Canada’s DFO: Managed to Fail

Is Canada’s fisheries bureaucracy the biggest threat to fish and fishermen in B.C.?

Is Canada’s fisheries bureaucracy the biggest threat to fish and fishermen in B.C.?

ON A GREY AND DRIZZLY DAY in March, the Granville Island fish wharf is quiet. No customers handing over cash for frozen-at-sea salmon fillets, and only a couple of lunch eaters at the Go Fish food stand. Carte Blanche, Dane Chauvel’s 40-foot troller, is on the A-Float dock furthest from the fries and scallop burgers. Inside the cabin it’s warm, dry and messy with off-season clutter. On the floor and table there are boxes of “red gear” – troll flashers and hot-pink squid lures that Chauvel uses for salmon in the summer – and other oddments, including three seasons of the Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch series.

“You’ve never seen it?” asks Steve Johansen. “You’re kidding. It follows the king crab and opilio crab fishery in the Bering Sea. Really good footage.”

Chauvel and Johansen are partners in Organic Ocean, a small group of B.C. fishermen who sell “ocean-friendly and responsibly harvested” seafood: salmon, ling cod, halibut, albacore and spot prawns. Ocean-friendly in this case mostly means line-caught fish and trap-caught prawns. Neither fishery drags the ocean bottom as trawler nets do, and they have minimal bycatch. “With hook and line, and selective terminal net-fisheries, you can be very species specific,” says Chauvel. “It just depends on where you fish, when and what you use for bait.”

Chauvel, 50, is a second-generation fisherman. He started fishing for salmon as a high-school graduate in 1977, using the money to fund a BA in economics from UBC and an MBA from the University of Western Ontario. After balancing a career in technology and venture capital with part-time fishing excursions, he returned to fishing full time three years ago. “Now I’m raising two third-generation fishermen,” he says. “And I’ve taken an increasing interest in the issues facing fishing, including fishing politics.”

Every fishery – tuna, salmon and groundfish such as black cod and halibut – has its own complicated backstory: overfishing, bycatch and poaching; pollution, warming waters and erratic food sources; habitat destruction by everything from dragger trawls to gravel extraction and urban development. The unfortunate agency in charge of this fantastic array of variables, the one responsible for managing all aspects of saltwater and freshwater fish, is Fisheries and Oceans Canada – formerly known as the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, hence the abbreviation still in common usage: DFO.

The DFO is the federal government bureaucracy that presided over the collapse of Atlantic cod. Overharvesting by Canadian fleets ultimately cost taxpayers $3.9 billion in support to Newfoundland and Labrador for cod-licence buyouts, regional assistance and job retraining between 1992 – the year the cod population hit bottom and the fishery was closed – and 2007. There was no accountability for the decision to keep the fishery open, and no DFO managers lost their jobs as a result of the collapse.

Famed fisheries biologist Ransom Myers, who worked for the DFO in St. John’s, Newfoundland, for 13 years before defecting to a position at Dalhousie University, calls the agency’s inaction on Atlantic cod “a crime beyond imagination.”

There are few fishermen, in B.C. and elsewhere, who don’t have strong opinions about the DFO. “When you talk to people who understand the Ottawa political system, they say DFO is broken, and DFO has been broken for a long time,” says Chauvel. “And it certainly is our experience that DFO is very broken. It’s not working.”

THE DFO HAS EXISTED in some form since the British North America Act of 1867, which legislated federal control of Canadian ocean fisheries. Originally known as the Department of Marine and Fisheries, the agency has had about a dozen name changes in the past 142 years and countless internal restructurings. Currently, the DFO has 10,240 employees in its six branches from coast to coast. An annual budget of $1.7 billion funds marine and freshwater habitat protection, fisheries management, aquaculture promotion and research, and even the rescue and patrol duties of the Canadian Coast Guard.

