Friday, February 27, 2009

Dead Fish and Fat Cats

A few years ago, Silver Donald Cameron wrote an article on retired BC fisherman Eric Wickham and his 2003 book Dead Fish and Fat Cats. Here SDC quotes Eric on the DFO (bolding in the text is mine):
'...The second major factor is the mis-management of the fisheries by DFO, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. But, asks Wickham, “How could people sitting at desks kill all those fish?” Wickham identifies half-a-dozen failings — but they all boil down to a lack of realism (and humility), and a lack of courage. DFO’s employees, says Wickham, “are mainly conscientious and some are luminously bright, but the rules they work by — the system itself — has a history, a karma, a life force of its own.”

DFO managers, says Wickham, muzzle and ignore their own scientists, and “dodge tough decisions, usually out of political timidity.” Their scientists told them that the Atlantic cod stocks were collapsing, but DFO allowed fishing to continue, with ludicrously high “quotas,” because closing the fishery would create a political firestorm by putting thousands of people out of work. Result: all those people are out of work anyway — and the fishery is gone.

But nobody lost their jobs at DFO. The Department does not reward good fisheries management, nor does it punish even catastrophic failure. Furthermore, Wickham notes, DFO is organized in separate, jealously-guarded fiefdoms organized by species — a cod division, a salmon division, a herring division. But the fisheries are interlinked. You can’t “manage” cod while ignoring seals, herring and capelin.

And DFO managers change frequently, creating a management with no institutional memory. Wickham once asked a DFO manager about the impact of dragging on the now-barren Goose Island Bank, which once produced 7 million pounds of halibut annually. The DFO guy said, “I didn’t know anyone ever fished there.”

Eric's book is available in softcover, and he's also made it available for a free PDF download. His reasons?
The reason for making this pdf copy available this way: the author's purpose was political. He first wanted to get this story out to the Canadian public. That has been done. The book has sold well since 2003 and the author has been able to make his case on national TV and in many other ways. This pdf will help to continue spreading this behind-the-scenes story to a wider fish-eating planet.
Thanks Eric.

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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Alexandra Morton, the DFO and "Wild Fish Councils"

Alexandra Morton is a self-taught biologist in BC's Broughton Archipelago, and the New York Times is right to cast her as a salmonid's Joan of Arc. Alex has been fighting provincial and federal bureaucracies and Norwegian salmon-farming corporations for most of the past 15 years. Now that the BC Supreme Court has found in her favour in her recent lawsuit, the provincial government has been cut out of the bureaucratic loop and the DFO appears to be the party responsible for regulating BC's salmon farms.

This is a huge victory in cutting through red tape and buck-passing. Assuming the province doesn't appeal the ruling, however, DFO watchers know it's still an open question if this will be good news for BC's wild salmon. To put it mildly, to date the DFO's Pacific Region Branch has not shown much conservationist leadership or good science on the salmon farming file, and in general the DFO seems to have done everything possible to obfuscate the truth about salmon farming's ill side effects (like sea-lice and disease).


Such bad faith may relate to the DFO's schizoid role as both a promoter and a regulator of aquaculture and what appears to be its historical raison d'etre: to lend an air of science-based credibility to decisions based on money, votes, and the reputation of the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans. (More on that by some leading lights in the days to come.)

Last week Alex wrote an open letter to the DFO Minister Gail Shea calling for local "wild fish councils" to manage salmon and other fish in Canada. Could this be the birth of a new paradigm?

It certainly could. In practice sticky, tricky, and as hot as a tea kettle, but that's how it should be when neighbours hash out the eternal problem of the commons.

We need less in the way of bureaucratic decrees-- given out by agencies who act as proxies for our short-term greed--and more face-to-face relationships, uncomfortable talks, and the natural precaution of people who love, and belong to, their Place.

As Alex writes:

'Keep everything locally managed. This could lead to problems, but we already have problems so this would not be new. IF everyone on the Council benefits from wild salmon AND lives in the community where the other economic activity exists we would see self-regulation, benefit to local communities, and economic activity to the benefit to BC and Canada.'
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An Homage to RAM

Margin note to yesterday's post... Ransom A. Myers, aka RAM to his friends and admirers, passed away in 2007. "[This] is a huge loss to Canada, in fact an incalculable loss," Halifax columnist Silver Donald Cameron wrote in an email to me yesterday.

