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Spawning sockeye salmon make their way up the Adams River in Roderick Haig-Brown Provincial Park near Chase, B.C. on Oct. 14, 2014.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Terry Teegee is the elected regional chief of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations. Josh Laughren is the executive director of Oceana Canada.

Rarely does a new minister, so early in their tenure, face a make-or-break decision that could define their legacy. Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray has this chance in the next few months to deliver on what the federal government says are its priorities: healthy oceans, conservation, sustainable jobs and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

In our roles representing the B.C. Assembly of First Nations and the world’s largest ocean charity, we are urging Ms. Murray and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to champion rebuilding healthy oceans full of life and to take meaningful action on reconciliation. Both of these urgent priorities can be addressed with strong regulations under the Fisheries Act to rebuild fish populations. The regulations are close to being finalized, and the government must get this right.

Fisheries management in Canada has been a disaster in slow motion – a decades-long decline of an incredible bounty. This decline is not a historical artifact: We’ve lost fully half the total weight of fish in Canada’s waters in our lifetime. It continues today, directly as a result of past and current poor management decisions. Climate change is further exacerbating this disaster – as we’ve seen very recently with devastating flooding in B.C. – affecting the health of water systems that are habitats for fish and essential for First Nations communities.

For First Nations in B.C., reconciliation and fisheries abundance are inextricably linked. For example, Pacific salmon are a cornerstone of life, with tremendous economic and cultural importance for First Nations communities, and are a vital food source for many species – from humans to orcas to old-growth forests. In turn, salmon rely on an abundance of smaller fish such as herring for food.

Without healthy wild fish populations, it is virtually impossible to imagine how First Nations communities can thrive. Many salmon populations are depleted and are missing the basic elements of good fisheries management. In fact, most of Canada’s wild marine fish populations are depleted or declining, and communities on all three coasts share the same potential fate.

Oceana Canada’s fifth Fishery Audit found that our wild marine fisheries continue to decline. Five years ago, only 34 per cent of fish stocks could be considered healthy. Today, that number has dropped to 32 per cent. The health status of an additional 37 per cent of fish stocks is uncertain owing to a lack of good information, which means decisions regarding these populations are being made largely in the dark. Behind each of those statistics lies the fates of communities and families that rely on our oceans, not just today, but for generations to come.

The Fisheries Act regulations provide an important choice for Ms. Murray and Mr. Trudeau. If they make the right one, we will stop overfishing and rebuild depleted wild fish populations, which are so essential to reconciliation. If they make the wrong one, we should expect more of the same: too little action, too late in the game, with too little enforcement, continuing the slow, sad decline of our oceans’ abundance and all that goes along with it.

Oceana Canada and the B.C. Assembly of First Nations welcomed the amendments to the new Fisheries Act when they were first introduced in 2019. They provided the promise of greater protections for fish and their habitats and a clear framework for the involvement of Indigenous expertise and stewardship in the decisions that affect their inherent rights. Now, heading into 2022, we are still waiting. If the act itself was enough to drive change, we would have seen results by now. Clearly, the law needs strong regulations to give it teeth.

History has proved, painfully and clearly, that without strong laws, fully implemented, there will not be abundant wild fish populations. Without them there is no meaning to the rights Indigenous peoples have to fish them.

It is time to transform the way Canada approaches fisheries, bringing together all perspectives, especially those of Indigenous peoples who have drawn sustenance from the ocean for thousands of years without compromising the integrity of its ecosystem.

We hope Ms. Murray and Mr. Trudeau will show that they have the courage of their convictions on reconciliation and ocean health. With strong Fisheries Act regulations, we can start rebuilding abundant fisheries. For the oceans. For our communities. For reconciliation. For us all.

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