The Pacific Region division – centred in Vancouver and covering B.C. and the Yukon – is the largest branch of the six, with an annual budget upwards of $250 million and a staff of 2,275. While $250 million doesn’t sound like a huge sum to oversee habitat conservation and fishing licences along 27,000 kilometres of coastline and 105 river systems, there are concerns as to how DFO funds are being allocated. In the Pacific Region alone, more than 450 employees are administrative staff with no field research or enforcement duties, while its Ottawa-based National Capital Region branch – a virtual “region” with no habitat to protect and no gumbooted field researchers – has 1,343 staff and an estimated budget of more than $100 million. The apparent impotency of the top-heavy DFO in managing habitat and fisheries has not gone unnoticed in foreign circles. The Economist, in a 2005 article, called the DFO “flaccid” for its handling of issues in the Pacific Region, adding, “With anarchy on the Fraser, stocks in peril and an unreformed fisheries department, British Columbia’s prized salmon fishery seems to be swimming towards the same fate [as Atlantic cod].”

Closer to home, a 2005 report by the David Suzuki Foundation tried to lay a golden thread through the labyrinth of the Pacific Region bureaucracy, pointing out systemic problems and possible solutions. The critique runs to 137 pages. The authors take the agency to task for poorly allocated budgets and underfunding of critical habitat and fisheries research – and for being a political lapdog that avoids enforcement in favour of self-regulation by industrial users of rivers and coastline.

The authors note that overlap between the B.C. government, Environment Canada, the DFO’s internal subdepartments and hybrid federal-regional agencies makes accountability and habitat conservation nearly impossible: “DFO is part of a universe of partially responsible government institutions. The conservation bureaucracy consists of multiple loosely co-ordinated agencies . . . lacking a way to come together to do the job.” Departments compete for resources and power, which provides a motive not to co-operate. The aquaculture branch keeps its research from the fisheries and habitat branches, and vice versa. When things flop, it’s easy to point fingers. “They can blame others,” the report continues, “and use problems to enhance their case for more resources.”

Commercial fisherman Dan Chauvel FISHERMEN SUCH AS CHAUVEL and Johansen have their own reasons to fault the agency. But they admit that the Pacific Region branch has achieved some major successes in fisheries management in the past two decades by encouraging what are known as share-based or quota fisheries. Both fishermen favour these management models, where harvesters are allotted a share of the total allowable catch (TAC) – a figure calculated by DFO stock assessment researchers, who estimate how many fish can be sustainably caught in a given time frame. Individual transferable quota (ITQ) is one of the most common forms of quota fisheries, where the TAC is divided (equally, in most cases) among the number of licence holders. Fishermen can “lease” unused quota from licence holders who choose not to go fishing, which reduces fleet size, overhead expenses and pollution. B.C. started using quota in the 1970s with the spawn-on-kelp fishery (a specialty product for the Japanese market, where herring roe is harvested on kelp fronds), and ITQs helped resuscitate the ailing halibut industry in 1991. Since then share-based management has spread to rockfish and black cod as well as to some troll and seine salmon fisheries.

The ITQ system is not without controversy, but even those who dislike its overtones of privatization admit that, when paired with government enforcement, it seems to result in sustainable, profitable fisheries. The success of B.C. share-based fisheries has gotten the province a lot of attention and praise from researchers around the world. ITQ systems appear to prevent overfishing on the “golden goose” principle – those who own it don’t want to kill it – while non-quota “derby” fisheries tend to end up as a race to catch the most fish. The DFO has encouraged fishermen to test and adopt ITQ fisheries throughout the Pacific Region, and continues to promote them to remaining derby salmon fisheries. Most B.C. fishing associations that have tested share-based fishing have voted to keep it. Chauvel and Johansen believe it’s the future of the industry. “Economists and environmentalists, amazingly, tend to line up on this,” says Chauvel.

While both Chauvel and Johansen are happy to credit the agency for its good work in promoting quotas, they feel frustrated overall by their dealings with the DFO. “In Area H [the troll fishing waters between Vancouver Island and the mainland, from Victoria to Port Hardy], we’ve got the best manager possible,” says Chauvel. “She’s fair, she’s smart, she works unbelievably hard. And she’s not unique. There are other progressive, forward-thinking people within DFO at the management level. But when we ask about changing validation schemes, they kind of shrug and go, ‘Yeah, hmm’ – and nothing happens. There’s no motivation to consider reform. We just cannot get things changed or moving. It puts fishermen at their wits’ end.”

