Q&A: Rebuilding depleted Canadian fish stocks is good business

Fish populations in Canada need to be urgently rebuilt, but short-term socio-economic concerns – such as the impacts of fisheries closures on local fishers – often slow down or even prevent the process of rebuilding stocks.

According to a new UBC analysis published in Ocean and Coastal Management, the long-term economic benefits of rebuilding several important Canadian fish stocks – including Pacific herring, West Coast Vancouver Island Chinook salmon and Atlantic cod – could outweigh the short-term losses. The study found that the estimated economic gains could be up to 11 times higher than the status quo under the most optimistic rebuilding scenario, and five times above the status quo under the least optimistic.

We spoke to the authors of study; Louise Teh, a research associate, and Rashid Sumaila, a professor, at the Fisheries Economics Research Unit in the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries and the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs about the findings.

Why is it important to rebuild fish stocks?

RS: Rebuilding provides an opportunity for fish stocks to grow to a level so that in the future the rebuilt fish stock can sustain higher catch levels. In contrast, if no rebuilding takes place the fish stock may collapse, or drop to a level that cannot support a sustainable catch level. In a nutshell, rebuilding will help us move from the current misery brought about by low catches to a more prosperous future in which fishing communities, especially coastal First Nations, can enjoy higher catches, increased food security and improved livelihoods.

How are fish populations faring in Canada? Which fish stocks did you look at in this study?

RS: According to a 2018 assessment by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), only one third of the 177 major fish stocks in Canada were at healthy levels. So far, only 26 of those stocks have rebuilding plans in place – despite the Canadian Fisheries Act of June 2019 mandating that all depleted stocks require such a plan. Our objective was to conduct an economic analysis to assess the potential economic benefits of rebuilding six depleted fish stocks on Canada’s Pacific and Atlantic coasts.

LT: We picked six fish stocks – Pacific and Atlantic herring, Atlantic cod, Atlantic redfish, West Coast Vancouver Island Chinook and Vancouver Island yelloweye rockfish – that reflect a range of geographic distribution, life histories, depletion levels, socio-economic importance, and susceptibility to human-caused and environmental threats.

How did you conduct this analysis?

LT: For each case study fish stock, we assessed six different scenarios. Each scenario depicted different assumptions of fishery management, either (a) fishery closure, or (b) a low level of catch was permitted, and biological response of the fish either (a) fast, (b) slow, or (c) expected. Based on these assumptions, we projected the catch for each fish stock under each scenario. The time frame for the scenarios was 100 years. The projected catch was used as the basis for calculating the net benefit to be expected under each rebuilding scenario.

What did you find?

LT: We found that rebuilding resulted in long term economic gains for five out of the six assessed fish stocks – Pacific and Atlantic herring, Atlantic cod, Atlantic redfish, and West Coast Vancouver Island Chinook. The exception was Vancouver Island yelloweye rockfish, which had estimated losses under all scenarios. This is because yelloweye rockfish is a long-lived species that takes a relatively longer time to recover compared to other case study fish stocks. This means that it takes a very long time to rebuild, and, in economics, time is money. It is worth noting that with enough patience even yelloweye rockfish could generate a positive net benefit.

RS: This study confirms the results of a number of global studies that show that rebuilding depleted fish stocks is good business. For Canadian policy makers, we show very specifically for five important fish stocks that rebuilding would most likely generate net economic benefits in the long term, so it provides an argument in support of rebuilding depleted fish stocks.

An estimated 5,100 fishers are involved in fisheries for the six case study stocks. How do you limit impacts to fishers?

RS: Impacts can be mitigated by properly designed economic and/or social assistance programs to help fishers transition out of fishing, or to provide them with an alternate source of income during the rebuilding period. The type of assistance will depend on the context of the fishery being rebuilt (e.g., how long the rebuilding period will last, how dependent fishers are on the fishery, the biological sustainability of alternate fisheries etc.). Different types of assistance include buyback schemes, skills and job training, shifting to alternate target species and other sustainable ocean-related economic activities such as whale watching.

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