To learn more about Myers, a DFO scientist for thirteen years before defecting to academia, go here, or download the PDF of an excellent obituary written by former UBC Fisheries Centre Director Daniel Pauly. Originally published in the journal Nature, the homage is fittingly scientific and replete with phrases like "renormalizing the data in the spawning-stock and recruitment series" -- but it sketches out the troubled history of fisheries management in Canada and RAM's accomplishments.


A future post will provide some excerpts of RAM's critiques of the DFO. Like a handful of other ex-DFO scientists, RAM is an expert witness in the case for the prosecution.

"He was a leader among the handful of DFO scientists who published evidence that excessive
fishing was the sole cause of the [Atlantic cod] stock’s collapse," writes Pauly. "If fisheries conservation biology and its guiding philosophy thrive, it will be because of the energies of the likes of RAM."
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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

"Gut DFO Like A Cod"

How do you solve a problem like the DFO? Here's an excerpt from an essay by Silver Donald Cameron, who writes a Sunday column in the Halifax Herald. You can find his articles on his website by clicking on his name above. Thanks to my father for passing this on.

(Bolding in the text is mine.)

"What are we going to do about the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO)? John MacKnight, the community development guru from Chicago, has borrowed a term from medicine to describe certain social and governmental programs. Health problems caused by physicians are "iatrogenic." You undergo surgery for an inflamed appendix; the surgeon leaves a towel inside you. The festering towel is an iatrogenic problem: the doctor created it.
By the same token, says MacKnight, social programs may have unintended side effects that cancel out their actual benefits. As with social programs, so with DFO.

Is the harm caused by that department not greater than the benefits it produces? Its mandate was to manage the fishery for the long-term benefit of the people of Canada. Its "management" has made the East Coast groundfishery a memory, and the West Coast salmon fishery a basket case. En route to its utter failure, DFO distorted the findings of its own scientists, whose warnings of impending stock collapses, said an internal DFO report, were 'gruesomely mangled and corrupted to meet political ends...'


'DFO has not been able to give the fishermen any useful advice on the recovery of the cod stocks,' Dr. Ransom Myers told me in 1998. A former DFO scientist, Myers holds the Killam Chair of Ocean Studies at Dalhousie and is widely considered one of Canada's leading fish scientists.

'DFO Ottawa initially claimed that the cod would recover completely in two years,' he said. 'I think we are looking at at least a decade and perhaps two decades. If DFO, with 800 bureaucrats in Ottawa, cannot tell fishermen anything about this issue, then why are they being paid?'"
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The Big Launch: The Case Against the DFO

Hello and thanks for reading.

This blog is focused mainly on the Big Question in the title box above-- which is, roughly, "Should the DFO be dissolved? Why or why not? If so, how?"

It might sound like question #2a from a university civics exam, but it's not an idle question, or at least not meant as one. It might be the most pressing policy question for marine conservation in Canada today.

I'm not a scientist, a policy expert, or a fisherman; but after interviewing many people with fisheries experience, my conclusion is that the DFO as it currently exists is a big problem for marine mammals and fish in Canadian waters, and salmon in particular.

The Earth is currently in a period many conservation biologists are calling the Sixth Extinction. Decimation of marine species is old news in Newfoundland; local extinction, or extirpation, is now on our doorstep here in British Columbia. At a time when global warming may be poised to affect the spawning and disease cycles of all aquatic animals, it's critical that we manage our fisheries and marine ecosystems with as much knowledge and precaution-- and as little short-term political bullying-- as possible.


Canadians need to start asking questions about fisheries management. And start doing things differently. Does the DFO allow or facilitate the destruction of wild fish stocks and their habitat? Would Canada's fish be better served by some other regulatory arrangement? And if so, what kind of arrangement-- and how can we practically put it in place before it's too late?

This won't be a blog in the traditional sense of a daily journal, but more like a virtual courtroom. The DFO is in the dock. How judgment will be rendered I'm not sure, but using the conservation biologist's weight-of-evidence approach I hope this blog will stir up some concrete proposals for policy change. And possibly a petition or two. Or maybe an assessment that the DFO and government policy are utterly beside the point and some other course of action is indicated.

Please share your thoughts. Respectful opinions, anecdotes, experiences, and references are welcome. Also I plan to share responsibility for minding this blog with two or three others. If you have a background in this area and would be willing to help, please let me know.
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