The central problem for fisheries in B.C., says Chauvel, is counting fish – affordably, first of all, and then across the board, by everyone who puts a hook or net in the water. The current user-pay method of off-load validation in the commercial fishery – where halibut or salmon are counted on the dock by third-party companies with DFO contracts – can be absurdly expensive. “The large-boat fishery might be able to make it work, but the small independent guy? No way,” says Chauvel.

He recounts a time when he’d brought his catch, a load of salmon mixed with ling-cod bycatch, to the dock at Masset in the Queen Charlottes. The salmon counter was not technically allowed to validate his ling cod. Validating such a small number of groundfish was the job of a separate contractor, who, had he not been on vacation at the time, would have been flown to the dock all the way from Prince Rupert. DFO gave Chauvel an exception to use the salmon counter to validate his ling cod, but even so it wasn’t cheap: about $160 to weigh and record 74 pounds of fish. That’s $160 for about five minutes of work on the part of the validator – about $50 more than the ling cod was worth. In this case, bringing the fish to market actually costs the fisherman money.

Cheaper validation schemes, argues Chauvel, would not only relieve fishermen of a monopolistic cost burden, but would protect wild fish by making third-party counting affordable for other users of the resource. This is critical to the long-term survival of B.C. fisheries. “If you have a share-based fishery,” Chauvel says, “you have to be able to validate what people are harvesting and that it’s staying within the limits applied to those shares. As it is, we can’t afford it. And if we can’t afford it, you’re not going to be able to extend it to the First Nations and the recreational fisheries.”

One solution, says Chauvel, is easy enough: allow dockside fish counters to record both salmon and groundfish. Harbour authorities – dock managers – could also be trained to provide the service. “We don’t need to drive someone out from Surrey to Vancouver, at $125 an hour for a four-hour round trip, when the assistant dock manager is right there and he can do it in half an hour,” he says.

The DFO, however, is cool on these ideas. The agency believes there are technical aspects to weighing and recording fish that shouldn’t be underestimated. “One of the benefits of individual quota fisheries is that there is better catch reporting. And in a sense, it is a cost of doing business,” says Sue Farlinger, regional director of fisheries management for the Pacific Region. DFO’s primary concern is with competent reporting, not with user costs. High-quality monitoring is also in the fishermen’s best interest, she says. “In order to maintain markets in today’s world, both the managers of the fisheries and the fishermen need to be able to demonstrate to their markets that the fishery is managed sustainably. And demonstrating that has a cost to it.”

Chauvel and Farlinger seem to agree: counting fish is key to a sustainable fishery and, in an era of conscious consumers, also key to product value and marketability. But the question of exactly how to count those fish is political dynamite in B.C., especially when applied to sport fishermen and the First Nations food, social and ceremonial fishery (FSC) on the Fraser River, neither of whose catches is validated by a third party. When sport or commercial fishermen suggest that Fraser River First Nations are taking more salmon than the official numbers claim or raise their eyebrows at “missing sockeye” – an estimated 1.3 million fish that passed the Mission counting station in 2004, and nearly two million in 2005, but didn’t make it to their spawning grounds – they are often accused of self-interest and racist myopia. Johansen laughs at this, with a bitter edge: “My wife’s First Nations, half of my family is First Nations, my friends are First Nations. That ain’t the tree I’m barking up.”

“We wouldn’t be behaving any differently,” adds Chauvel. “In fact, we would probably be more efficient in terms of exploitation. They’re only doing what they’re allowed to do.”

