is a policy in the Atlantic Region that is intended to limit the ability of nonlocal people and large companies to hold some types of commercial fishing licences and to ensure that inshore fish harvesters receive fair prices for their catch. Many believe that this policy has helped preserve opportunities in valuable fisheries for fish harvesters who own and operate their own vessels. Moreover, in new fisheries and/or new licence allocation, there is also a framework that includes historic dependence and proximity/adjacency to the resource as decision criteria. The implementation and socio-economic benefits of these policies should be carefully studied, and then options for adopting similar policies in the Pacific and North Regions should be developed.

Second, in close consultation with the Heiltsuk First Nation, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans recently opted to close an area off the Pacific Central Coast to commercial roe herring fishing for the 2018 season. Two rationales were offered: Indigenous reconciliation, and the need to support rebuilding of the stock. Both parties espouse a vision of healthier marine ecosystems and more robust commercial fishing opportunities for people of the Central Coast. This example illustrates that shared decision-making is challenging but possible.

We are cautiously optimistic. But we also know that attention to a broader range of human dimensions points Canadian fisheries management toward uncharted waters.

Bill C-68 could catalyze improvements for Indigenous and coastal communities; some consider it an unprecedented opportunity in this regard. It is clear that C-68 seeks to address criticisms of the current Fisheries Act: weak habitat protection; insufficient attention to Indigenous rights; and indifference to opportunities for harvesters to build a profitable fishing enterprise and retire when a family or community member has the capital and experience to take over and earn a living.

We are cautiously optimistic. But we also know that attention to a broader range of human dimensions points Canadian fisheries management toward uncharted waters. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans will need to build and fund new capacity in areas such as governance, social science and Indigenous rights. It is clear that systematic planning and hiring will need to happen, but it is not immediately evident where this activity and expertise will be centred within the department’s institutional structure.

If C-68 passes, work to implement its amendments should begin immediately. If left unaddressed and outside of policy, many decisions with high stakes for coastal peoples and communities will remain largely up to ministerial discretion, rather than being based on robust definitions, guidelines and evidence.

Photo: Fish farm on the Northumberland Strait, New Brunswick. Shutterstock, by Greenseas.

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