By Briony Penn
Both the Fraser River sockeye and Pacific herring stocks are, by many accounts, on the verge of collapse, just as East Coast cod stocks did in the late 1980s. In the case of the cod, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans ignored early warnings from scientists and threatened some with loss of their jobs if they spoke out. Is that pattern repeating itself on the West Coast?
The unfolding presentations at the Cohen Commission Inquiry into the 2009 Fraser River sockeye collapse, as well as at a recent symposium on the collapse of the BC herring fishery, suggest that history may be repeating itself.
By the time the federal government imposed a moratorium on the eastern cod fishery in 1992, it was too late. Many questioned why the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) didn’t warn the government earlier.
The answer was made clear in 1997 with the publication of an article in the Canadian Journal of Fish and Aquatic Science. Entitled “Is Scientific Inquiry Incompatible with Government Information Control?” its authors, scientists Jeffrey Hutchings, Carl Walters and Richard Haedrich—two formerly with DFO—provided evidence of the suppression of and political interference with research by industry-influenced government officials. The article concluded:
“The present framework for linking science with management can, and has, led to abuses that threaten the ability of scientists to understand fully the causes of fish declines, to identify means of preventing fishery collapses from recurring, to incorporate scientific advice in management decisions, and to communicate research in a timely fashion to as wide an audience as possible. The existing framework of government-sponsored fisheries science needs to be replaced. It has failed to ensure viable fish resources and thereby sustain the fishing people and fishing communities upon which successful fisheries management depends. The economic and societal cost of this failure to Canada has been enormous.”
Similar issues with government scientists were expressed frequently at the recent and concurrent Cohen Commission and Simon Fraser University symposium on the herring collapse. Sifting through thousands of pages of documents, memos, emails, scientific papers and transcripts, it is hard to find reassurance that DFO has begun to separate research from industry collusion and not interfered in scientific conclusions. Nor has DFO allowed its scientists to communicate publicly about their research, except in controlled situations.
Independent researchers and representatives of coastal First Nations are showing signs that they will not tolerate a catastrophe of the scale of the eastern cod fishery here on the west coast—but it’s an upstream swim.
Much of the attention at the Cohen Commission has centred around the testimony of DFO scientist Dr Kristi Miller. Miller heads a $6-million salmon-genetics project at the federal Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo. She had an article published in the prestigious journal Science this past winter—but was ordered by her superiors not to do media interviews around it.
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