Members of First Nations, in turn, point to poaching by recreational fishermen and to inaccurate TAC accounting by the DFO for allowing overfishing by the commercial fleet. The DFO’s Farlinger maintains there is adequate tracking, not only of the commercial fleet, but also of the sports and First Nations fisheries. “It varies with the size and location of the fishery and the challenges associated with getting catch data and the information on that particular fishery,” she says. “We have standards for FSC in the same way we have standards for the other fisheries. And I will say the catch monitoring is not perfect in any fishery: not in the commercial fishery, recreational fishery or First Nations fishery. There are challenges in each of those areas that we continue to improve on over time.”

But Chauvel is not satisfied with the DFO’s standards. The bottom line for effective management, he says, is that third-party validation schemes be applied to all users of the resource and that there be transparency in the way the numbers are collected and shared. He thinks one possible solution to accurate counting would be for commercial, First Nations and recreational fishermen to tag their fish using coded tags provided by DFO. Each fisherman would purchase their allotted amount of tags and apply them to their landed fish, which would help to simplify enforcement and prevent poaching. “Right now,” says Chauvel, “a fish is a fish is a fish. Tags would help ensure that legitimately harvested fish were accounted for and properly allocated between sectors.” It would also help prevent illegally harvested fish from entering the commercial market, as processors and restaurateurs in possession of an untagged fish could be charged.

Sharolise Baker is fisheries manager for the Stellat’en Nation at the headwaters of the Fraser River, northwest of Prince George. While Baker does not think the DFO should be the validator, as prior enforcements and net seizures have left a bad taste in many people’s mouths, she agrees that a third-party counting system would be a good thing for Fraser River salmon. “I think that is actually needed. . . . We’re at the end of the line up here, and as you move downriver, everyone is taking a piece of that pie. I don’t think First Nations are great at catch monitoring, but there are missing numbers in the recreational fishery as well, and all across the board. If there is monitoring, it should be for everyone, for recreational and commercial as well as First Nations.

“I’ve been working with fisheries since the ’80s,” she continues. “I’ve seen the numbers decline again and again and never bounce up. We’re obviously not doing it right, and if nothing happens then within my lifetime, we’re going to be eating farmed fish. And I’ve studied aquaculture, and I do not want that.”
Commercial fisherman Steve Johansen THE DFO’S THANKLESS task is to deal effectively with the eternal problem known as the “tragedy of the commons,” in which everyone demands what they see as their rightful share of a public resource. In the process of each person gobbling up their portion, the resource is destroyed, and everyone ends up with nothing. And whenever there is a shared commons, there will be politics. Competing interest groups voice their concerns to elected officials, and those officials tend to act on behalf of whichever group has the loudest or most well-heeled lobby.

The collapse of Atlantic cod has been the $3.9-billion albatross around the neck of the DFO since 1992. As Alex Rose explains in his book Who Killed the Grand Banks?, the Atlantic cod crash was not brought on by wicked foreign fleets or by mysterious shifts in ocean temperature, but by the lobbying power of Newfoundland and Labrador’s industrial trawler fleet, whose ships could haul up 200 tonnes of cod in an hour, twice as much as a traditional Grand Banks schooner landed in a season. Painfully aware of the losing situation posed by powerful fishermen’s associations, the Pacific Region DFO has apparently tried to head off a similar collapse of B.C. salmon. Since the mid-’90s, it has used licence buyouts to reduce B.C.’s commercial salmon fleet by half, from more than 4,000 commercial salmon licences in 1988 to only 2,000 by 2004. It has also drastically reduced the total allowable catch for salmon – to 20 per cent of the estimated run size, from the have-at-’em 80 per cent harvest rate of the 1950s.

Taken with the agency’s successes in instituting quota fisheries, this all seems to add up to due diligence in wild-fish conservation. But while these measures are arguably much needed and long overdue, the DFO itself has changed hardly at all since 1992. It remains a follower, not a leader in fisheries management, inordinately subject to political pressures and industrial imperatives. For proof, first look back east where in 2008 departing fisheries minister Loyola Hearn signed off – against all his scientists’ recommendations – on reopening an inshore cod fishery to the tune of 7,000 tonnes a year.

