Enhancing fisheries co-management in the Eastern Arctic

Jamie Snook, Jason Akearok, & Tommy Palliser, with Ashlee Cunsolo, Carie Hoover, & Megan Bailey


In January 2019, the three co-management boards from Nunavut, Nunavik, and Nunatsiavut gathered together in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador, for an unprecedented opportunity to discuss commercial fisheries in the Eastern Arctic, and decision-making responsibilities of the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board (NWMB), Nunavik Marine Region Wildlife Board, and the Torngat Joint Fisheries Board (TJFB)1. This was the first gathering of its kind, and was driven by the boards’ individual recognition of the essential need to collaborate across land claim regions in the Eastern Arctic, to work together for shared species, and to learn from each other in order to improve how land claims are implemented throughout Inuit Nunangat (Inuit homelands).

Access to fisheries is a critical necessity and a determinant of health and wellbeing for Inuit throughout the four regions of Inuit Nunangat – Inuvialuit Settlement Region, Nunavut, Nunavik, and Nunatsiavut (Figure 1) – and Inuit access to fisheries is a fundamental concern and major policy issue. Yet, inequitable policies have limited the extent to which Inuit peoples and communities benefit from commercial fishing opportunities in Canada, both within and adjacent to their respective territories. For example, Inuit currently experience inequitable access limitations, depending on geographic location, provisions of land claims agreements, and species of interest, both within Inuit Nunangat and when compared to southern interests and access. Current commercial fisheries access for Inuit is also not well documented, creating the need for North-to-North dialogue and for interjurisdictional learning about shared challenges and shared opportunities.

Within this context, participants at this gathering were brought together to discuss strategies for the implementation of land claims through co-management boards, to share experiences with implementation and fisheries access, and to learn from the challenges and successes of the Eastern Arctic co-management boards. Three key themes were discussed: the spirit and intent of co-management as negotiated in land claim agreements, benefits of the fishery in Inuit Nunangat, and responsibilities in research. (See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2m5OUP49Tbo for a video of the event.)

Theme 1: What is the spirit and intent of co-management as negotiated in land claim agreements?

A. A renewed commitment to co-management: “This is important because we all have common interests.”

It was clear from the gathering of the three Eastern Arctic co-management boards that more productive opportunities between co-managers would be possible if more time was spent focusing on the intent of land claim agreements. Inuit co-managers at the gathering repeatedly made comments about this, with one person remarking on the need to “pay more attention to the land claim agreements that have been signed. Pay more attention to the spirit and not just the words and interpretation,” and another saying that co-management is “a good process and the government of Canada should honour the spirit and intent of why the boards were set up and not be so literal in their interpretations of these processes.”

Figure 1: Inuit regions in the Canadian Eastern Arctic and NAFO fishing areas.

Figure 1: Inuit regions in the Canadian Eastern Arctic and NAFO fishing areas.


These interpretational challenges were generally discussed in situations where it was felt that advice provided by a co-management board was not thoughtfully considered by the responsible minister. For example, as one participant shared, “What we have seen to date is the minister seldom heeds the advice of the board, and the board rarely hears from the minister on why a decision was made. To me that is not co-management.” Another participant echoed this sentiment, and explained: “When someone acts honourably you don’t question it. You know it. There is a lot of questioning [of co-management board decisions and recommendations] and still uncertainty years after the agreement is signed.”

There was also a sense on the part of some co-managers at the gathering that, as one person said, “Any good that has come for Indigenous fisheries has come from the Supreme Court.” While recent court cases (Clark & Joe-Strack, 2017) have suggested that the courts remain an option to settle disputes related to land claim implementation and treaty rights, it would be more proactive, cost-efficient and respectful if a renewed commitment to co-management was demonstrated through tangible policy statements and implementation of co-management advice. A participant provided an example of this desire by explaining:

Co-management is about trust and it is about agreements that have been made. In the context of fisheries co-management in our region, I believe we have matured enough to the point now that the Minister of DFO [Fisheries and Oceans Canada] and others need to trust that the advice we are giving is well founded and well researched and a lot of people have been involved and allow our decisions to stand. This, to me, is what co-management is: trusting and having faith that the decisions will work out for the betterment of those that signed the agreements.

B. Responding to substance with substance: “Canada set up these boards and should heed advice that comes from these boards.”

There was consistent dialogue at our gathering about the responses received by the co-management boards when their recommendations and/or decisions are provided to the Federal Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard. There was an overall feeling that well-founded, quality advice was being provided to the minister, but equally substantive responses were not being received. This lack of “responding to substance with substance” prevents an understanding of ministerial decisions, limits shared learning opportunities, and diminishes an authentic sense of co-management. One co-manager explained that it is important to have “the federal minister give thoughtful consideration and merit to decisions and recommendations that come from boards that are established through land claim agreements,” and that this is essential to support continued relationships between the co-management boards and the federal minister. Going further, another participant indicated that “it’s very important to understand the underlying concerns and issues and try to resolve them together.”

