Océans en santé. Communautés en santé

Environmentalists and bottom trawl industry develop innovative measures to improve fishery

March 28, 2012

Vancouver, B.C.— For decades, British Columbia environmentalists have clashed with the groundfish bottom trawl fishing industry, but the two have come together to find common ground, and fragile ocean habitat is the big winner. The two groups have developed innovative measures to conserve corals, sponges and deep-sea habitats. These new management measures have been implemented through Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Groundfish Integrated Fisheries Management Plan. Both the environmentalists and the industry representatives agree that these unique measures represent significant progress in the management of this fishery.

The David Suzuki Foundation and Living Oceans Society have been working closely with B.C.’s groundfish bottom trawling industry to develop new measures that are meant to reduce and manage the fishery’s impacts on fragile ocean habitats. The management changes include:

  • defined boundaries for the fishery
  • individual limits on coral and sponge bycatch
  • a procedure to alert skippers if a bycatch in excess of 20 kg of coral or sponge occurs
  • a joint habitat conservation review committee composed of representatives from industry, environmental groups, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada

“It’s the first time anywhere that individual bycatch limits have been used to manage habitat impacts,” said Scott Wallace of the David Suzuki Foundation. “The B.C. groundfish bottom trawl industry should be congratulated for taking on this new level of individual accountability.”

Both sides are quick to point out the important achievement of the formation of a long-term collaborative relationship through a formal habitat conservation committee. This will allow both sides to work together to address habitat concerns going into the future and ensure that the measures are achieving the expected results.

“The development of the habitat committee is a major step forward by itself,” said John Driscoll of Living Oceans Society. “When you view it alongside all of the other changes that are being put into place as a result of this effort, it’s clear that this fishery is changing in some very real and exciting ways.”

For the industry, the economic rationale is clear: “Our markets are increasingly demanding evidence that fisheries are well managed, employ sustainable practices and address ecosystem impacts,” said Brian Mose, a fifth generation fisherman and member of the Canadian Groundfish Research and Conservation Society. “We know that in order to maintain and expand market opportunities, we need to provide assurances to environmental organizations, retailers, and consumers that we are serious about managing and reducing our impacts on ocean ecosystems.”

“It is important to address these habitat conservation issues, because we recognize that our industry’s future is reliant on a healthy ecosystem,” said Bruce Turris of the Canadian Groundfish Research and Conservation Society. “Our partnership with the environmental organizations has allowed us to come up with an innovative solution that works for our industry and conservationists.”

For the environmental groups, the conservation improvements are significant. Deep sea corals form forests far below the surface of Canada’s Pacific Ocean, supplying places for juvenile fish to hide from predators and for many organisms to feed. British Columbia environmental groups have long singled out the bottom trawl fishery for its impacts on these marine habitats. Rather than publicly disputing the criticism, industry opened up lines of communication with the environmental groups that continued for more than three years, leading to this precedent setting effort to work together to change the fishery for the better.

Both industry and the conservation organizations are grateful for the support provided by Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Pacific Region staff who were instrumental in providing data analysis and showing management leadership.



Scott Wallace, 778-558-3984, Sustainable Fisheries Analyst, David Suzuki Foundation

John Driscoll, 250-230-6580, Sustainable Fisheries Campaign Manager, Living Oceans Society

Bruce Turris, 604-524-0005, Canadian Groundfish Research and Conservation Society

Brian Mose, 250-248-0969, Canadian Groundfish Research and Conservation Society

Rebecca Reid, 604-666-0751, Regional Director of Fisheries Management, Fisheries and Oceans Canada


Organizations involved

  • Canadian Groundfish Research and Conservation Society (CGRCS): A commercial fishing industry organization representing participants in the commercial groundfish trawl fishery, including license holders, vessel owners, crew, processing plants, and shore-workers. The CGRCS works cooperatively with government agencies and other industry associations on the sustainable management of groundfish resources (i.e. research surveys, biosampling, stock assessments, and fishery monitoring) and the economic viability of the commercial groundfish trawl fishery.
  • David Suzuki Foundation (DSF): A Canadian environmental organization that works with government, business and individuals to conserve our environment by providing science-based education, advocacy and policy work, and acting as a catalyst for the social change that today's situation demands.
  • Living Oceans Society (LOS): Canada’s largest environmental organization that focuses exclusively on marine conservation, based in the small fishing community of Sointula, British Columbia.
  • Marine Conservation Caucus: The official consultative body for marine environmental organizations in British Columbia; includes both David Suzuki Foundation and Living Oceans Society.
  • Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO): The federal department tasked with managing marine fisheries. The measures developed by the CGRCS, DSF, and LOS will be implemented by DFO via the integrated fisheries management plan.


The groundfish bottom trawl industry, represented by the CGRCS, worked with the Marine Conservation Caucus, represented by DSF and LOS, to develop a series of innovative management measures for the fishery to manage and reduce its impact on corals, sponges and sensitive deep-sea habitats. These management measures will be implemented by DFO in the Integrated Fisheries Management Plan for Groundfish.


