Thank you, Mr. Chair, for inviting the department to appear before the committee today.
I would like to introduce some of my colleagues who have joined me.
They are Kevin Stringer, the associate deputy minister; Mario Pelletier, the deputy commissioner of operations for the Canadian Coast Guard; Jean Landry, the director of the fish population science branch; and Marc Clemens, the manager of national fisheries policy for the department.
Our department welcomed the commissioner of the environment and sustainable development's report , “Sustaining Canada's Major Fish Stocks”, which we received in October 2016.
We very much value the work of the commissioner, the work that went into the review, and appreciate the insights on how we can improve our management approach in critical fisheries that affect thousands of Canadians in rural, coastal, and indigenous communities.
As you know, Fisheries and Oceans Canada agreed with each of the eight recommendations put forward. We are also actively working on addressing them, as evidenced by our management action plan, which is now publicly available on our website.
The commissioner was very clear about the intent of the audit: to ensure that we manage the 154 major fish stocks under our control in a way that is sustainable and with the ultimate desire to avoid the potential collapse of another stock.
While the commissioner highlighted several gaps in our management delivery, to ensure the committee has adequate time for questions and answers I'll limit my introductory comments to address perhaps the two most significant recommendations.
First, the commissioner expressed her concern related to our integrated fisheries management plans, more commonly known as IFMPs. IFMPs are our core fisheries management documents for each major stock, which outline our objectives and how we manage a fishery. At the time of the audit, management plans were in place for 110 of the 154 major fish stocks, including those with the greatest commercial and economic value. However, the remaining 44 major stocks had either missing or outdated plans.
I'm happy to be able to have a conversation today with the committee about the progress we're making in that area. Today, IFMPs are in place for about 79% of the major fish stocks, while the remainder continue to be managed using other fishing plans. That translates into around 26 IFMPs that still need to be completed, and 14 that require updates.
Going forward, DFO has a work plan to address the priority IFMPs that will be updated or completed within the current fiscal year, including publicly posting those that are complete. Also, we have established timelines for completing or updating IFMPs next fiscal year and in subsequent years until the work is complete. I'm happy to provide any further details on the exact number of plans that need to be posted, completed, or updated, and will be able to provide you what you need.
The commissioner also expressed concern about the lack of rebuilding plans, coupled with continued fishing of some of the major fish stocks currently in the critical zone. I want to take this opportunity to reassure members of this committee that although formal rebuilding plans may not be in place for all stocks in the critical zone, DFO has strict fishery management measures in place to control fish harvests for those 16 stocks.
Those measures include a variety of actions. For example, some of the stocks are caught only as bycatch; directed fishing on them is expressly not permitted. For those that are fished directly, measures such as quota limits, restrictions on small fish, and catch monitoring and enforcement programs are in place to ensure harvests are kept within limits.
These management measures are based on scientific evidence and guided by our sustainable fisheries framework, a key policy instrument that provides the basis on which to develop environmentally sustainable fisheries that also support economic prosperity within the industry and within fishing communities.
Developing these formal rebuilding plans takes time. It takes scientific advice, and it takes considerable engagement with stakeholders, but we're very much committed to achieving the task.
This fiscal year we're seeking to add four more rebuilding plans to the existing three in place. This includes yelloweye rockfish, southwestern Nova Scotia cod, and redfish in Unit 1 and Unit 2.
We are also advancing work so that we can have plans completed next year in a number of other areas, including northern cod. We very much appreciated the opportunity to review the excellent work done by this committee on northern cod as well.
We're putting in place a strategy that's going to allow us to focus on the most pressing areas of concern in the near term while at the same time ensuring that we have a long-term strategy and capacity to guide the completion of IFMPs and rebuilding plans in the years ahead.
To support this effort and to continue to strive for further transparency, we'll be annually publishing our sustainable fisheries survey—we call it the fisheries checklist, somewhat informally—as committed to last fall. This will identify the status of the work that is to be completed each year and indicate how we're doing in implementing our sustainable fisheries framework, which includes our rebuilding plans, reference points, ISMPs, and other elements.
Mr. Chair, this is just a brief overview of some of the work we have accomplished since the commissioner tabled her report last October. Going forward, our department will continue to use scientific evidence to guide our work.
The $40 million per year that was set aside in budget 2016 for aquatic science is helping us fill some of the gaps mentioned in the commissioner's report. Approximately half of this funding is going directly into fisheries science, such as stock assessments, data analysis, and environmental monitoring. It's also being used to support and expand DFO's survey program for fish and marine mammals. In addition to the work, we're developing a national catch reporting and fisheries monitoring policy.
The additional funding for science will allow us to improve our stock assessments and our capacity to make projections about future harvest levels. For the stock assessed on a multi-year basis, it's also going to give us the chance to put in place the necessary tools to ensure that when unexpected changes in stock status are identified in interim years, science will have the capacity to carry out full stock assessments ahead of schedule.