C. Having confidence and trust in co-management: “Trust the wisdom of the people who have been appointed to these boards.”

The Fisheries Act (2018) in Canada is clear that the minister has absolute discretion. This creates challenges for Inuit co-management boards when recommendations submitted to the minister are not implemented by the DFO. As one participant explained, “Canada has the ultimate responsibility to manage commercial fish resources. They haven’t relinquished that authority.” Another individual shared that “ultimately the minister has all the authority, if the minister doesn’t like our decision. We have a feedback loop for the minister to reject our decisions, so is that co-management?” Going further, one of the participants at the gathering articulated:

There is an exceptional depth of knowledge amongst the people who have been appointed and trust that when they do make advice it’s good advice, it’s gone through a very thorough process, and in the end following the recommendations will be to the betterment of those that have negotiated modern day land claim agreements.

Even with such an understanding of jurisdictional powers, there is nothing in the Fisheries Act that prevents the minister from expressing confidence in the network of co-management boards that have matured and are established in Inuit Nunangat. In other words, just because the minister has discretionary power, he or she does not need to use it.

Participants at this gathering agreed that confidence can be expressed by the Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard by allowing the advice and/or decisions from the NWMB, NMRWB, and the TJFB to be implemented by departmental officials, or at least provide a sound rationale for not following a board decision and/or recommendation. This step would show openness and transparency and could be a learning opportunity for all parties involved. Implementing co-management decisions/recommendations would be the most tangible action possible.

Theme 2: Benefits of the fishery in Inuit Nunangat.
There was a clear understanding on the part of co-managers and Inuit representative organizations in this gathering that Inuit should be the primary beneficiaries, benefitting fully from fish within and adjacent to Inuit lands and waters, as represented by this clear explanation from one of the participants: “When he [the federal Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard] is allocating resources in an Inuit region…Inuit [should] be given priority consideration over other interests. We are talking about regions that are adjacent and Inuit should be given priority in these areas.” Discussion of these issues with all meeting participants considered a number of regulations and polices such as the land claim agreements themselves, the limited socio-economic opportunities in Inuit Nunangat coastal and remote communities, and DFO policies that support concepts such as adjacency and facilitating Indigenous involvement in commercial fisheries (Department of Fisheries and Oceans, 2008; 2012).

The co-management process for each of the three regions highlights similarities in the co-management systems, as well as substantive differences in processes, fishery development histories, current fisheries status, and approaches to planning for future allocations in each region. Yet all agreed that, as one participant said, “The opportunity for Inuit in the commercial fishery is pretty significant. Greater access, a greater share.”

There were also many comments shared about viable communities, and the importance of remembering, as one person remarked, “that all those resources that are available [to communities] are necessary to make the communities sustainable and [it’s important to] work with the organizations to improve access and the standards of living. If not, they [the communities] can’t exist.” These sentiments highlight the connection to the social determinants of health and how fish resources can play a vital role in the health and wellbeing (and food security) of Inuit communities and individuals.

Theme 3: Responsibilities in research.
Dialogue about research responsibilities was intertwined with discussions related to honouring the spirit and intent of co-management agreements contained within land claims agreements. There were many discussions about the essential role of research to support evidence-based decision-making related to fisheries in Inuit Nunangat, but there were a number of questions about who funds, leads, and benefits from fisheries research. Successful co-management requires access to all types of knowledge if co-learning is going to occur in order to make accurate and meaningful decisions and or recommendations. Yet co-management boards are often struggling to gain access to the needed research to support their decision-making processes in timely, reliable, and transparent ways.

Participants made it clear that there is a funding and resources gap in Northern science and, as one attendee explained, the “North is always served last.” As mentioned above, the DFO has not relinquished its authority for the management of fisheries in Canada. Many participants argued that, as one put it, “Canada has management responsibility, so it needs to have science responsibility,” meaning that DFO needs to fund research in the North to support decision-making by federal and territorial co-managers. Participants explained that there were examples of DFO-funded research being discontinued after the settlement of land claims, despite the continued need for fisheries data, including a long-standing Arctic char research program in the Nain Bay region of Nunatsiavut. Perspectives from the meeting included discussing DFO’s responsibility for funding fisheries science and conducting research related to Northern needs and priorities. In some cases, the commercial fishing industry is providing data to fill science gaps; for example, funds raised from shrimp allocations are currently used by DFO to fund northern shrimp science, rather than using government funds. In response, the Torngat Joint Fisheries Board have continued to recommend that this shrimp research be funded by DFO, and the fish allocations be made available to support and sustain Inuit fishing entities.

