Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Failure of Leadership at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans

Anyone who was of the age of reason in Newfoundland in the 1980's can remember the collapse of the cod stocks. The significance of this collpase cannot be underestimated. In my office I have a framed copy of Newfoundland's 'Last Day Cover'issued on March 31, 1949 to mark Newfoundland's last day as a separate political entity. On this cover is a stamp showing a load of huge cod being dumped into the hold of a ship. Cod was the defining currency of Newfoundland and gave it a reason for being. Yet overnight the fishery of several hundred years duration was brought to an end and, despite the hopes of those who see every splash in the bay as a sign of the return of the good old days, there is no real sign of the fishery returning as anything other than a distant echo of what it was.

As I have said before, living here in British Columbia now, I cannot help but get the sick feeling that we are watching the same thing happening out here on the west coast with a number of our fisheries, but particularly with respect to the salmon fisheries. Every year the returns are more uncertain. Every year there are particular runs that don't behave as they should, coming either later or earlier. Every year there are collapses in associated fish species, such as the eulachon, that are chalked up as incidental. But nevertheless nothing seems to be getting better and all the signs suggest trouble.

Over at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans though there is no sign that anything is different. Instead everything is being managed as a part of the usual drill. Managers call meetings and make decisions about fisheries on particular days as particular data comes in, essentially moving the deck chairs around so that the complaints are not too loud today. There is no-one stepping up to lead and bring forward imaginative solutions that might galvanize action on the part of all sectors of the fisheries in British Columbia or in the larger populace. The Minister is in Ottawa (or perhaps down in Newfoundland) and the job of communicating what ever the policy du jour may be is left to one faceless RDG or ADM or whatever may be on the scene.

The reality is that we need some political leadership. There needs to be a leader who can speak to all segments of the fishery and lay out an imaginative vision that gives some hope for the health of the fishery in the Province. The fishery has many segments and interest groups with wildly disparate interests -- some of whom have constitutional rights and some of whom have tremendous economic or political power. None of these groups are impressed by the bureaucratic structure at DFO and, moreover, none of them are hearing anything come from DFO that suggests that there is any reason to change their general course.

The latest version of this fiasco can be seen with respect to the management of the sockeye closures. The collapse of the sockeye is a disaster and a dark omen for the future. It may be a passing, freakish event but not too many people really have much hope that this is the case. Despite the unique and catastrophic nature of this event DFO approached the matter of managing the closures on the fishery on the lower Fraser as if it was a routine matter. Depsite knowing that this is one of the most explosive regions in the Province and that the issues around the priority between the aboriginal fishery and the recreational fishery is incendiary, DFO announced an immediate closure of the aboriginal fishery but a delayed closure of the recreational fishery. The justification was centred on communications issues (in an age of internet, radio, television and e-mail) but this rings hollow and is unconvincing. The inevitable clash came as grounded aboriginal fishermen looked out at recreational fishers fishing and decided to head out in their boats.

In the end it could have been avoided -- in fact many recreational fishers stayed home. An aggressive effort to get notices out to marinas, launching sites and guides on the Fraser could likely have shut down the recreational fishery at the same time as the aboriginal fishery. Even if this failed in particulars this would have given aboriginal leaders the footing they needed in the face of angry communities to keep most if not all of the aboriginal boats on shore.

We are going to have to discuss radical solutions to the problems of the fisheries in the next few years. We will have to discuss ideas such as closing the commerical fishery altogether or stopping the growth of fish farms. DFO is going to have to find ways to effectively reach out to aboriginal communities to make them real partners in managing the fisheries (and not just being messengers for DFO). The economic value of the sports fishery as opposed to the commercial fishery is going to have to be carefully evaluated. The role of habitat protection in this mix is going to have to be weighed -- even if it means considering letting parts of Chilliwack flood from time to time rather than destroying fish habitat by dredging.

These debates are only going to meaningful with genuine political engagement at the ministerial and/or prime ministerial level. Sadly there is no sign of this happening. Perhaps the answer may be that we need to recognize that the concerns of the Atlantic are very different than the concerns of the Pacific and we need a Pacific Minster of Fisheries. It will also mean that Fisheries is going to have to change in profile as being a political backwater -- or graveyard -- and instead be seen as a challenging portfolio in a new era of environmental awareness.

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