An important element tying all of this work together is being more transparent with Canadians about how we're managing our fisheries. Making our science, information on fisheries, and our progress to implement our sustainable fisheries policies more accessible to Canadians is important, and it's a priority for our department. We've already taken important steps in this regard and will continue to do so.
Before closing, I just want to reiterate our department's commitment to building indigenous commercial and recreational fisheries that are economically prosperous and environmentally sustainable. As deputy minister, my goal is to ensure that we have the key management tools and policies in place to manage each of these fisheries responsibly. By continuing to take action on each of the recommendations put forward by the commissioner, I'm confident we're going to be in a position to achieve just that.
I understand that I've only touched on a few of the significant recommendations at this time; however, we're happy to answer any of the questions that the committee may have on the full report.
Yes, we plan to do more on those species.
You mention capelin. We recognize that we have a gap to fill in our knowledge of capelin. In using the funding from budget 2016, we plan to improve our knowledge of capelin. For example, we plan, in fiscal year 2018-19, to conduct a major survey of the whole capelin stock off Newfoundland and Labrador. This approach should give us an opportunity in the future to develop real abundance indices of the value of biomass for this stock.
This is roughly a $2.3-million investment for that year. I expect that once this development is done, it will fill an important gap in our knowledge of capelin. We recognize that it's really a key species that lives with cod.
For the cod assessment, currently the frequency of the full assessment of the cod stock is three years. We fully recognize the importance of that stock, but in terms of the frequency, I would say that the approach we have put in place currently is probably adequate.
I'm going to explain what I mean by that. We made a substantial improvement in our approach to assess the stock in 2016. We have a very good model and a more robust approach. We now can forecast three years in advance when we provide this assessment.
We monitor carefully the species each year. Each year we do an update on the stock, as we did in March 2017. Moreover, as part of the recommendation of the commissioner's report, we have developed indicators that would trigger an earlier assessment during interim years if something happened. This is quite important.
We don't want to miss anything important that could put the resource at risk. So, during interim years, if we see something happening that is not what we expected, we can immediately do a full assessment and make sure that we act rapidly on the stock.
I'm really delighted you asked that question.
What's different? I'd like to tell you a little bit about the structure and what I've done as a manager coming in as deputy minister of Fisheries and Oceans Canada. There are lots of different models and lots of ways you can manage them. We have the largest, most decentralized department in the country, with 85% of our staff operations in the regions.
I come from a region, although I'm not wearing the tartan that I should be wearing today. I'm very shy about that.
Voices: Oh, oh!
Ms. Catherine Blewett: I'm very sensitive to the regions. It was a change I made, as someone coming into the office. I made the regional directors general report directly to the deputy minister. That's a structural change. For me, as I've said, it's a recognition that there are times when what we do at 200 Kent Street in Ottawa doesn't connect to the ground, and it's critical that we are tuned in. That set a pretty good tone and a pretty good signal.
The other thing we've done is this. I've implemented regular.... Every two weeks I'm talking to them. We're out in the regions. It makes a difference. Our regional management, our regional leaders, know that they can pick up the phone. And I have expectations as well in terms of delivery.
I want to thank the witnesses for appearing again before this committee.
I'm going to take a little bit of a different track with my questions. As you know, I come from the south shore of Nova Scotia. Two particular species, the Atlantic whitefish and the Atlantic salmon are at risk. The Atlantic whitefish, I believe, is now endangered.
One of the concerns that I have heard in the communities and with organizations that have worked with this specific fish is that DFO's attitude, plan, and way of managing is to save what we have, not rebuild what we have. There are real concerns that there's no plan in place to rebuild the stocks, but just one to make sure that we don't lose what we've got.
I'm just wondering if you can comment on that. Can you put people at ease that we do want to rebuild this stock? A lot of the concern comes from the fact that the hatchery that we had was not only closed, but was totally dismantled. There's some question as to where the smolts, the eggs, and everything else went when that was dismantled. There has been an interest in rebuilding another hatchery. Is that a possibility? I know I'm asking you all kinds of questions at once, but they're all interrelated.
Furthermore, while you were giving testimony, I heard a couple of times about the importance of stock. How do you judge what the importance of stock is? Does that play a role in your rebuilding plans? If something is a commercial fishery, is it more important than something that is almost gone, like the Atlantic whitefish?
I'll start with you, Ms. Blewett. Maybe you can start that conversation.
Mr. Hardie, thank you so much. I appreciate that.
I have an example that I want to bring up with you, and I've had a discussion with Mr. Stringer on it. This past weekend, I made an announcement. It was to be a good news announcement about the bass quota this year in Miramichi. It was great until I made the announcement. People were really not happy about it, especially the people along the river, because I kept saying that we were basing our decision on science.
The number of bass increased 6% last year, with 20,000 more bass in the river. We already know that there's pressure from them, and people will say that the bass take a good chunk of the salmon smolt, which is in bad shape.
Within the river itself, they've imposed a three-week moratorium on the spawning period. That also could coincide with the Striper Cup. So if we're talking about the economic benefits, it could have an effect on that. Also, they've increased the number of fish species outside the river to two, but within the river until the spawning, it's just one fish species. After spawning, the bass usually goes out into salt water.