In examples where DFO conducted research, there were concerns raised about the timeliness of information, accessibility of the information to co-management boards, and the resources required for the boards to engage and review the science for decision-making purposes. Yet fisheries management in Inuit Nunangat is not just about science, with all land claim agreements making reference to the use of traditional Inuit knowledge or Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (IQ) in decision-making. Financial support should also be considered to strengthen Inuit traditional knowledge research initiatives.

It was clear that, as one participant said, the “boards need science to do their work” and the co-management boards can play a role in bridging the gap in Northern fisheries research. There were benefits associated with co-management-led research, as one participant pointed out: “Whoever needs the information from our area, if they come to us and ask, they will get a lot more information than they would on their own.” These points illustrate the role that co-management boards may play in research. They highlight that the “shared space” of co-management is an opportunity to enhance the quality and quantity of research that is conducted. It can ensure that a single treaty signatory does not hold responsibility for all facets of research required to sustainably manage fisheries in the North. Co-management boards have community connections, experience integrating different knowledge systems into fisheries decisions and recommendations, and familiarity navigating bureaucracy. They provide transparent decision processes, based on treaty mandates to make decisions, and/or provide advice to the Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard (Snook, Cunsolo, & Dale, 2018).

Discussion and opportunities
The gathering’s success highlights what is possible when co-management boards meet to share perspectives, co-learn, and discuss collective options that support Inuit livelihoods, self-determination, and wellness. As one participant said, the gathering was “unique in bringing all the co-management boards together for a topic like commercial fisheries…I think the fact all the boards can come together and talk together coming from a somewhat unified stance is unique and really interesting.”

Participants viewed establishment of a new Arctic Region of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans as a potential catalyst to repeat a meeting of all the Inuit co-management boards. In the fall of 2018, the Government of Canada and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami announced that the new Arctic administrative region of DFO would be created, which would focus on the regions covered by Inuit land claims and their respective co-management boards (Department of Fisheries and Oceans, 2018). There were many perspectives shared on this news. While some participants acknowledged that the co-management board network had not been engaged prior to the announcement, there was hope for future opportunities for Inuit co-management boards to fully participate in shaping the approach to the new regional administration’s design.

Anticipating these changes, co-managers at this gathering thought it would be important that a DFO Arctic administration have resources comparable with the existing regional administrations in terms of powers, staffing, and budgets for research. It was important to participants that an extra level of bureaucracy not be created if it would not facilitate co-management in Inuit Nunangat, and further burden the existing system.

There are opportunities to enhance fisheries co-management in the Eastern Arctic and more dialogue and collaboration may be the first step in that direction. As one co-manager explained:

I hope that the future includes a lot more trust on behalf of the mature co-management network that is there and people will look to these boards in the future to see what their advice and decisions are going to be, and everyone can have confidence that these decisions went through good process and whatever they end up being they went through a process that everyone agreed to and trust[s] and we can move forward together.

As co-management boards in Inuit Nunangat continue to evolve and mature, they become capable of handling more responsibilities and further leading co-management decision-making and policy implementation in commercial fisheries (Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, 2017). With decades of practical co-management experience, each board is well positioned to play a governance leadership role in Inuit Nunangat and the Arctic. During a time when building nation-to-nation relationships in Canada is of increasing importance (ibid), all sectors of government may contribute more. Co-management boards are uniquely positioned to model innovative relationship building, given their community connection and frameworks to understand and respect multiple knowledge systems. ◉


This project was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). The preceding paper paper is a condensed version of the full perspectives paper that was submitted to SSHRC for the National Gathering on Strengthening Indigenous Research Capacity.

Jamie Snook is Executive Director, Torngat Joint Fisheries Board.

Jason Akearok is Executive Director, Nunavut Wildlife Management Board.

Tommy Palliser is Executive Director, Nunavik Marine Region Wildlife Board.

Ashlee Cunsolo is Director, Labrador Institute of Memorial University.

Carie Hoover is Postdoctoral Fellow, Dalhousie University.

Megan Bailey is Canada Research Chair in Integrated Ocean and Coastal Governance & Assistant Professor, Dalhousie University.


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Department of Fisheries and Oceans (2018). Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the Canadian Coast Guard and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami announce new Arctic Region. Retrieved from Fisheries and Oceans Canada: https://www.canada.ca/en/fisheries-oceans/news/2018/10/fisheries-and-oceans-canada-the-canadian-coast-guard-and-inuit-tapiriit-kanatami-announce-new-arctic-region.html
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1. These three boards provide advice to the Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, and in the case of the NWMB and the NMRWB, they make co-jurisdictional decisions with Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) within their respective land claim settlement regions. The boards have many fish species in common such as Greenland halibut, northern shrimp, snow crab, and Arctic char, and each of these fish stocks have significant impacts on the economy and local livelihoods in each Inuit region.

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