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.





Fishy travel notes from Cabo Verde – guest post by Helen Packer

Skipjack tuna sold by street vendors

I recently came back from a small group of volcanic islands located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of West Africa where the sun shines everyday and rainfalls are celebrations, where landslides and volcanic eruptions are never too far in the future (at least in geological time), where the music is always playing somewhere around the corner and people are always smiling, and where arid and volcanic landscapes meet rich under water ones. This place is Cabo Verde, a place where Morabeza is the guiding principle and describes what it means to be Cape Verdean: open spirit, welcoming, hospitable, relaxed and an islander.

You may or may not have heard of Cabo Verde as it is small in size and remarkably isolated but it certainly is big in ambition and open to the world. Its land mass only covers 4,044 km2 but its ocean surface is almost two hundred times as big at 785,000 km2. The islands of Cabo Verde are located at the junction of different oceanic currents but too far from the coast to be affected by the upwelling currents that fertilize the west coast of Africa. However, Cabo Verde does get exposed to some iron fertilization from the Saharan dust that gets blown across the ocean. As a result of various (and still not well understood) oceanographic processes and its isolation, Cabo Verde has a rich underwater life with high levels of endemism (when species evolve separately, creating new species).

You might wonder what is the link between volcanism and oceanographic processes and fisheries management? The link is that Cabo Verde is surrounded by underwater volcanoes also known as seamounts that deviate ocean currents and cause local upwelling and thus create local productivity hot-spots which attract small and large sea life from corals and sponges to whales, sharks and tunas. Seamounts make up the largest and most productive fishing grounds off Cabo Verde, attracting local and international, small-scale and industrial fleets alike. Fishing is an important part of Cabo Verde’s culture and economy. It is also an important source of food with the average Cape Verdean consuming 21.1kg of seafood a year.  However, as is the case with many coastal states in West African countries, Cabo Verde does not have the capacity to fully exploit its fisheries resources and therefore has signed access agreements with the European Union (EU) and issues licenses to foreign fleets such as China and Japan, which allows them to fish in Cabo Verde’s EEZ, under certain conditions.

Cabo Verde’s national fleet is largely made of small vessels (8-25 horsepower engines) that use handline and small purse-seine nets and catch around 9,000MT/year. Catch includes a wide variety of species consumed on the local market such as groupers, seabream, conchs, small pelagics such as bigeye scad and scad mackerel, moray eels, various species of lobsters, shrimps and crabs (see pictures). These small boats also go out further at sea to the local seamounts where they can catch skipjack tuna and large yellowfin and bigeye tunas. Locally caught tuna is either sold fresh on the market or canned locally at the local processing plant (Frescomar).

Larger fishing vessels (longliners, purse-seiners and pole-and-line) are also allowed to fish in Cape Verde under access through the EU Sustainable Fisheries Agreement (Spain, Portugal and France) and licensing of foreign vessels (Japan, China and Senegal). These vessels catch between 30,000 and 40,000 MT/year and mostly fish on Cape Verde’s seamounts for large pelagics such as tunas and sharks.  By law, all the catch should be transshipped in port, where it is pre-processed and sent to Europe for canning.

Local fishermen often express their concern about decreasing catch of coastal fisheries, blaming the EU purse-seine fleets for catching large numbers of juvenile tunas and longline fleets for targeting blue sharks (legally). Fishermen believe that foreign fleet activity potentially affects availability of fish, especially closer to the shore, disrupting local ecosystem functioning and affecting species abundance and distribution. These views of fishermen are in contrast to the fact that the EU Sustainable Fisheries Agreement (SFPA) is based on the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy key principles, including sustainability and protection of endangered species. Indeed, the broader aim of the agreement is “to enable sustainable and responsible fishing opportunities, while contributing to broader development objectives in the third countries”.  But this begs the question:  is the agreement achieving these aims if it is negatively affecting local ecosystems and decreasing catch by local fishermen, forcing them to go further out at sea? Moreover, incomplete or in some cases absent catch data is a big issue in Cape Verde, leading to high levels of uncertainty in stock assessments. Many of the longline vessels, whose catch is 80% sharks, do not have observers on-board, potentially opening the door to illegal transshipment at sea and shark finning. Vessel monitoring systems (VMS) are in place, but Cabo Verde has yet to develop a compatible on-land monitoring system. Therefore, many aspects still need to be improved with regards to the management of EU fleets including better monitoring and enforcement, better reporting and by-catch measures.