  1. Reduce the B.C. groundfish bottom trawl fleet-wide annual catch of corals and sponges to lowest levels reported in past 15 years (562 kg of coral, 322 kg of sponge)
  2. Restrict the fishery to areas recently trawled
  3. Ensure that the fishery does not disproportionately impact one particular habitat type
  4. Develop a body between the industry, conservation groups and Fisheries and Oceans Canada to address habitat protection
  5. Improve the performance of the Option A British Columbia groundfish bottom trawl fishery against habitat criteria (SeaChoice) used to evaluate the sustainability of fisheries.


  • Habitat Bycatch Conservation Limits (HBCL) are set in place which are essentially a deterrent quota for coral and sponge bycatch by groundfish bottom trawlers; corals and sponges cannot be retained by the vessels;
  • Individual vessels are allocated a pre-determined amount of HBCL for corals and sponges and must have HBCL for each kilogram of coral or sponge that they catch or they cannot fish; 
  • The annual HBCL for the entire fleet is 4,500 kg total coral and sponge
  • Known coral and sponge areas are identified to the fleet through maps
  • There is an encounter protocol in place for tows with more than 20 kg of coral or sponge; if such an encounter occurs, information on the encounter is collected and distributed to the fleet;
  • Running list of the year’s significant encounters (i.e. greater than 20 kgs) always accompanies all fisheries observers, who accompany 100 percent of vessel trips in this fishery;
  • At the end of each fishing season the Habitat Conservation Review Committee will meet to review performance against management objectives. The committee is comprised of two representatives each from industry, DFO and the environmental organizations.

How do the measures change things?

Indicator Before measures After measures
Total area trawled  (km2) in all waters 39,827 31,633 – 20.6% reduction
Total area trawled  (km2) of deepwater habitats (800-1400m) 4,018 1,395 -  65% reduction
Total continental slope habitat area trawled (km2) (200-800m) 15,214 12,413 - 18% reduction
Maximum catch objective for sponges No maximum for sponge catch 322 kg/yr
Maximum catch objective for corals No maximum for coral catch 562 kg/yr
Average HBCL of active trawl vessels None ~83kg

Industry background

The British Columbia groundfish trawl fishery started in the early 1940s and today consists of 142 limited entry licensed trawl vessels ranging is length from 40 to 180 feet. The vessels fish both bottom and midwater trawl gear from Dixon Entrance to Juan de Fuca Strait. There are more than 60 stocks of groundfish targeted with total annual catches of approximately 100,000 tonnes worth nearly $50 million in landed value. The primary groundfish species caught include rockfish, sole, codfish, dogfish, lingcod, sablefish and arrowtooth flounder. The fishery is managed with 100 percent at-sea observer coverage on all bottom trawl trips and 100 percent dockside monitoring of all groundfish offloads. Since 1997, the B.C. groundfish trawl fishery has been managed with Individual Vessel Quotas (IVQs) in which each vessel receives an annual allocation of a share of the commercial groundfish trawl total allowable catch (TAC) for each groundfish stock. IVQs and comprehensive at-sea and dockside monitoring have improved resource sustainability and economic viability.

Policy Context

Fisheries and Oceans Canada Sensitive Benthic Area Policy

Pacific Region Cold-Water Coral and Sponge Conservation Strategy


Bottom trawling is a fishing method that uses weighted nets, pulled along the seafloor to catch bottom-dwelling fish. The net may be held open by a pair of heavy metal doors (otter trawling) or by a beam (beam trawling). Bottom trawling is recognized to have impacts on marine habitats such as those formed by sponges and corals. 

Bycatch is the accidental capture of sea life in fishing gear intended for another species. Bycatch is often released at sea, due to lack of a market or regulations against retention. Historically, bycatch in the B.C. groundfish bottom trawl fleet has included corals and sponges, sometimes in signifiant quantities.

Seafloor ‘benthic’ ecosystems refer to the complex communities of living things that exist on and near the seafloor. The presence of suitable habitat is particularly important to these communities, and seafloor habitat – such as that formed by cold-water corals and sponges – is often fragile and slow growing; as such, it is susceptible to damage or destruction by fishing gear.

Canada’s Pacific cold water corals grow at depths from the intertidal zone to 4,000 meters. To date, over 100 species have been identified from the waters off of British Columbia. The corals provide habitat for many species of fish, including species with commercial importance. They are also home for invertebrates, provide food and shelter from prey, and act as nurseries and spawning areas.

The corals that are found in Canada’s Pacific are often called “cold-water.” Unlike their familiar counterparts found in shallow, warm waters in the tropics, deep-sea corals do not rely on sunlight to obtain energy. Rather, they gain it from nutrients in the water column.

While fishermen have known of the existence of corals for years as they came up in their gear, it has only been in the past two decades that scientists have begun to understand the abundance, and importance of the corals that live in B.C.’s ocean.

Deep-sea ecosystems: For the purposes of this collaborative work, the term ‘deep-sea’ generally refers to those parts of the ocean that are beyond 800 m depth. At these depths, oxygen concentrations are low, there is less food available, and species generally take a long time to mature and reproduce. Generally, deep-sea ecosystems are not adapted to deal with high-energy impacts such as those caused by some fishing gears. For this reason, fishing activity in the deep-sea may be a conservation concern. Deep-sea ecosystems accessed by the bottom trawl industry in B.C. occur primarily off of the west coast of Vancouver Island.