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Dragged into Court

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Issue: 3 Section: Environment Geography: Atlantic Nova Scotia Topics: water, fisheries

July 11, 2003

Dragged into Court

Ecology Action Centre challenges DFO on dragnet fishing policy

by Hillary Bain Lindsay

A small NGO in Halifax is taking the Canadian government to court. The Ecology Action Centre (EAC) is accusing the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) of violating its own legislation to protect fish habitat. DFO's decision to reopen George's Bank, an important fishing ground in Atlantic Canada, to dragger boats, without first conducting an environmental assessment, spurred the EAC to take legal action in 2001. The case is expected to come before a judge this summer.

According to the Ecology Action Centre, dragging heavy nets along the sea floor has a similar impact on marine habitat that clearcutting has on a forest. illustration: Ecology Action Centre
Section 35(1) of the Canadian Fisheries Act states that, "no person shall carry on any work or undertaking that results in the harmful alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat." According to Mark Butler, Marine Issues Coordinator at EAC, dragging heavy nets along the sea floor has a similar impact on marine habitat that clearcutting has on a forest, "dragging homogenizes the ocean floor, removing both biological and physical features, be it corals and sponges or humps and bumps. Juvenile cod and other groundfish species rely on the cover the bottom provides to hide from predators." The EAC accuses DFO of ignoring its own mandate by consistently refusing to evaluate the impacts that dragging, and other fishing methods, have on marine habitat.

A report published this May by the Marine Conservation Biology Institute (MCBI), titled Shifting Gears: Addressing the Collateral Impacts of Fishing Methods In US Waters, may add weight to the EAC's case against dragging. The report's findings are based on a survey of fishers, regulators, scientists and conservationists who compared and ranked the level of damage 10 major fishing gears cause to the marine environment. Dragging topped the list as most harmful.

Don Gordon, a DFO scientist, has read the report and concedes that there is now a wide consensus that dragging is the most damaging method for catching groundfish. However, he does not know how DFO will respond in terms of fisheries management policies.

Terry Farnsworth, a fisher from Digby Nova Scotia says his catch is down 75% from last year.
Butler believes that "they [DFO] do not want to address the issue of gear because it would be a departure from long established policies and interrupt the status quo." Critics argue that after the collapse of the cod fisheries, DFO might reconsider the status quo.

According to Butler, however, little has changed over the past decade and the same combination of high risk technology and high risk management are still at work today, "Despite the ecological devastation, the human suffering and disruption and the massive amounts of taxpayers money spent, the collapses of the early 90s did not lead to any kind of public review... The same thinking, same policies, and same people remain largely in charge today."

Change within DFO may be slow, but change in the oceans is happening at a devastating pace. Terry Farnsworth, a fisher from Digby Nova Scotia says his catch is down 75% from last year. He is being forced to move into deeper and deeper water to find any fish at all, "we went from fishing along the shore to being driven to explore areas I never thought I'd have to go... When that's gone, what'll I do next?? That's the last of them out there."

Farnsworth has been fishing for groundfish for over 25 years using a method called handlining. He chose handlining over dragging partly because it has less impact on the marine environment. Farnsworth has watched many of his friends give up handlining because they can no longer make a living with fish densities so low. DFO continues to license large dragger boats, however, which use large nets to catch more fish in a shorter amount of time. "How can they not see that it's irresponsible fishing practices?" Farnsworth asks. "I cannot see how this kind of destruction can be profitable... maybe there's a different way of looking at profitable."

Les Burke, head of the department of economics at DFO, says, "fishing has become far more efficient because there is new technology that can tell us where exactly the fish are." According to Burke, by targeting the fish in certain areas, the overall damage to the ecosystem can be dramatically reduced. Burke says that by mapping the ocean floor, DFO is identifying sensitive areas to be protected and other areas that can be dragged with little negative impact. Although some areas are open to handlining but closed to dragging, the majority of these marine protected areas are closed to all methods of fishing. This approach does not satisfy Butler, "measures such as endangered species legislation or marine protected areas, while they encourage more sustainability in the fishery, are not the tools to fix the fishery and its fundamental problems."

According to Butler, a solution based on protected areas does not acknowledge that some methods of fishing are far more damaging than others. It also fails to encourage small fishers like Terry Farnsworth to continue handlining, when in the end, areas are either completely closed, or completely open, no matter what the gear type.

Butler hopes that the court case this summer will force DFO to address fully and openly the different methods of fishing, and move away from a fisheries management strategy where marine areas are either 'open' or 'closed' and fish stocks are either there, or gone forever, "We are not trying to shut down all dragging, we just want to see fishing done right. They are certain species and habitats that can withstand the impacts, but right now there is no sense and no balance."

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