Seafood is an important part of Cabo Verde culture (credit: Packer)

The EU agreement brings almost € 1 million a year to Cabo Verde but who is benefiting from the agreement? It was reported that 71% of the revenues made from foreign fishing operations goes to the EU with only 17% going to Cabo Verde. Is this a fair bargain, contributing to local development? The government of Cabo Verde did try to invest in increasing local fishing capacity but there seems to be little interest for new entrants to join the fishery. As a result, the government is now focusing its activities on improving its fisheries research capacity.

This makes me wonder if Cabo Verde’s Morabeza has been a blessing or a curse when it comes to fisheries management. However, Cabo Verde is no exception. Development and sustainability issues associated with access agreements and foreign licensing are occurring in developing coastal states all over the world. However, this doesn’t have to go on. This year, Cabo Verde has another chance to change the course. The latest EU agreement is expiring and negotiations for renewal are on-going. The question is, will the voice of local fishermen be heard? So far governance has been top-down, non-transparent and industrial fishermen, being more organized, have been more influential in decision-making processes. How will Cabo Verde support its local fishermen? Protecting local fisheries is not only important for fishermen’s livelihoods but may also be a question of food security, with much of the seafood consumed in Cabo Verde being caught by local fishermen. Other than protecting its resources, Cabo Verde fishermen could also do with some support to improve the quality of their product for potential export. However, this also means careful consideration for local food security.

Cabo Verde has few land-based natural resources but has been blessed with rich fisheries resources. It is imperative that these resources are sustainably exploited and in a way that supports the social and economic development of Cabo Verde. This is the challenge that many developing coastal states face but one that must be solved through transparent and fair negotiations with foreign fleets, improved management capacity at the country level, and increased capacity to obtain more value from its resources whilst considering local food security issues.

Living in an isolated archipelago with such limited resources, Cabo Verdeans have developed a unique identity and strong attachment to their land (and oceans!). But Cabo Verdeans are also adventurous travellers, with many of them moving overseas for better opportunities. However, their strong connection to their country means they often come back after years of living, studying and working abroad, to share what they have learnt and contribute to solving the challenges their country faces. Despite these challenges, the people from Cabo Verde never forget to slow down and enjoy life while still being determined for a better future. If Cabo Verdeans taught me one thing, it is the importance of enjoying “the little things” and, doing nothing!

Cabo Verde landscape (credit: Packer)

Is “sustainability” sustainable anymore? – Guest post by Hussain Sinan

The Maldives – a tiny island state in the middle of the Indian Ocean – is where I call home. It’s known for its pristine waters, 5-star resorts, and fisheries. Of the three, the locals most clearly identify with the fisheries, and specifically our world-renown tuna fishery. Our tuna are caught sustainably – one-at-a-time with almost no bycatch. And our tuna literally fuels the entire country. The average Maldivian eats half a kilo of tuna per day. That can be breakfast, lunch, and dinner (and maybe a snack or two in between).


Back in 2008, our tuna fishing industry decided to obtain an internationally-recognized eco-label (the MSC Blue Tick), to let the world know what we’ve known for over 1,000 years – that our fishery is sustainable. In 2012, when MSC finally decided to award us with the MSC certificate, the President personally accepted the certificate from MSC’s CEO during the Fishermen’s Day celebrations. It illustrated the importance our leaders placed on the white piece of paper certifying what we already knew – that our low-impact fishery was, and is, ‘SUSTAINABLE’.

