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Economy, Fisheries

indigenous Canadians, processing workers, important exports, fishing ban, Canada dates

Commercial fishing in Canada dates back nearly 500 years. Fishing occurs in ocean waters, inland lakes, and rivers, but the industry has declined as the number of fish has decreased. Only about 30,000 Canadians (less than 0.1 percent of the labor force) are employed in this sector, which accounts for 0.2 percent of the GDP. Canada’s fish catch in 1997 was 1.03 million metric tons. About 80 percent of the catch is exported, which is just over 1 percent of the total value of goods exported. Canadian fish and seafood are sold in 100 different countries, but the primary markets are the United States (50 percent) and Japan (29 percent). Cod, herring, crab, lobster, and scallops have been the most important exports from the Atlantic coast, and halibut and salmon from the Pacific coast. There is also a commercial freshwater fishery in Ontario, focused on Lake Erie. Commercial sport fishing industries have been developed throughout Canada.

Fisheries have long been the mainstay of economic life in Atlantic Canada. In 1989 the region’s catch represented 75 percent of Canada’s total and 64 percent of landed value, which is the amount the fishers are paid for it. By 1992 the total value of Canada’s Atlantic fisheries reached C$984 million annually. In 1993, however, Ottawa imposed an unprecedented two-year ban on the commercial fishing of cod in the northern fishery, extending from southern Labrador to the northern Grand Banks, because of a drastic decline in fish stocks. This was formerly one of the richest areas on the Atlantic coast. The fishing ban later was extended indefinitely because of the near-extinction of the fish. Initially the federal government provided emergency assistance payments, in addition to unemployment compensation, to fishers, processing workers, and boat owners. A more comprehensive compensation plan, a voluntary job retraining program, and a regional development program followed.

The causes of the near-extinction of cod have been much debated. Some blame environmental factors. The Canadian government, however, points to the increasing use of larger, more sophisticated boats and foreign intrusion on the fishery. In the century before 1950, fishers worked in small boats using hand-operated equipment and took about 250,000 metric tons a year from the Atlantic waters off Newfoundland and Labrador. After 1950 Canadians increased their catching capacity by using larger, longer-range vessels with new nets, power equipment, and electronic navigation. Modern European vessels also moved in. In 1968 the northern cod catch peaked at 800,000 metric tons. In 1977 Canada extended its fishing zone to 200 nautical miles (230 mi/370 km) to protect stocks, and for a few years scientists believed that the cod stocks were recovering. However, foreign boats, especially Spanish and Portuguese, began fishing just outside the zone limit in 1986, and by 1991 they accounted for more than a quarter of the cod caught in the region. In 1989 scientists realized that the foreign boats were depleting the northern cod stocks. By 1992 Ottawa introduced new conservation measures and stricter enforcement to protect small fish and spawning stocks. However, these measures were insufficient, leading to a total collapse of the fishery and the imposition of the ban. The time it takes to regenerate a commercially viable stock is unknown, but there were enough signs of recovery to partially reopen the fishery in 1997.

The British Columbia fishery on the Pacific coast is also significant to Canada, with a total value of C$416 million in 1992. Five species of salmon are the mainstay of the fishery, accounting for more than 80 percent of the catch. Other fishes caught in Pacific waters are herring, halibut, cod, sole, and a variety of shellfish. In British Columbia and Yukon Territory, about 85,000 indigenous Canadians are eligible to fish as part of their aboriginal rights—rights they retain as the original owners of the land. Some indigenous people also fish in the commercial industry, and what they take there is in addition to what they are allocated under aboriginal rights.

Canada and the United States share the Pacific salmon resource under the 1980 Pacific Salmon Treaty, which took 15 years to negotiate. The treaty’s goals are to conserve stocks and to distribute salmon equitably. Each country is allowed a catch proportional to the share of salmon spawning in its rivers. The Canadian government estimates that 60 percent of the southeastern Alaskan catch are spawned in Canadian waters and are therefore Canada’s property. In the early 1990s the Alaskan salmon fishers increased their catch, and at the same time stocks arriving in Canadian waters began to dwindle. After several years of protesting to the U.S. government that the Alaskans were taking more than their share, Ottawa in 1994 imposed a fee on American fishing boats passing through Canadian waters. The fee was removed later in the year when the United States agreed to international arbitration to settle the dispute.

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