Policy for managing the impact of fishing on sensitive benthic areas

Seafloor or “benthic” ecosystems are essential components of Canada’s ocean environments. They are significant areas of marine biodiversity; providing habitat to diverse species and plants and supporting complex food chains. Many marine species within benthic ecosystems play an important social, cultural, and economic role in the lives of Canadians.

To ensure healthy and productive marine benthic ecosystems, it is imperative that these areas be considered in fisheries management decision making. This is reflected by increasing calls for the mitigation of fishing impacts on sensitive benthic marine ecosystems, including in the 2006 United Nations’ Sustainable Fisheries Resolution. Seafood producers and consumers are also demanding evidence of sustainable fisheries policies and programs that minimize the impact of fishing on sensitive benthic ecosystems.

Canada has taken a number of steps to protect benthic ecosystems, primarily by restricting certain fishing practices and activities to eliminate, or limit as much as possible, the destruction of sensitive marine habitat and species. The most common measures we use are area or time closures, gear restrictions and requirements for gear modification. For example, semi-pelagic otter trawls for groundfish operate without directly contacting the sea floor.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada developed the Policy to Manage the Impacts of Fishing on Sensitive Benthic Areas in response to these demands, and to provide a more systematic, transparent, and consistent approach to addressing these issues in Canadian fisheries. It applies to all commercial, recreational, and Aboriginal marine fishing activities that are licenced and/or managed by the Department both within and outside Canada’s 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone.

The policy outlines separate processes for historically fished and frontier areas:

This two-fold approach was taken in response to the 2006 Science Advisory Report, Impacts of Trawl Gears and Dredges on Benthic Habitats, Populations and Communities (PDF), which suggests that there is a higher level of scientific uncertainty about benthic habitats communities and species in frontier areas. The report also notes that the greatest impact to vulnerable benthic habitats, communities, and species in a given area can be caused by the first few fishing events. The policy thus requires greater precaution when fishing activities are being considered in frontier areas. It also gives special consideration to historically fished areas that have not been exposed to bottom-contact fishing. In particular, proposals for new bottom-contact fishing in historically fished areas will require risk assessments prior to proceeding.

The policy outlines the following key steps for both historically fished and frontier areas:

  1. Assemble and map existing data and information that would help determine the extent and location of benthic habitat types, features, communities and species; including whether the benthic features (communities, species and habitat) situated in areas where fishing activities are occurring or being proposed are important from an ecological and biological perspective;
  2. Assemble and map existing information and data on the fishing activity;
  3. Based on all available information, and using the Ecological Risk Analysis Framework (under development for 2009 completion), assess the risk that the activity is likely to cause harm to the benthic habitat, communities and species, and particularly if such harm is likely to be serious or irreversible;
  4. Determine whether management measures are needed, and implement such management measures; and,
  5. Monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of the management measure and determine whether changes are required to the management measures following this evaluation.

The policy provides that ongoing fishing activities and proposals to expand fishing activities in historically fished areas would be processed through existing management planning processes, including regional advisory processes for harvesting management plans and integrated fisheries management plans. Where such planning processes do not exist, new mechanisms to engage resource users and others with an interest in the resource will be developed. Engagement in the application of this policy is critical, and will be managed for the most part through regional offices of Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

How will it be implemented?
Formal implementation of the policy is expected to commence in 2009 following completion of the Ecological Risk Analysis Framework, and phased in over time based on levels of risk and priorities. However, the Department has already started some of the work required to deliver the policy. For example, some regions have begun to map current and historical fishing activity to clearly delineate frontier and historically fished areas.

At the same time, fisheries managers are continuously considering ways to minimize the impact of fishing on important benthic ecosystem features. For example, two coral areas off the coast of Nova Scotia were identified and have been closed to all fishing since 2001: the Northwest Channel Closure (424 km2) and the Stone Fence Lophelia (15 km2). Four sponge reef areas were also identified off the coast of British Columbia in the eastern Queen Charlotte Sound and Hecate Strait, and have been closed to shrimp trawling.

Internationally, Canada has been working closely with the North Atlantic Fisheries Organization to protect deep-water and cold-water corals. This collaboration resulted in a five-year closure, starting in 2006, of a coral protection zone to all bottom contact fishing gear in NAFO Division 3O on the Grand Banks off the southeast coast of Newfoundland and Labrador between 800 and 2,000 meters.

Canada’s fishing industry has also taken measures to protect sensitive benthic areas. In May 2007, a partnership of the Canadian Association of Prawn Producers (representing the offshore fleet), the Groundfish Enterprise Allocation Council, and the Northern Coalition announced the creation of a 12,500 square kilometre Coral Protection Zone in the northern Labrador Sea.

What is the Ecological Risk Analysis Framework?
The Ecological Risk Analysis Framework will be used to identify any risk levels that fisheries may pose to an ecosystem component so appropriate action may be taken. Fisheries and Oceans Canada will begin this process by developing a risk analysis framework of fishing impacts on corals and sponges.  Within historically fished areas, DFO will conduct triages to help identify benthic areas that may be more at risk than others to help prioritize the work and actions that may be required to mitigate or avoid harm.