Thursday, May 21, 2009

Terry and the Pirates

Here's a good quote from Terry Glavin. Among many other things, the formidable Mr. Glavin is the author of an elegiac work on BC white sturgeon called A Ghost in the Water, and more recently an assay of the Sixth Extinction called Waiting for the Macaws. This is from a paper presented at The World Summit on Salmon in 2003:

It is so deliciously easy to heap calumny upon the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. If the department did not exist, I would say it would be necessary to invent it, if only for the purpose of attributing all that ails us to what we so affectionately call DFO mismanagement… The department is not to blame - we all are. City people, farmers, loggers, fishermen, fisheries managers, even environmentalists – none of us are without virtue, and none are without blame.

He's right. Blaming the DFO is partly a tired cliche that lets us all off the hook. The DFO does do some things well, when doing so is politically safe-- as in a few rare cases like the quota fishery, where the solution is a win-win for business and wild fish. But when the GDP or a powerful lobby group has to give up short-term profit for the sake of wild fish or their habitat, the DFO is generally about as threatening as a shucked oyster.

The DFO is a political creature, part of the old top-down model of governance, where citizens fob off their local responsibilities onto bureaucrats and politicians. Like most of us I have externalized my civic duties, and the time I ought to spend helping steward earth and wild creatures-- a day each month, say, or two hours a week doing stream restoration, writing a letter to a politician, showing up at a town meeting-- I spend watching sitcoms. It's easy to forget that that steward-time is part of our rent for living on earth. If we're not pitching in, we're brigands and pirates—plunderers abroad on the high seas of late-hour capitalism, fit for the karmic lash.

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The photo of Mr. Glavin is from his bio at the New Star Book site. Click on it to read his recent essay connecting Pacific salmon to Haitian food riots, vanishing frogs and the Janjaweed militia in Chad.

The Pacific Region branch has done, and continues to do, a wealth of important and thankless work. What it has handled poorly has been in spite of the strong field work of its corps of researchers.

If there is a root disease at the core of DFO dysfunction, it is a simple but incurable one: politics. Politics is unavoidable, because wherever there is a commons with human beings who want to get their share, there will be politics. Fishermen and conservationists complain that the agency has no spine, and rightly so, because like other Canadian regulatory agencies the DFO doesn’t possess a spine so much as a length of deck-hose: a central conduit that relays the voice of the appointed Minister, Deputy Minister, or Assistant Deputy Minister at the other end.

Blaming the potentates— past DFO Ministers Tom Siddon or Loyola Hearn, or current Minister Gail Shea— misses the point. Fisheries are no different than any other regulated resource, with most politicians tending the bar for rum-drunk captains of industry.

DFO reform will only happen when British Columbia voters themselves take a strong position and demand it. This is the rub. As Vancouver Sun writer Scott Simpson once said, “I think people in general have a sort of nominal concern about salmon, but it’s not on a level that would translate into votes for any politician who decided to champion their welfare.” We have met the problem, in other words, and it is us: those who profess to care about salmon and wild fish but don’t make it a policy issue for politicians.

See Alex Rose's Who Killed The Grand Banks? for more of the discussion with Scott Simpson quoted above.

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