A recent appearance by Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray at an industry annual meeting has set off a sea squall of controversy, with harvesters and unions warning of the “dire social and economic effects” of federal catch limits and Murray stressing her interest in keeping fish stocks sustainable in an era of climate disruption.
The unions representing fish harvesters on Canada’s east and west coasts claim her remarks to the annual general meeting of the Canadian Independent Fish Harvesters Federation (CIFHF) reflected a “singular focus on ocean conservation” at the cost of workers whose livelihoods rely on the fishery industry.
In a release, the Fish, Food and Allied Workers (FFAW) union said Murray “set forth a vision where the fishery has a reduced importance and where harvesters are being asked to bear the brunt of the sacrifice for a climate change issue in which they did little to contribute.”
“Suggesting that small-scale owner-operator harvesters who fish sustainably and contribute economically, socially, and culturally to our regions should be the ones to find a new career path is frankly shocking and emphasizes the Minister’s ignorance or flippancy towards what the fishery means to our communities,” FFAW-Unifor President Keith Sullivan said.
Murray said in an emailed statement she was disappointed that her comments were “publicly mischaracterized”, adding that she would have been happy to address any concerns at the time.
There is no recording or transcript from the AGM, but FFAW-Unifor communications officer Courtney Glode told The Energy Mix in an email that FFAW “took detailed written notes and there were 45 people in attendance who can verify.”
CIFHF Executive Director Melanie Sonnenberg said FFAW’s release accurately recounted Murray’s comments, adding that she hoped for an opportunity to work out a path forward with the minister. She suggested that Murray, a professional forester and former British Columbia environment minister with decades of sustainability experience, is “on a sharp learning curve” since she doesn’t come from a fisheries background.
“People are very concerned about the messaging they are hearing, and we need to be clear about that,” Sonnenberg added.
Murray’s and FFAW’s accounts of the AGM indicate different perspectives about the minister’s position on how the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) should respond to climate change, and how departmental policies affect the fishing industry.
Murray has said she wants to work with fish harvesters in coastal communities across Canada to achieve “shared goals for a sustainable and prosperous fishery, which have provided for our coastal communities for generations, and that we want to assure, can provide for the generations to come.”
In her statement on the controversy, Murray said her comments were “rooted in the reality that our oceans are warming, impacting the species they sustain, and as a result, some fish stocks that sustain coastal communities are in a fragile state.” She added that she wants “to work with harvesters to address the challenges faced by our oceans and fish stocks, while ensuring owner-operator harvesters can continue contributing economically, socially, and culturally to their communities as fish stocks allow.”
But FFAW said Murray “stated clearly that her goal is to leave as many fish in the water as possible and to grow as much vegetation in the water as possible so that the Atlantic Ocean can better absorb carbon to combat climate change.”
Glode added that the minister “deflected to Employment Insurance programs and retraining in new industries” when asked about support for harvesters and enterprise owners having their livelihoods eliminated. She responded to another question about digitizing certain aspects of fisheries by saying that “she would like to look into blue economy, ocean supercluster, and retraining for fish harvesters to earn a living, not from ‘extractive sectors.’”
Press Secretary Claire Teichman told The Mix that Murray’s words were taken out of context, and that her retraining comment was about a strategy for supporting fishing economies, not replacing the fisheries themselves.
But union representatives flagged concerns about how DFO decisions are made, and how officials address the effects on fishing communities. “The government is dismantling commercial fisheries under the banner of future planning and conservation,” Sullivan said, “despite our fisheries already being managed by a precautionary, conservationist approach.”
DFO’s decisions are based on politics and ideology rather than science and industry consultation, Sullivan added. “In many cases the data and science do not substantiate claims that stock abundance is at issue, such as with herring,” he said, referring to Murray’s closure of most Pacific herring fisheries on the West Coast.
Murray’s statement clarifying that “some” stocks are in a fragile state indicates the department’s focus is on a select number of fish species, rather than all species as Sullivan suggested. But Sonnenberg said most members at the AGM felt the message was “that every stock was problematic,” reports SaltWire.
Oceana Canada, an independent charity that audited Canada’s fisheries in 2021, before Murray was appointed minister, states that “nearly one in five stocks are still critically depleted,” while the health of one-third of fish species is uncertain because of insufficient data. The audit echoed FFAW’s concerns about decisions that are not substantiated by science, concluding that “DFO is operating mostly in the dark when it makes critical decisions about these fish—like how much fishing to allow.”
While both organizations call for more evidence-based decision-making, Oceana Canada says more precautionary conservation policies and rebuilding plans are needed.
Another 2019 assessment called for plans to ensure long-term economic returns by rebuilding fish stocks, even though the strategy would mean short-term economic losses for fishing communities. Rebuilding “would occur against a backdrop in which commercial fishery participants have already been coping with declining returns and participation in fisheries,” the assessment stated.
That review concluded that the social impacts of rebuilding must be addressed, and support for fishing communities would have to be a key component of the process.