Thursday, December 10, 2009

Scientists blast DFO over sockeye collapse

Dr. Brian Riddell. Photo Pacific Salmon Foundation

Last night, Simon Fraser University hosted a panel presentation on the Fraser sockeye collapse of 2009.

A group of scientists and field experts had gathered for two days to discuss the causes, impacts, and possible solutions to the salmon crash, and they were now presenting some of their findings to the public.

I was expecting a polite and slightly sedate discussion among members of the scientific and bureaucratic elite, which I somewhat felt are part of the problem rather than the solution in the salmon tragedy.

I changed my mind. To my surprise, I found myself participating in a powerful and genuine moment of reckoning.

A chart of the sockeye collapse (see figure below) was projected on the wall which demonstrated that the salmon’s demise, although particularly devastating in 2009, really started 15 years ago in the early nineties.

One after the other, the panel's scientists and members of the public stood up in front of that chart of almost totemic significance and delivered the same message: how in the world did we let this happen?

Particularly powerful was an exchange between former MP and Minister of Fisheries John Fraser, and former DFO top scientist Brian Riddell who recently resigned from the Department over fundamental policy disagreements.

Fraser, who is retired, was not on the panel but talked instead as a member of the public. All this information about the sockeye, he said, was available to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans since day one. Why did this not set any alarm bells, why did this not trigger more research? It poses the essential question of who is in charge at DFO, Fraser commented. It is incredible that a vast department like this could not explain that something was going wrong. Someone at the Department didn't do anything, he concluded.

Riddell responded for the panel. He said that there was no question DFO knew early on about the collapse. As years went by, he added, I asked myself: can I do more inside or outside of DFO over my career’s remaining 10 years? And so I left. Ottawa was asking me: why should we give you more funding for your salmon research when there is no value in the salmon? (At this point, the room went: gasp.) Ottawa has lost understanding of the value of the salmon, Riddell concluded. The people of BC carry great weight in delivering the message back to Ottawa about the salmon’s value, but you are not there yet, he warned.

Mark Angelo, the chair of the panel, pointed out that DFO was invited to participate in the panel’s work sessions but had declined the invitation, invoking the ongoing judicial review over the sockeye collapse. Angelo commented that DFO’s decision was “unfortunate”. He did not use the word stonewall, but his eyes said precisely that.

A member of the public described DFO as a “moribund” administration.

Many questions of the public were directed at salmon research and why more of it wasn’t being done. Angelo’s response was yet another ballistic missile fired at DFO: it bothers me, he said, that we don't have specific parameters in place right now to monitor the Fraser sockeye populations. Riddell jumped in: if we had the proper funding, we could get started on the research right away. We could take concrete steps such as tagging the fish. We can work with a lot of bright people across various organizations. But we need the cooperation of DFO on this. For example, the data on the salmon is a public resource, yet DFO will not release that data for 2009.

Translation for those not fully versed in bureaucratic lingo: DFO, either help us or step out of the way!

Alexandra Morton, who was not on the panel but participated in the two-day work sessions, best captured the spirit of the evening when the panel invited her to answer a question about the impact of fish farms on the Fraser sockeye collapse. We simply don’t know, she said. Fish farms and sea lice could be part of the Fraser collapse or not, and there could also be many other factors involved such as viral infections. But what matters, she said, is that – finally – we are talking about this in the open and the law of silence has been broken.

I had come to this evening expecting a pasteurized lecture by the scientific and bureaucratic establishment on why it’s okay to continue salmon business as usual. Instead, I found myself in the middle of a scientists’ open revolt against the system. Life is like a box of chocolates, Forrest Gump used to say.

My particular admiration goes to Brian Riddell who could have decided to finish off his baby boomer career on a rather tranquil note, waiting for retirement in a DFO corner office and then taking off on an uninterrupted string of oblivious Alaska cruises or whatever else it is that baby boomers do. Instead, he chose to step down, which in his world is the most defiant form of civil disobedience.

What we need here is more Brian Riddells.

Panel participants:

Dr. Mark Angelo
Pacific Fisheries Resource conservation
Rivers Institute, BC Institute of Technology

Dr. John Reynolds
Simon Fraser University

Dr. Brian Riddell
Pacific Salmon Foundation

Dr. Randall Peterman
Simon Fraser University


1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your support but I have
    to take exception to one of your primary
    points. My decision to leave DFO was not
    about DFO but the commitment of the
    central government to salmon. DFO staff
    are exceptionally dedicated and we have
    excellent scientific staff. But the resources
    required were not coming from our government.
    DFO should not be your focus, it has to be
    central government.

    Also, DFO did not foresee the collapse ... We
    were monitoring the declining productivity of
    of Fraser sockeye. Unfortunately, when the
    present is not like the past, forecasting
    becomes highly uncertain as you have no
    way of knowing how much the decline will
    continue or how fast. It is easy to say post
    season that DFO error but really the forecast
    was wrong but the correct management actions
    were taken to protect the stocks ... The latter point is the essence of management.