Fish are profoundly important in aquatic ecosystems and provide food for humans and many other organisms. But bizarrely, we don't actually manage the fishery as if this is true. Extensive over-fishing and loss of habitat have dramatically reduced fish available to be consumed, with attendant ecological disruption across many water bodies. Other uses of fish, including animal and fish feed, tourism and industrial applications, are also reducing food security for many. The situation is made even more perverse by the historical understanding in North America of fish (and wildlife) as a public resource in accordance with the Public Trust Doctrine that has its roots in common law and Roman civil law (Cooke and Murchie, 2013). The challenge is to optimize the fishery for human nourishment (a public and communal purpose) and the transition will be challenging because it means changing how and where we fish, who fishes, how fish are processed and distributed, and how much we consume.
Under the conditions of open-access which existed until the national enclosures that commenced in 1977, marine resources were subject to significant over-exploitation (Rogers 1995). Nationalization of fisheries within a 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) by coastal nations effectively changed the property type of marine fisheries from an open access regime to one of public property. However, centralised management of a resource as complex and invisible as fisheries has proven challenging, and has had little success in improving the conditions of overexploitation; fisheries continue to collapse around the world under imperfect centralised command and control (Bavington 2010). Attempts at privatization as a response to the failure of centralised management, most commonly in the form of Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQs), are becoming common (Pinkerton and Davis 2015), but not necessarily effective for a range of reasons discussed under Core Issues.
For many, a sustainable fishery means environmentally viable fish stocks, a socially acceptable fishery (that supports community and culture), and an economically viable fishing industry (Ecotrust and Suzuki, 2015). Stephenson et al. (2019:482) elaborate,
A sustainable fishery respects the ecological integrity of the ocean and its resources; is ethical, responsibly governed, economically viable and technologically appropriate; supports communities; draws on local culture, heritage, and diverse knowledge systems; and enhances health, well-being and the public good
They also provide a very elaborated set of specific objectives for the fisheries that are consistent with that definition. Unfortunately, such a fishery is not what exists in Canada. Community-based or common property systems have existed around the world as another potential method to manage fisheries, to achieve sustainable use (McCay and Acheson 1987; Pinkerton 1989; Ostrom, 1990). This activity area explores how Canada can transition to such an approach.