They're really not happy about that, and I have a hard time explaining how we base that on science, because we've had an increase and last year we didn't have any moratorium. How can I explain that to my people in Miramichi?
This is more of a comment, which hopefully we'll have a longer discussion on.
So far this committee, I think, has issued eight reports, and there have been a ton of recommendations. You have the environment commissioner's report on top of it.
The question becomes, at what point do you run out of capacity to do all of this stuff? You've been sitting there very patiently. You come in front of the Spanish Inquisition on a fairly regular basis, and you nod and smile, and you go off and try to get all of this done. The concern that I'm starting to develop is that you're about an inch deep and a mile wide in terms of your capacity to actually do this. You've never really said, “Gang, we can't do any of this.”
I think we are coming to the time where we need to have that discussion. It isn't just a matter of expectation of management here; it's a matter of what you can do to hit the critical mass where you're actually making a difference, and not just scraping the barnacles off the boat.
I'm going to leave it at that, and hopefully we can have that discussion in a more complete manner somewhere down the line.
Thanks very much.
I'm going to interject here, which is the chair's prerogative.
On the striped bass thing, I very much agree with Mr. Finnigan. Having been a fisheries manager in a previous life, I know that they always tend to err on the side of not harvesting enough fish. I agree with Mr. Finnigan's amplifications that the decision to expand the fishery was a good one in principle, but I don't think you did it enough. I've read some of the reports from his region, and I may even be visiting it at the end of April.
We see this all across Canada. Biologists do this over and over again. When a stock is abundant, it should be fished somewhat hard. You should be willing to sort of push the envelope a bit, because, as Mr. Finnigan is implying, some significant economic activity will not be realized because of a decision that could easily be challenged biologically.
That's enough for the chair to say. I'm completely out of line, so I'll rule myself out of order.
Mr. Doherty has asked for one short question.
Mr. Chair, I appreciate the opportunity, and I'm adding to Mr. Hardie's comment.
Ms. Blewett, I'm glad to hear that checks and measures have been put in place since you've been in this position. We talk about fisheries management plans, and we should at this point ask for the department to come before the committee with its departmental management plan. Time and again, we've heard about it, whether it's on the report filed earlier or the disconnect in the studies we have heard about between Ottawa and the regions.
It is important that we make note that regardless of which government has been in place and what funding was in place, there are critical issues in terms of management. It has been noted on record that some of these challenges have been management challenges.
I would ask, Mr. Chair, that the department come before the committee at another time. Ms. Blewett, can you commit to doing that?
I think that is really important for us. I say this because you can throw all sorts of money at an issue, but if you have no plan to manage the resources, meaning not just financial resources but also physical or human resources, as Mr. Hardie was talking about, we'll be here 26 years from now and saying the same thing.
It is really important, if this committee is going to continue the good work that I think we have done—and I think you're starting to put some processes in place, maybe following along in the footsteps of others—that we have an update, perhaps even quarterly. I'm asking if you would commit to coming back in a short time to give us the management plan moving forward.
I think you started to tell us a bit about that today, but I'd like to get an update on that.
I'll start, and Jean may want to add.
Jean said we are seeing some encouraging signs in mackerel, but we remain very concerned. It's at a low state. There is a commercial fishery, a recreational fishery, and a bait fishery. We've talked to the industry about needing to improve our monitoring. Marc talked about the catch monitoring policy we're working on for this year. We actually are strengthening it, particularly in the bait fishery, to make sure we have a good handle on it.
It's enormously important. In our meeting with the PEIFA last week, they talked about being ready to take on tougher, stringent measures, because they know we're serious about it because of the state of the stock. We are not going to let it go further, and so we are putting more stringent measures into ensuring that we're accounting for all fisheries.
In terms of there being more bought than is recorded, there's our dockside monitoring, our observer coverage, and our logbooks, etc. A big part of our compliance is in making sure that people are accounting properly. We charge people when we find out they're not doing so.
We don't think there's a huge issue there, but we constantly have to be vigilant to make sure that the reporting is appropriate.
Thank you, Mr. McDonald.
Staff, you are aware, and the department is aware, that this committee did extensive work at looking at revising the Fisheries Act. We are very eager to receive the department's response. We know you have 120 days from when it was tabled. I think I can speak for the committee when I say that we're requesting a response as quickly as possible, because that's such an important piece of work.
We hope you found our cod study and the salmon study very helpful. We very much enjoyed conducting the studies ourselves, and we operated in a very collegial manner. We all feel so strongly, regardless of political stripe, about the importance of these fish stocks. We're pleased to see movement, as Mr. Landry talked about, dedicated Atlantic salmon work. Hopefully our report had a little to do with that. In spite of the shortcomings of the striped bass issue, there was a major expansion that I think was partly due to the work this committee did. We very much appreciate what the department has done.
With that, I will adjourn the meeting, and we will go in camera for just a couple of minutes.
[Proceedings continue in camera]