The main theme of this year’s INFOFISH Tuna 2018 – Bangkok Conference, the largest tuna industry gathering in the world, was “Braving Challenges: Towards Traceable and Sustainable Tuna Industry”. The agenda was filled with tuna businesses, tuna processors, market analysts and technological innovators. There was little focus on fishermen and fish workers. I have always believed that sustainability and traceability of tuna industry should come from the back-bone of the industry – the fishermen and fish workers.


The opening remarks by the chairman of the Conference was a stunner!! Speaking about the sustainability of purse seine fisheries using FADs, he claimed that the media has exaggerated the impact of FADs on the environment and that the real impact is minimal. Imagine that! The opener of a conference about ‘sustainability’ saying that one of the most environmentally impactful fishing gears is actually not a problem. I was simply beyond words!

And that presentation set the tone of the rest of the meeting. For the next two days, one presentation after the next, (barring a few notable exceptions), explained how tuna sourced and/or tuna processed were sustainable. Based on what I heard, the FAD purse seine fishery was sustainable, the free school purse seine fishery was sustainable, the pole and line fishery was sustainable, the longline fishery was sustainable, the fishery that was not sustainable, but has ambitions of achieving sustainability through a Fisheries Improvement Programme (FIP) was sustainable, tuna sourced from overexploited stocks was sustainable, fishing vessels supported by huge subsidies from governments were sustainable, and, finally, fair labour standards in fisheries were also a mechanism to establish sustainably sourced products. When I got out of the conference room on the second day, I was asking myself, are any tuna products ‘NOT SUSTAINABLE?”

Following Bangkok, I flew to Indonesia to participate in the Bali-Tuna Conference in Indonesia. It was a Government-Industry-NGO gathering to address the issues of sustainability of tuna resources in one of the largest tuna fisheries in the world. The main discussion point in the conference was the drive by the International Pole and Line Foundation, the fishermen associations, and the industry to achieve MSC certification for the pole-and-line and handline tuna fishery. One of the questions posed by an attendee to the panel representing retailers and the processing industry was whether obtaining MSC certification was good enough. There were questions posed by the audience whether the costs and the changes brought to the fishery to achieve the targets of MSC can be recovered and finally whether the average fisherman will benefit from the MSC certification. The panel replied that the market demanded sustainable products and if the Indonesian fishermen did not meet those demands, the markets would stop sourcing products from Indonesia. But the remaining two questions were hanging in the air, with no clear answers.


If every product in the market was sustainable based on the fish processor’s definition of sustainability, how confused will the consumer be? Moreover, if the third party certification body aims to maximize their profit by expanding their eco-label on every product, how can the consumer decide whether it’s genuinely sustainable? Unfortunately, sustainability has turned into such a big fat lie in the realm of tuna! How will the markets react when the consumers find out that hundreds of endangered sharks have been caught along with their ‘sustainably’ sourced fish?

It’s true that consumers in developed nations are demanding more and more sustainably sourced tuna. The only way to guarantee and show to the consumer that the tuna is sustainable is to obtain an eco-label such as Fair Trade, MSC or others. However, the level of burden for small scale fisheries to obtain these eco-labels is much higher than that of an industrial fishery. Imagine what it takes to manage and collect data from thousands of widely dispersed fishing boats in a developing country compared to a handful of industrial fishing vessels. Secondly, the costs of obtaining and maintaining an eco-label is enormous from the perspective of a small scale fishery, and only a drop in the bucket for the big boys. An eco-label does not guarantee a premium, but only guarantees access to the market. Thus the bottom line is, if the small-scale fishermen want to sell their products they need to obtain an eco-label, but may end up with a loss!

