Sustaining the Blue Belt: Suggestions for Forward Thinking Policy to Protect Great Lakes Food Fisheries
Hannah L. Harrison
University of Guelph
Canadian Science Policy Center
Science Policy Award Of Excellence – Youth Category 2020
Compared to Ontario agriculture, Ontario’s seafood industry enjoys comparatively few protections. Whereas Ontario’s famed Green Belt protects agricultural and environmentally sensitive lands from urban sprawl and development, no such protections exist for the many ports and sensitive habitats that support Great Lakes fisheries and their contribution to Canadian diets. This is a serious gap in Canadian food policy, and underscores the lack of cultural awareness in Canada’s society of the role of the Great Lakes “Blue Belt” and the many fisheries it supports.
The Great Lakes Fishery Commission reports that commercial, recreational and tribal fisheries on the Great Lakes are collectively valued at more than $7 billion annually and support more than 75,000 jobs. While many people enjoy eating recreationally or traditionally harvested fish, only commercially caught fish may be legally bought and sold in restaurants or at grocery stores. Yellow perch, yellow pickerel (walleye), rainbow smelt, and whitefish make up the bulk of the commercial catch, the vast majority of which is eaten in the Great Lakes region (primarily the U.S.), or in major cities around the United States and Canada. The comparatively “local” consumption of Great Lakes fish is remarkable, as many seafood species are eaten great distances from where they are caught, creating substantial carbon footprints and becoming unavailable to people in the localities where they are harvested.
Provincial and federal policy, as well as a turn toward societal recognition of fish as local food, is essential to supporting the Blue Belt and its fisheries. Here, I propose several policy directions that could better protect fishing infrastructure and access, ranging from the provincial to the local level.
A Right-to-Fish Act
At the provincial level, policy-makers could strengthen existing right-to-farm legislation, such as Ontario’s Farm and Food Production Protection Act or British Columbia’s Farm Practices Protection Act  by including wild-caught fisheries. In Ontario, this legislation states that, “It is desirable to conserve, protect and encourage the development and improvement of agricultural lands for the production of food, fibre and other agricultural or horticultural products.” Wild-caught fisheries are an important and regionally local means of food production, yet they are not explicitly mentioned within the act (though, notably, cultured fisheries are).
The act goes on to acknowledge that farming operations may cause “discomfort and inconveniences” to those on adjacent properties, but that agriculture also suffers from increasing societal pressures that complicate their efforts to produce important agricultural products. The act argues that agricultural areas, uses and normal farm practices should be promoted and protected in a way that balances the needs of farmers with public health, safety and environmental concerns. Fisheries too need these protections, as the very pressures from which this act protects Ontario’s agricultural industry thus impact wild-caught fisheries, fishing fleets and their places of work (e.g., working waterfronts), and by extension, the food systems they support.
Given the intent expressed in the act to conserve, protect, and encourage the development and improvement of agricultural production, amending this act to include wild-caught fisheries and their normal practices is an essential policy step to better incorporate all aspects of Ontario’s food production under its protections.
Public Trust Doctrines
Alternatively, a localized movement could focus protective measures to benefit a broader community of marine trades by using zoning laws to safeguard waterfront access and infrastructure for those businesses dependent on the water. Local ordinances that establish a tiered system of waterfront zoning, such as those used in Michigan and elsewhere, can provide municipal or city planners with tools to prioritize public and trade access to waterfronts. This approach to zones prevents other types of development, such as residences, from encroaching on waterfront space.
Another option might be to place public commercial fishing space that borders water under public trust doctrines. In Canada, public trust doctrines  say that the Canadian government holds certain resources, (e.g., navigable waters, shoreline, groundwater) on trust, or in a fiduciary capacity for the public.  This approach could be extended to preserve public access and use of waterfront space over private interests, which would effectively protect use of these spaces for fishermen and others who need consistent, reliable access to water.
Heritage Conservation Districts
Finally, another option for Great Lakes fishing communities may be to seek heritage status for long-standing fishery areas, such as working waterfronts, harbours and other infrastructure. Heritage Conservation Districts  are areas designated under the Ontario Heritage Act  and are intended to “contribute to an understanding and appreciation of the cultural identity of the local community, region, province or nation (Ontario & Ministère de la culture, 2006, p. 5).” One advantage of this approach could be that designating fishing areas would raise their profile as important centers of cultural heritage for Great Lakes coastal communities. As public awareness of these fisheries across the province is limited and as fleets shrink in size, this sort of visible recognition may build public knowledge around food fisheries and their role in Canadian society. However, this approach would not come without possible limitations. Development in and around heritage-designated sites must go through additional layers of review and approval, which some communities may find too arduous.
In summary, Great Lakes fisheries are the Blue Belt of Ontario food systems and are in need of the same protections afforded to terrestrial agriculture. Fishing livelihoods contribute to local economies, culture and food systems, and a multipronged policy approach to protecting their access and infrastructure can ensure Ontarians enjoy local seafood for generations to come.
5-Smallwood, K. P. (1993). Coming out of hibernation: The Canadian public trust doctrine [University of British Columbia]. https://doi.org/10.14288/1.0086301
8-Ontario & Ministère de la culture. (2006). Les districts de conservation du patrimoine: Guide de désignation des districts aux termes de la Loi sur le patrimoine de l’Ontario. Ministère de la culture.