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Dalhousie University professor co-authors ‘good news, bad news’ study on global fish stock health

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WATCH: A new study has found that around the world, just over half of global fish stock conservation targets are being met. – Jul 27, 2021

A new study co-authored by a Halifax marine biologist has found that around the world, more than half of fish stock conservation targets are being met, but Canada is not among the countries meeting its goals on average.

It’s a “good news, bad news” report, said Dalhousie University marine conservation professor Boris Worm, who analyzed information from a global database of fish stock assessments, with researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and King Abdullah University of Saudi Arabia.

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“Overall, the situation of global fisheries is slowly improving and that’s good news,” he told Global News. “However, this comes with a note of caution that just under half of fisheries are trending in the wrong direction.

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“Unfortunately, particularly in Canada, we see this trend as well where the situation is not improving on average. While some stocks are improving, others are getting worse … so there’s some work to do.”

The database contained information for some 800 species harvested by humans around the world. Researchers used two metrics to come up with their findings: the amount of fish that exist in the water, and how intensely the species is being fished relative to what’s considered sustainable.

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Two out of five commercially harvested species are not being fished sustainably, said the report. It also found some methods currently used to assess fish stock health tend produce “overly optimistic” outlooks on the average status of fish stocks, while others produce a more cautious picture.

Worm and the other researchers averaged those findings to determine the study’s results.

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“Our study is really aimed at decision-makers to give them an average picture of where we are relative to where we should be,” he explained. “This is true for individual countries but also worldwide.”

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He said he’d like to see this report become a catalyst for government action, encouraging them to realign fish stock targets with what’s sustainable, if they currently fall short. Canada in particular, he added, needs to improve its data collection on a handful of fish species.

“Our analysis could only be done for those fish stocks that had accurate scientific information, which is by far not all of them … So we’re missing a lot of stocks that are probably in poor health on average.”

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Shannon Arnold, senior marine program coordinator for the Ecology Action Centre, welcomed the report and its findings, characterizing Canadian fisheries management decisions as “too optimistic.”

“It’s a really important paper because it says we actually need to continue to be really cautious. In Canada, over 30 per cent of our fish stocks are either in the critical zone or in the cautious zone still, and that means they still need to recover.”

Canadian Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan was unavailable for an interview on Tuesday, and her office did not answer questions about the report’s findings.

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In a written statement, however, it said the government takes a sustainable, “precautionary approach” that prioritizes not just the conservation of stocks, but their rebuilding. Since 2018, it said Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) has completed rebuilding plans for seven of 19 stocks at risk, and two have improved to the point where they’re no longer in the critical zone.

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Rebuilding plans are also in development for five additional stocks, and its commitments on fish stock provisions are legally binding.

“Most recently, Minister Jordan has taken decisive action to stabilize, protect and rebuild Pacific salmon stocks with the $647.1 million Pacific Salmon Strategy Initiative, announced last month,” said the statement.

“This initiative includes bold, transformative steps like long-term closures of commercial Pacific salmon fisheries and a license buy-back program, which will permanently remove fishing effort from Pacific salmon stocks while providing license owners the opportunity to retire with dignity.”

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