With all this at the back of my mind, I feel that sustainability needs to be graded in the future. There needs to be a mechanism to differentiate between the most sustainable to least sustainable! For example, a fishery catching tuna one by one, with almost no interaction with endangered, threatened, and protected species (so-called ETP) and having the wealth of the fishery being distributed among the local community should be differentiated from a fishery catching thousands of tuna from a single scoop with huge by-catch of ETP species and no support to the local community. A fishery that catches hundreds of endangered sharks as by-catch and a fishery with almost no bycatch need to be differentiated.


For me it has always been that a fishery can only be sustainable if the fish was caught within scientifically supported limits, and with almost no by-catch of vulnerable marine life or habitat damage. But I wonder, what about the human element in it? Should that ‘sustainable’ classification also include labour conditions and welfare? Food security and livelihoods? After all, fisheries management is about managing humans rather than the actual fish. Shouldn’t we be sure those catching the fish are part of our sustainable future? What is a sustainable fishery for you?

Extended reading:

Bailey M, Packer H, Schiller L, and Tlusty M. 2018. The role of CSR in creating a Seussian approach to seafood sustainability. Fish and Fisheries

Miller A, and Bush SR. Authority without credibility? 2015. Competition and conflict between ecolabels in tuna fisheries, Journal of Cleaner Production,Volume 107: 137-145,


Securing small-scale fisheries?


The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) has been the reigning seafood certification for a number of years. But its accessibility and appropriateness for the small-scale developing world sector has been questioned. Through key informant interviews and bench-marking the MSC standard and the standard of Fair Trade USA, an alternative socially-based standard, against the FAO Guidelines for Securing Small Scale fisheries, we discuss this study the role of this new emerging standard in a seafood world dominated by MSC.




IIFET Special Session: RFMOs

We need to shake up the way we manage shared fish stocks. Climate change, catch shares, and privatization are all proving too much for Regional Fisheries Management Organizations to keep up with. In this special session, speakers will present on how different RFMOs are or are not rising to the challenge of operationalizing the next generation of RFMO governance. 

Currently seeking abstract submissions for a special session at the 2018 IIFET conference: Next generation RFMO governance: Climate change, allocations, and privatization, oh my! Conference will be in Seattle July 16-20, see for more info and email me with any questions ( RFMO-map

Although formalized under the 1995 UN Fish Stock Agreement, Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) have been the management mechanism for shared fish stocks for almost one hundred years. There are merits of, and necessity in, a cooperative institution that allows management to span jurisdictions for fish such as cod, salmon, halibut, and tuna, fish that are transboundary, straddling, or highly migratory. But the archaic nature of the UN state-based system, on which RFMO management is founded, is proving insufficient in dealing with topical issues in fisheries governance, namely climate change, catch allocations, and increasing privatization of sustainability metrics and approaches. RFMOs are but amalgamations of individual states, and in most cases, states themselves have not incorporated climate change dynamics into their fisheries management plans. What hope then for RFMOs? How and where does cooperative management in the face of climate change work? RFMOs have also by and large failed to appropriately deal with catch allocations, which is unsurprising given that individual members states have drastically different interests in the various species and gears in any RFMO. How and where could things like equity and socio-economic dependence be incorporated into RFMO allocation frameworks? Finally, private interests, such as certifications and powerful mid-supply chain actors, are increasingly governing the practices of RFMOs. How and where are private market forces being used to better RFMO management, and where are we at risk of losing out on public autonomy? In this special session, speakers will present on how different RFMOs are or are not rising to the challenge of operationalizing the next generation of RFMO governance.  

This open session invites speakers from any institution studying any RFMO in theory or in practice to offer insights from their work.  The three proposed topic areas here, climate change, allocations, and privatization are but starting points, and we welcome additional contributions on what should be part of the next generation of RFMO governance.  Speakers will be asked to prepare a presentation in the style of PechaKucha, whereby 20 slides make up the presentation, and each slide is shown for 20 seconds. A total of 7-9 speakers would be ideal. The goal of this session is to amalgamate a wide variety of examples from many parts of the world and dealing with many different RFMO issues, and thus the PechaKucha format allows for several pointed presentations to occur within just one session.