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Fishing boats, loaded with traps, head from port in West Dover, N.S., on Nov. 26, 2019.

Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Climate change is rarely factored into management decisions for fisheries in Atlantic Canada and the eastern Arctic, according to a report released Wednesday from a national marine conservation group.

Report author Daniel Boyce, a research associate with the Ocean Frontier Institute at Dalhousie University, says that needs to change.

“We want to be able to prevent further collapses and promote recovery of species like the cod that has been under moratoria for almost 30 years now,” Boyce said in an interview Monday, referring to the northern cod off the southeast coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. That species was decimated in the late 1980s and early 1990s, forcing federal authorities to impose a fishing moratorium in 1992. It’s still in place today.

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To save species like the cod, Boyce said, “we need to be incorporating climate change. There’s no debate about that.”

Boyce’s report was released by Oceans North, a non-profit focused on marine conservation in Atlantic Canada, the Arctic and Greenland. It said the warming, increasingly acidic oceans are driving disease transmission among fish and forcing them to seek cooler temperatures deeper beneath the surface of the water.

Other fish are moving up into Arctic waters in search of better temperatures, the report said, which is adding stress on a fragile ecosystem unused to invaders.

The Oceans North report said warming is happening “almost everywhere” but it’s accelerating in the Gulf of Maine, the Gulf of St. Lawrence and along the Scotian Shelf, a 700-kilometre stretch of basins, banks and channels off Nova Scotia.

“By mid century, water will be too warm for many species in southern Canadian waters,” the report said, adding that proper management could counteract those effects.

To compile his report, Boyce analyzed hundreds of federal Fisheries Department research documents spanning the last two decades and found that climate change came up in only 11 per cent of the papers used to inform fisheries management decisions. That number, he said, was surprising.

“I expected that being a maritime nation, and with climate change being such a widely known phenomenon in our in our oceans, there might be a higher consideration of climate change in those fisheries assessments than there was,” Boyce said.

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Katie Schleit, a senior fisheries adviser with Oceans North, said her organization wanted track how often climate change was brought up because she said it’s not always clear how or why the federal Fisheries Department makes decisions.

“What we found is that even if the management document does contain information about climate change, sometimes it’s something like, ‘climate change is an issue,’ or ‘we expect warming waters.”’ Fisheries Department scientists are, in fact, researching the climate and its effects: the report found about 30 per cent of peer-reviewed papers related to fisheries management authored or co-authored by department scientists explicitly discussed the issue.

“But we’re barely seeing that go all the way to the management documents,” Schleit said in an interview Monday.

The report also cites the Fisheries Department’s 2016 Sustainability Survey for Fisheries, which shows only 34 per cent of fish stocks in Atlantic Canada and the eastern Arctic fisheries are considered healthy. In the Gulf region, that figure drops to 15 per cent.

“A large percentage of our stocks are either declining or have declined to critically low levels,” Schleit said. “That makes them less able to withstand any kind of changes.”

The report calls on the Fisheries Department to develop a clear process for climate science to be incorporated into management decisions and to publicly post its decisions and reasoning.

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Overall, the situation laid out in the report underscores a need for the Fisheries Department to take a wider approach to species management that looks at the entire ecosystem in which fish live, Boyce said.

“There’s a lot of room for improvement when it comes to fisheries management in Canada,” he said. “I think there’s a willingness to do it within (the Fisheries Department) there’s a lot of smart, talented people that want to do this; I think it’s a case of just kind of making it happen.”

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