Scientists: split DFO in two

By Judith Lavoie, January 2016

Is the new government open to hearing scientists’ arguments that DFO cannot protect both industry and fish?

For years Fisheries and Oceans Canada has been responsible for two often oppositional interests: the conservation of fish and the economic health of the fishing industry. It’s an uncomfortable marriage at the best of times and now there is a growing push to dissolve it. 

The two interests rarely dovetail and in the past decade under Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, the seesaw tipped alarmingly to the economic development side. Cuts were made to scientific and habitat protection positions at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, while troubling questions about the marine environment, climate change, and aquaculture development were largely ignored.

Now, with hope offered by a new federal government, some scientists and groups working on ocean sustainability want to see the ministry split in two. They’d also like to see revamped outdated legislation that tilts departmental decisions towards resource exploitation.

Jeffrey Hutchings of Dalhousie University suggested in an interview that, ideally, a fisheries department operating under the Fisheries Act could take care of the economic development side, preferably helped by much-needed national aquaculture legislation. A separate department of oceans, under the purview of the Oceans Act, he felt, could deal with conservation, habitat and environmental protection. “It would remove immediately this regulatory conflict that currently exists,” said Hutchings, who was in Victoria with other top marine scientists for the Royal Society of Canada annual general meeting.

“The department is there to protect the fishing industry and fish and it can’t do both,” Hutchings said.

The Fisheries Act was first passed in 1886, and, after various tweaks over the last century, received its biggest overhaul in 2013 when the government took out habitat protection provisions and restricted fish protection to species that are part of a commercial, recreational or aboriginal fishery—changes that horrified scientists and conservation groups. “I don’t think we yet know what the ramifications of those changes will be, but perhaps they will be revisited,” Hutchings said optimistically.

The other part of the DFO equation is the 1997 Oceans Act which promotes ecosystem-based management, but has not been effectively implemented. As a result, Canada has fallen far behind its international commitments in establishing marine protected areas.

David VanderZwaag, research chair in ocean law and governance at Dalhousie University, said the Oceans Act needs rewriting to make it stronger and to define key principles such as sustainable development and the precautionary approach.

Hopes of change are bolstered by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s mandate letter to Hunter Tootoo, his new Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard. Priorities include reviewing the previous government’s changes to both the Fisheries Act and the Navigable Waters Protection Act, restoring “lost protections,” and increasing Canada’s protected marine and coastal areas from one percent to five percent by 2017 and ten percent by 2020.

Other priorities in the mandate letter include restoring funding to support ocean science and monitoring programs and acting on the recommendations of the Cohen Commission on restoring sockeye salmon stocks in the Fraser River

Tootoo, in an emailed response to Focus, said that his main focus is implementing that mandate. “At this time, there are no plans to make structural changes to the department,” he said.

However, many of Tootoo’s plans appear designed to end the conflict of interest that many believe currently exists within the department. “Specifically, when making decisions affecting fish stocks and ecosystem management, I will use scientific evidence and the precautionary approach principle and take climate change into account,” he said.

Tootoo emphasized that he will seek the “views and advice” of scientists. As well, he stated, “My department and I will ensure management decisions are made in full consultation with the conservation community, industry, indigenous groups, stakeholders and Canadians.”

Hutchings, who chaired the Royal Society’s 2012 pivotal expert panel report “Sustaining Canadian Marine Biodiversity,” knows how much change is needed. The expert panel found the government suffered from “a consistent, disheartening lack of action on well-established knowledge and best-practice and policies.”

One of the major problems is the wide discretionary power wielded by the minister in fisheries management decisions, Hutchings believes. “What happens when a fish population is scientifically determined to be overfished? The current Fisheries Act says nothing about what the minister must do and what inevitably happens is the minister decides to keep fishing those stocks and the fish stocks decline further and further,” he said.

In contrast, in the US, once a fish population is scientifically determined to be in trouble, the government must take very specific actions to rebuild that stock, including reducing fishing mortality.

Ministerial discretion needs to be tackled in a revamped Fisheries Act, VanderZwaag agreed. “I call [the Act] a ghost ship. You see the mast in the fog, but everything is underneath. It’s all at the minister’s discretion,” he said.


ALTHOUGH THE LAST DECADE of cuts drew the strongest criticism at the Royal Society’s symposium on marine biodiversity, several scientists acknowledged that the roots of the problem run deep, with generations of department employees defining themselves as defenders of the fishing industry.

One of the saddest stories, illustrating the historical mindset of the department, is the demise of basking sharks in the Pacific Ocean. A population of tens-of-thousands of the placid plankton-eaters was wiped out in the 1950s after the department determined they were a threat to the salmon fishery and cut them to pieces with specially-designed blades fixed to the front of Coast Guard and fisheries vessels.

Today, foot-dragging, rather than out-and-out refusal to help a marine species, has become the norm, said Julia Baum, assistant professor in the University of Victoria’s biology department. Marine species are almost always denied protection because of conflicts with commercial fishing, she said.

“Almost 60 percent of marine fish that have been assessed by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada [COSEWIC] as being at risk are sitting with no decision for many years. Those that are at greatest risk wait longest and are typically denied listing,” Baum said. “We sit and let the species wait and do nothing. We know this is a really dangerous strategy.”

Even when a species is listed under the Species At Risk Act (SARA), recovery strategies are often three years late and action plans are almost never completed, Baum added.

Scientists at the conference believe politics, rather than science, has been influencing both appointments to boards that make vital decisions about endangered species and decisions on which species to list. “They haven’t even listed the Atlantic cod because of social and economic reasons,” VanderZwaag noted.

In BC, salmon farming is the polarizing issue and, so far, there is little indication of what the Liberal government might be thinking.

 Aquaculture legislation is urgently needed and a split in the ministry would underline that need, Hutchings said.

To some biologists—such as Alexandra Morton, who has spent decades studying the effect of open-net Atlantic salmon pens on migration routes of wild salmon—only one type of legislation would be acceptable. “Responsible management [would mean] legislating salmon farms into closed tanks,” Morton said. She pointed to a sea louse outbreak this spring that killed a large percentage of the juvenile wild salmon leaving the Broughton Archipelago. “British Columbians should be horrified,” Morton said.

“There is no evidence that salmon farming in net pens can co-exist with wild fisheries,” noted Morton, adding, “There is no place in the world we could look to that it is working.” Morton cited Norway—the “mother country” when it comes to salmon farming—where “Open net salmon farming is running into insurmountable problems…increased drug use has failed to control their lice while threatening other wild fisheries.” 

Karen Wristen, Living Oceans executive director, also wants to see a complete departmental rethinking of how the farms affect wild fish. The department is still shrugging off the impact of sea lice, Wristen warned. “I think it’s an overall attitude that has been born of many years of literally putting blinders on when it comes to wild fish,” she said.

Morton is cautiously optimistic that change is coming after seeing a fisheries department notice that said it is examining “hurdles that prevent sustainable aquaculture development.” A report is due by April 1 on how the various aquaculture regulations work with each other. “Every day is filled with the shock of agreeing with government,” Morton said about the change in the federal government.

Back at the Royal Society symposium, scientists warned that the new government and all Canadians must take the problems affecting our oceans seriously, whether it is the effect of fish farms, overfishing, climate change or poisons finding their way into marine waters. Rosemary Ommer, University of Victoria retired adjunct professor stated, “Healthy oceans are essential to sustaining all life, including us.” She noted that only when people come to that realization will they start to put pressure on politicians to protect marine biodiversity.

Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith