An open letter to the Honourable Jonathan Wilkinson

Guest blog by Hussain Sinan, PhD student


An open letter to the Honourable Jonathan Wilkinson
Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard.

Dear Honourable Minister,

I would like to thank you Honourable Minister for taking time from your busy schedule and visiting Dalhousie University to join the fire-side chat on October 22. Your interventions during the informal chat were inspiring in several aspects. First of all, as a social scientist, I was encouraged to hear you highlight the struggles that we face every day in getting social sciences up on the research agenda. Though our area of expertise is so important for policy makers and fisheries managers in their decision-making processes, we are often ignored or our advice considered secondary. As you have emphasized, a lot of work has to be done to bridge the knowledge gap between science, policy and people that policy is meant to impact. Another important message you highlighted on several occasions was the necessity for youth to voice their concerns, in order to bring about change. Here, I would like to use this opportunity to voice out a concern to you, Honourable Minister, which is very close to my heart and to my research interest.

Discussing the future of the ocean, you have mentioned that one of the main challenges facing sustainable and equitable ocean governance, is the increase in the gap between the poor and the rich. I couldn’t agree more. As prescribed in the s. 15(2) of the Constitution Act 1982, differential treatment especially for disadvantaged groups or communities is fundamental to close that divide. The gap between the rich and the poor is not only local, but it exists at the international level as well, especially in shared fisheries resources. The needs of small-scale fishermen in developing coastal states are often ignored in the decision-making process, as fishing resources are most often divided among countries with strong fishing histories, histories that have been disproportionately bolstered by colonial power and fishing subsidies. Not surprisingly, the countries that have employed industrial fisheries in those time scales are the developed nations (predominantly the G7 countries) and in most circumstances, they are allocated 90 – 95% of the resources.

Canada was a fundamental leader in the negotiations for the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. One of the main objectives for developing a legal instrument was to bring about a new economic order, one which takes into account the interests and needs of mankind as a whole, and, in particular, the special interests and needs of developing countries, whether coastal or landlocked. Even though Canada has not been on the forefront in ocean affairs in the last two decades, the upcoming International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) meeting from November 12 to 19 in Croatia, offers a platform. Canada could use the opportunity to help close that gap between the rich and the poor, and doing so, support responsible management of shared fisheries resources.

The latest stock assessment for bigeye tuna in the Atlantic shows a very bleak picture. If the current levels of fishing continue, there is an almost certain probability that the stock will collapse by 2033. The most important negotiation in the upcoming meeting is to set a sustainable total allowable catch and to develop mechanisms to ensure that the limit is not surpassed.

Currently, 7 out of the 52 ICCAT member countries are allocated 92% of the overall bigeye tuna quota.  Interestingly, 5 of those countries are developed countries and the majority of them are the wealthiest countries in the world. Canada fishes around 200 metric tonnes (MT) of the 65,000MT bigeye tuna quota, which is a minor figure compared to all the rest of the developed nations. According to the quota allocation mechanism adopted in 2016, Canada could increase their catch up to 1,575MT, but it would be unwise to do so based on the stock health.  The mechanisms adopted in ICCAT also so far has made the rich, richer and the poor, poorer. Some of the developed nations simply obtain a quota based on their historical fishing levels (based on 1991 levels), even though their fishing has drastically reduced in the last couple of decades. Some of the other developed nations give a blind eye to their quotas and keep on fishing, as they realize their ‘big brothers’, will protect them and transfer their quotas to them. Finally, some developed nations reflag their vessels to developing nations to get around restrictive quotas, making use of ‘flags of convenience’. These bad practices coupled with the enormous amount of capacity-enhancing subsidies transferred to the fishing industry in many developed nations means there is no level playing field for developing nations to compete or negotiate for sustainable use of, and access to, the resource.

Subsequently, these developing coastal states do not have the institutional capacity to negotiate, neither to understand and interpret international legal instruments and protect their sovereign rights. It is a norm in these international negotiations that when a country remains silent, they are in an agreement for the measure. However, most countries fear to speak mainly due to lack of expertise or fear of rebuttal based on their interventions. Canada has an immense opportunity, with the best universities in the world, to help increase the capacity of these institutions and support the negotiating power of their decision makers.

As I was thinking to write this open letter to you Honourable Minister, my attention was turned to an interesting intervention made by Dr. Lucia Fanning, professor in Dalhousie’s Marine Affairs Program in a public panel discussion in honour of Elisabeth Mann Borgese on November 1. Dr. Fanning mentioned that despite the calls for cooperation in international legal instruments, it is almost impossible to reach a cooperative outcome in reality. As I have observed in several international fisheries meetings,  developed countries continue to use their power to circumnavigate and undermine the conservation and management of shared fisheries resources to accumulate perceived rights and wealth at the expense of any capacity or development improvements in developing countries. This upcoming ICCAT meeting is an opportunity for Canada, through the leadership of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, to implement what you’ve preached and help to bridge that gap between the rich and poor, by establishing a fair, transparent and equitable management measure for our shared Atlantic tunas.

At the same Elisabeth Mann Borgese panel, Dr. Wendy Watson-Wright, CEO of the Ocean Frontier Institute, highlighted that a lot of world leaders whom she spoke with in the last few years have expressed to her that “Canada is the beacon of hope” for the future of the ocean. Right now, there is an opportunity to act on this by leading the ICCAT community to a more just, responsible, and fair system of fisheries management across the Atlantic Ocean.






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The Marine Affairs Program (MAP) at Dalhousie University provides an inquiring and stimulating interdisciplinary learning environment to advance the sustainable use of the world’s diverse coastal and ocean environments.

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