` Oceana Fishery Audit 2021

Science Indicators
Fisheries Management Decisions are Being Made in the Dark

Over the past five years, the federal government has made significant financial investments and commitments to strengthen fisheries science. Where DFO has fallen short is in translating that into a better understanding of the status of Canada’s fish. We’ve seen a slow rise in the number of stocks with limit reference points. But the number of stocks with recent biomass estimates remains stagnant at roughly 60 per cent, and the number of stocks with enough data to assess their health status hasn’t improved. Furthermore, only half have upper stock reference points: a key management tool needed to help depleted species recover to healthy levels. And although DFO is obliged to publish the results of its science meetings, the vast majority of documents are published late or never made publicly available. Indeed, some publications expected from meetings in 2017 are still not available.

Stocks with sufficient data to assign health status (%)

Purpose: Allow scientists to make robust estimates of how many fish are in the water and assign stock heath status


Stocks with recent biomass estimates (%)

Purpose: Help managers make decisions based on recent estimates (i.e., within the last five years) of how many fish are in the water.


Stocks with reference points established (%)

Purpose: Allow managers to assess whether a stock is in healthy, cautious or critical condition, set appropriate harvest levels and gauge the success of management measures.


Stocks with fishing mortality estimates (%)

Purpose: Help determine the rate of fish removal and sustainable fishing limits.


An upper stock reference point identifies the boundary above which a fishery can be considered healthy, while a limit reference point identifies the boundary below which it can be considered to be in a critical state. Corrective action should be taken before a stock reaches the limit reference point.


Stocks with natural mortality estimates* (%)

Purpose: Help make better fisheries management decisions by determining the rate at which fish naturally die.


* New indicator in 2018

Science publications released on time* (%)

Purpose: Enable better transparency of fisheries management decision-making by making the most up-to-date information publicly available.


* New indicator in 2018

Why targets are crucial

Effective fisheries management depends on clearly defined harvesting targets based on the best available science. The USR is a key reference point, marking the boundary between the cautious and healthy zones.

To establish a USR for a particular population, DFO considers the biomass that can support maximum sustainable yield (MSY): the total amount of fish that can be routinely harvested without risking long-term depletion. Canadian fisheries policy also calls for Target Reference Points (TRPs) for each stock, which can be, and often are, the same as the USR.

Maintaining the biomass capable of producing MSY is required by the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, to which Canada is a signatory. Currently, however, Canada often sets its USRs at lower levels – often much lower – than the level that can support MSY. That means a stock could be classified in the healthy zone even when it’s being overfished.ϐ

To ensure sustainability, DFO must set rebuilding targets well above the USR. Leaving more fish in the water will help re-establish healthy ecosystems — and produce higher fisheries returns in the future.

ϐ  For example, the Food and Agricultural Organization, in its report on the status of global fish populations classifies stocks having biomass lower than the level that can produce MSY as overfished. (http://www.fao.org/documents/card/en/c/I9540EN/)

Good fisheries management decisions are based on the best available science as well as local and Indigenous Knowledge.

data gap

A third of stocks still lack LRPs and half lack USRs. According to the 1995 United Nations Fish Stocks Agreement, fisheries must have these reference points established.

data gap

71 stocks don’t have sufficient data to assign them a health status.

data gap

80 per cent of Canada’s wild marine fish populations lack an estimate of fishing mortality, the rate at which fish are being harvested.