The vast majority of fisheries in the world are small-scale. These are the community-based, small boat, family owned fisheries that make up a whopping 90 per cent of the world’s fisheries, fisheries that land more than 2/3 of all the fish caught worldwide and provide the basic protein needs to literally billions of people.
These facts are well established, so you would think that fisheries managers, government departments and international fisheries bureaucracies would also recognize this reality and develop policies accordingly. Unfortunately the opposite is often true: fisheries management policies have often favoured large industrial fleets to the detriment of of fishing peoples and communities, and many would say, to the detriment of fish stocks.
This situation began to change about five years ago when many governments and international agencies, began to recognize that small-scale fisheries are not a problem to be solved, but rather a solution to the pressing problems facing our oceans.
Most importantly, this turning point was signalled by a major initiative led by the food agency of the United Nations, the Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) — a set of international guidelines to support small-scale fisheries. These guidelines are an international acknowledgement that small-scale fisheries are central to marine conservation, poverty reduction, food security and sustainable coastal communities.
This historic turning point was one of the most promising developments in the world’s fisheries for a long time (an area where good news stories have become exceedingly rare.)
But then things start to go wrong.
Just as a draft of these guidelines was about to go back to the FAO fisheries committee this coming June, something unexpected and quite shocking happened: one country out of almost 90 member nation states — Canada — torpedoed the whole process at the very last minute.
Even more unbelievably, Canada blocked the guidelines, not on the grounds of some fisheries policy position, but because of a completely unrelated political issue.
Here’s what happened: a paragraph was inserted into the draft that indicated the protection of the rights of small-scale fisherpeople includes those in “occupied territories” around the world. Because of these two words, the government of Canada blocked the consensus on this historic fisheries agreement. No reason was given publically, but it is clear this is connected not with fisheries but with Middle Eastern foreign policy, because “occupied territories” includes Palestine.
What is so disappointing about this development is that there had been such a positive process leading up to the agreement, involving more than six years of consensus building on every continent. This process included Canada, which played an active and constructive role in the process. The Canadian position now completely dismisses this process, not because it opposes the guidelines, but because it wants to make a diplomatic point about the Middle East.
By its actions, our government is showing how little it values Canada’s coastal communities. Apparently our small-scale fisheries are so unimportant that they can be casually discarded in order to make a completely unrelated diplomatic point.
Sadly, for many people in Canada’s coastal fishing communities, including First Nation fishing communities, this will confirm a commonly held view that the federal government, in fact, does not care about their fisheries, that for the last 40 years the federal government has tried to undermine community-based inshore fisheries.
This may not entirely be fair, since the federal government has shown support for policies that support viable, independent inshore fisheries. These policies are now being undercut by this single fact: Canada was the only country in the world that would not stand up for the future of family owned, community-based inshore fisheries.
Fishermen, their organizations and communities will be watching to see how the government handles this. Right now it has dug in its heels and is refusing to work on a solution. Surely we can do better than this? Canadian delegates who were present at the meeting in Rome have written to Foreign Affairs Ministers John Baird and Fisheries Minister Gail Shea to urge them to work out a solution, for the sake of small-scale fishing people in Canada and around the world. This letter suggested Canada’s representative at the FAO could be given clear direction to sit down and work out a compromise that allows Canada to maintain its foreign policy position, while at the same time supporting the draft guidelines.
Let’s hope they are listening.
Arthur Bull is past-president of the Bay of Fundy Inshore Fishermen’s Association, a former government of Nova Scotia policy analyst, and a policy adviser to the World Forum of Fisher People.