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Navigating the waves of co-management: challenges and recommendations for co-management in Canadian fisheries

Written by: Abby Christopher, Marine Affairs Program, Graduate Student

Co-management has made headway in recent years with more interest and acknowledgement in managing fish, wildlife, and ecosystems in collaboration with Indigenous governments and organizations. However, in a recent research paper, Swerdfager and Armitage (2023), shed light on the idea that co-management is at a crossroads in Canada, stating that although co-management has progressed, successful co-management remains an exception rather than the rule. As we delve into the findings of this research, we will explore the current factors that are impeding successful co-management in fisheries and marine contexts.


The authors of this research paper are Euro-Canadian settlers and university-based applied researchers, and the first author has substantial senior-level experience with the Government of Canada. They have spent much of their careers conducting research that aims to support and better understand co-management and the intersection of knowledge, power, and environmental change. I, the author of this blog, am a master’s candidate in the Marine Affairs program at Dalhousie University, and I am summarizing this research article as part of a co-management class with Dr. Jamie Snook. Like the authors, I am a Euro-Canadian settler with a western science background in marine biology. I recognize the positionality of the authors and myself, and I recognize that there are potential biases within these findings and this summary as a result.

We will be exploring four institutional conditions that the authors believe to be impeding co-management implementation and expansion in Canada: (1) outdated and incomplete legislative arrangements; (2) the lack of a co-management policy that grapples with emerging expectations for co-governance; (3) the absence of knowledge co-production systems; and (4) financial and human resource capacity limitations. Lastly, we will touch on the four core requirements required for change as identified by the authors.

This study highlights a significant issue in Canada's approach to Indigenous and treaty rights. Despite the official recognition of these rights in Canadian laws, there is a lack of clear legislative steps taken by Parliament to regulate Indigenous fishing and provide necessary government support. Notably, the Fisheries Act has not been updated in response to crucial court decisions concerning Indigenous fishing, and other federal legislation remains unaltered in this regard. Equally concerning is the absence of amendments to the Fisheries Act regarding the consideration of Indigenous rights in decision-making. The authors, one of whom is a retired government employee, raise this issue as a problem of legislative silence, stating that if there is no legislative guidance for the executive branches of government, there is a large amount of leeway for the adoption of proactive and comprehensive policy measures that act upon Aboriginal and Treaty rights protected by the Constitution. Consequently, the authors turn their attention to policy considerations.

Swerdfager and Armitage (2023) argue that while past policies have successfully addressed land claim issues, there is a lack of similar progress in fisheries and marine environmental stewardship outside of land claim contexts. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) introduced the Integrated Aboriginal Policy Framework, but it lacks detailed guidance on achieving collaborative goals. The 2020 Departmental Plan mentions improving programs for Indigenous communities but does not make co-management a formal department goal. The paper talks about how clear steps and rules in policies are needed to keep people from doing nothing. It also suggests that if there aren't any legal or official orders, meaningful co-management arrangements may have to form on their own.

Next, this paper goes on to state that there is strong evidence suggesting knowledge co-production and sharing can serve as a catalyst for collaboration and lay strong foundations for successful and more widely supported conservation outcomes, even if decision-making roles remain unshared. When it comes to managing fisheries and protecting marine life in Canada, the use of knowledge-sharing processes before setting up formal co-management arrangements is not very common, except in cases related to land claim settlements. Swerdfager and Armitage (2023) acknowledge that there are people trying to create partnerships or projects to share knowledge about fish and wildlife in parts of the country, but they have not yet made official agreements. The government's plans often mention Indigenous issues, but they do not mention sharing knowledge. Additionally, building a runway from which to launch more ambitious co-management efforts through dedicated processes of knowledge sharing remains under-resourced. This led the authors to explore financing next.


Produce an image representing this blog summary. In the image please do not use any letters from the alphabet or words. The image may be abstract.  Navigating the challenges of co-management in Canadian fisheries: A blog exploring the research of T. Swerdfager and D. Armitage. Outdated legislation, lack of co-management policies, knowledge gaps, and limited resources hinder progress. Recommendations include amending the Fisheries Act, establishing a government commitment to co-management, promoting knowledge sharing, and investing in Indigenous resource management. Co-management is a crucial step in transforming relationships and reevaluating colonial power structures.
Image generated by DALL-E-3 based on a summary prompt of this blog.

The authors emphasize the need for improved financial resources and skilled personnel in co-management setups. Many Indigenous groups lack the staff resources for fisheries and marine conservation management. Even umbrella organizations like the British Columbia First Nations Fisheries Council face significant challenges due to their broad responsibilities. Fisheries management is complex and science-oriented, making it difficult for groups with limited resources to participate effectively from an external perspective. Government funding is the primary source of support for such capacity. The article reveals significant investment in departmental Indigenous-related programming in DFO departmental plans over the last 4 years. However, most of this funding goes outside the department, with limited investment in internal human resource capacity, particularly in the social sciences, which is crucial for shaping policies and engaging with Indigenous nations.


In summary, the authors find that Canada's legislative arrangements are outdated and incomplete, lacking a co-management policy to address evolving co-governance expectations and knowledge co-production systems, and facing various financial and human resource constraints. They propose four essential prerequisites to address these issues:

1) Amend the Fisheries Act to promote co-management in marine ecosystems.
2) Establish a government-wide commitment to co-management with a formal policy statement outlining the approach.
3) Create transparent knowledge systems for marine resources.
4) Invest significantly in Indigenous resource management, knowledge, and government programs supporting co-management. The authors emphasize that co-management should be viewed as a step in an ongoing process of nation-to-nation relationship building, integral to broader political transformation and the reevaluation of colonial power structures and resource management methods.

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