Saturday, April 11, 2009

Otto Langer: DFO Still "A Black Hole"?

Otto Langer spent 32 years as a habitat biologist with the DFO, and wrote a chapter in the salmon farming book A Stain Upon the Sea. He's less well-known for his work with salmon and habitat conservation in BC, than, say, Alex Morton. (Her petition, which you can sign by clicking here, is now up to 11,500 signatures, by the way.) Mr. Langer is more of a behind-the-scenes activist these days, though over the past 20 years he's had his share of media attention.

I interviewed Mr. Langer in late March for an upcoming article in BC Business magazine on Pacific salmon conservation and the role of the DFO.

Here's the opening of the interview.
Is the DFO a big part of the solution, or a big part of the problem when we talk about fisheries conservation in BC, or both?

Well, I’d say right now they’re a big part of the problem, and if we want to revitalize the fisheries, we have to do a significant restoration effort of the DFO so they can be part of the solution. The way we’re set right now, I can’t see us making any giant leap forward to ensure that we sustain the fishery for future generations if DFO carries on in the present manner.

When you say restore the DFO, what would that restoration look like? What do we need to do so we can get the DFO doing what it’s supposed to be doing?

I think it starts right at the top, in the Parliament buildings, with the Minister. We need a Minister who’s really concerned about the fishery and wants a fishery for future generations, and who believes in a strong federal role to manage the fishery properly, and protect habitat in perpetuity. Right now— seems like, or often— the last several Ministers, we’ve ended up with less than a nice firm apple in Ottawa.

I’m not going to call them rotten apples at the bottom of the barrel, but the fisheries ministers have ben very ineffective and we seem to have another unknown Minister right now, Minister Shea, and I know on the Fraser River gravel removal issue, we wrote her a letter three months ago signed by eight different environmental groups and we still don’t have a response. We wrote a letter saying we have no response, and we had no response to that letter! So it seems like it’s a bit of a black hole.
Black holes don't often engage in self-criticism. They can't change their nature; they drain the light and energy from all orbiting bodies, and will continue to do so for all eternity, no matter what you throw at them.

So with regulatory bureaucracies like the DFO, it seems. Mr. Langer, like dozens of other activists, has been calling for DFO reform for decades, but for salmon and other wild fish in BC, things have gotten worse since his tenure, not better.

In the 1980s Mr. Langer was head of habitat management for the Fraser River, B.C. and Yukon at DFO. A memo he circulated about the department's failings was leaked to the media, which gave the public one of the few frank assessments of the DFO from an internal source.

The memo criticized the backroom wink-wink understanding DFO had with industrial polluters like Alcan, BC Rail and pulp mills, a Vichy neo-conservative policy that found its ripest and most absurd form with the rise of salmon feedlots in BC.

Here's a portion of an article on the "hot memo" from a Vancouver Sun article dated Dec. 1, 1989... worth reading to get a sense of the eternal nature of the DFO problem, in which the "political dynamite" of actual conservation is sucked into the dense gravitational pull of a "negotiate and compromise at all costs" policy... where internal scientists are muzzled and controversial findings are buried.


Pollution law 'immunity' claimed

A leaked federal government document alleges the government is granting large corporations "immunity" from a law that prohibits pollution and protects fish habitat.

The internal memorandum - by Otto Langer, a senior official with Fisheries and Oceans Canada - describes "obvious and very significant violations" of the federal Fisheries Act that never led to charges.

It claims big firms are not prosecuted because of a "negotiate-and-compromise-at-all-costs philosophy," while the "little guy" faces charges for minor offences. And it warns there would be a "scandal" if the public learned how the government decides to lay charges.

To support these allegations, Langer named eight companies and one provincial crown corporation alleged to be responsible for pollution and habitat destruction...

Langer... told his superior in the memo:

"We have been known for charging individuals for spills of deleterious substances (often accidental and less than a few gallons) and then continually ignore the daily discharge of millions of gallons of toxic effluent from a mill next door.

"This often results in the small guy or minor offence getting prosecuted, and the large corporation getting some degree of 'discretionary immunity' . . . .

Langer's job is to protect fish habitat, but his memo declared habitat destruction is being ignored.

He warned the failure to act on these enforcement problems would make a "basket case" out of the habitat protection programs of the department of fisheries and oceans (DFO).

"We have determined that DFO-friendly corporations or parties with provincial permits (as well as the B.C. agency issuing the permit that allowed the offence) will enjoy relative immunity from the Fisheries Act," he wrote....

"The result is that, to date, we charge persons for more minor violations such as spills or bulldozer type violations.

"This situation is unacceptable, however senior management and conservative legal opinion has recently created new classes of immunity for certain polluters or those who destroy habitat. This is making the application of the law to be a very partial affair."
Returning to the interview, is Langer right? Should we hope for an enlightened Fisheries Minister to turn things around for BC salmon and other wild fish? After decades of mismanagement-- and a string of consummate politicians in the Ministerial role-- that may be like hoping for the black hole to turn into a yolk-yellow sun complete with smiley face.

Then again, the world is changing. The US has an intelligent, ecologically aware President. The failure of 28 years of Reaganite "let industry regulate itself" rhetoric has been conclusively proven in the financial markets-- the only place anyone seems to care-- as well as the wild places of the world. Perhaps there is hope for a shift of astronomical proportions. Let's imagine it: Ignatieff taking over as PM, and making Farley Mowat the Minister of Fisheries.

In the meantime, we have to demand real enforcement of our conservation laws and the Fisheries Act-- the kind of disinterested, we're-on-the-side-of-the-fish enforcement that these days is only being done by Captain Paul Watson. Right now, signing Alex's petition is the best means of doing that.

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