The Canadian Fishing Industry

Canada and the United States are well known for sharing a long land border, but Canada’s other borders are shared with oceans, the Pacific in the west, the Atlantic in the east and the Arctic in the north. Because of the surrounding oceans and Canada’s size, the country has the longest coastline in the world and a fishing industry that uses that coastline to its advantage.

The fishing industry is also supported by freshwater lakes and rivers. Canada has around 20 per cent of the global supply of fresh water resources, and most of that water is retained in lakes, underground aquifers and glaciers. Moreover, Canadian rivers discharge close to seven per cent of the world’s renewable water supply annually, according to canada.ca.

The Great Lakes, including Superior, Huron, Erie and Ontario, as well as Great Bear Lake and Great Slave Lake are among the largest in the world.

Because of the access to lakes, rivers and oceans, fishing has always been important. Indigenous peoples have been fishing here for food and trade for thousands of years. When the first European settlers arrived, many of them built their homes near rivers and lakes for both food and a means of travel. Today, many Indigenous peoples have worked hard to preserve their traditional fishing practices alongside Canadian commercial fishing operations. This has not always been easy. For instance, tensions have remained high over Mi’Kmaq fishing rights in Nova Scotia due to a recent lobster fishing dispute. In British Columbia, much tension has arisen over the years in regards to salmon fishing.

On the Pacific coast, a variety of fishing methods are used to harvest the five species of wild salmon that populate the area: chinook, coho, chum, pink and sockeye. For commercial fishing, methods include trolling, seining and gillnetting.

Trolling uses hooks and lines attached to long poles. The type of lure, how the lines are arranged, the speed of the boat, the water depth and on-board electronic systems allow fishers to target a specific species.

Seining uses large nets. The net surrounds the fish and then the bottom of the net is closed to keep them from escaping. A smaller dip net is then used to scoop the fish out in a process called brailing, which allows fishers to release the fish that they didn’t want to catch.

Gillnetting also uses nets, but these are designed to trap fish in the mesh of the net instead of closing them in. The length, depth and mesh size of gillnets help fishers target fish by species and size. Gillnets are usually used near the mouth of a river or in the river itself.

Traditional Indigenous fishing methods include gaffing, dip-netting, weirs, stone traps and reef nets. Some of these methods were banned by the colonial government but have started to see a revival.

Gaffing and dip-netting were common along the Fraser River Canyon. Fishers would stand on wooden platforms above river eddies and would use a long pole with a hook on the end called a gaff or a long pole with a net on the end called a dip-net to lift fish out of the eddies.

Weirs also used to be common in the rivers before being banned by the colonial government. Weirs were a fence-like structure with removable panels that were used to temporarily block the salmon’s path, or channel the salmon into a trap so fishers could easily catch them. When they were finished, the fence panels would be removed to allow the salmon run to continue upstream to spawn.

Now, weirs are being explored as a way of monitoring the salmon population. The Heiltsuk Nation in Bella Bella, the non-profit Qqs Projects Society, the Hakai Institute and scientists from Simon Fraser University have partnered together to tag and track salmon runs with the Heiltsuk’s Koeye River fish weir.

Stone traps and reef nets were used along the coast where they could use the tidal flow to catch fish. Stones would be placed to create shallow pools to trap salmon at low tide, and reef nets would be set perpendicular to the shore in an area where the tide would push fish into the net.

The Atlantic coast is known for its lobsters and crabs. Both are harvested using traps that are placed on the ocean floor. Snow crab traps are made of mesh netting and a steel frame, and lobster traps are made of nylon netting over a wooden or wire frame. Both are designed to allow undersized and unwanted catch, such as fish, to escape.

To ensure the sustainability of the crab and lobster fishing industries, there are several conservation measures in place. Female snow crabs, female lobsters bearing eggs and undersized snow crabs and lobsters must be returned to the ocean. There are also a limited number of traps allowed per boat.

In the north, arctic char is popular for both commercial and subsistence fishing and is usually harvested with gillnets. With ice melting and opening up more of the Arctic ocean, there may be more northern fishing in the future.

In order to make sure that fishing in this new area will be sustainable, Canada signed an agreement in 2018 to ban commercial fishing in the central Arctic Ocean until enough scientific data has been collected. This agreement was also signed by China, Japan, Russia, Iceland, Norway, South Korea, the European Union, the United States of America and Denmark.

In 2019, Canada’s top fishing industry export was crab. Most were exported to the United States, but other export destinations included China, Japan, Vietnam and Indonesia. The next largest export was lobster, both live and frozen, which mostly went to the United States and China, but also found its way to South Korea, Belgium, Japan, and Spain among other countries.

Last year, crab and lobster accounted for around 50 per cent of Canada’s exports in the fish and crustaceans, molluscs and other aquatic invertebrates category, according to Statistics Canada. This category accounts for 39.6 per cent of Canada’s live animal and animal products exports. Sustainability and ocean health are important to the fishing industry. Through conservation measures, such as licenses and international regulations for oceans management, Canada is helping to ensure that the global fishing industry continues to thrive for years to come.   

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