In B.C. one can look at the DFO’s handling of gravel removal on the Fraser River, where in 2006 alone its hands-off approach to “industrial stewardship” resulted in a contractor killing two million juvenile pink salmon near Chilliwack. Or to the fast-growing salmon aquaculture industry. Since salmon farming shifted in the 1980s from hapless B.C.-owned mom-and-pop operations to well-funded Norwegian corporate concerns – with 92 per cent of the province’s 120-plus farming licences currently owned by Norwegian companies Marine Harvest, Grieg and Mainstream – the DFO has almost entirely avoided conducting peer-reviewed research on the industry’s effects on wild fish. Sea lice is the most well-known concern, but a less publicized one is the transmission to wild stocks of infectious hematopoietic necrosis, a virulent disease that, between 2001 and 2003, spread to 36 salmon farms around Vancouver Island and resulted in the culling of millions of Atlantic salmon.

THE CURSE OF THE Grand Banks is paradoxical. The DFO has seen the trouble it can get into with a vocal, powerful lobby of fishermen clamouring for the right to fish a stock to extinction. To prevent this in B.C., it has responded by reducing the fishing fleet while boosting aquaculture. Why? Given the DFO’s history, one answer stands out: because it’s much easier to manage a few corporate holders of salmon farms than a mob of fractious fishermen – even ones who have significantly less political clout than their Atlantic counterparts.

“Maybe aquaculture is a good thing, if it didn’t affect wild stocks the way it does,” muses Dane Chauvel. “And even reducing the fleet size – maybe that too could be good for the fish. But one thing is sure, that commercial fishermen have borne the brunt of the DFO’s precaution. We’re doing the precaution for everyone else because no one else seems to be held accountable.”

It is possible to reform a fisheries agency, and help both wild fish and fishermen. For evidence, one can look north to Alaska. In the early 1950s, following 20 years of federal mismanagement, that state’s salmon fishery was declared a federal disaster area by President Eisenhower. After Alaska’s passage into official statehood in 1959, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) took over the management of the salmon, groundfish and shellfish harvest in state waters; regional decisions no longer had to be ratified by bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. Over the past three decades the salmon fishery has, in terms of landed catch, been a huge success – and was one of the first in the world to be certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council, a U.K.-based non-profit that validates the long-term health and viability of the world’s fisheries. The state harvested a staggering 160 million salmon in 2008. In 2009 the state is projected to catch an additional 15 million. For comparison, B.C. fishermen landed about eight million salmon in 2007 and one million in 2008. 

“Salmon were the heart and soul of the Alaska economy in the 1950s, so the status of the salmon runs was one of the principal issues in the drive toward statehood,” says David Bedford, deputy commissioner of the ADF&G. “With the argument being that if we transitioned management from a federal authority located some thousands of miles distant and had local control – by people who used and depended on the resource – we would have far more robust management of those resources. And that’s something that I think has proved itself out.”

Because the state’s residents have identified themselves culturally and economically with wild salmon, Alaska has made a strong policy stance against dams on spawning rivers and against licensing salmon farms. There is controversy over the genetic effects of the Alaska hatchery system on wild stocks, and it’s true that its major salmon rivers don’t suffer, as many B.C. rivers do, from habitat loss due to urbanization, pollution and logging. Additionally, Alaskan salmon fishermen do not use ITQs and, despite the plethora of fish, many Alaska fishing communities remain on the verge of economic disaster. Still, if Alaska could learn a thing or two about quota fisheries from B.C., the DFO could learn some things from Alaska. And key among those is a very simple concept: knowing who to praise and who to blame.

In a 2006 study on the Bristol Bay fishery – Alaska’s most abundant sockeye salmon run – author Ray Hilborn, a Royal Society of Canada fellow and University of Washington fisheries researcher, notes that the fishery benefits from direct lines of accountability. The area’s three managers, he writes, “have clear instructions that their job for the fishing season is to regulate the fishery to fall within the escapement goal” – the number of salmon allowed to return upriver to guarantee a healthy returning run – and that by “making an individual responsible for each fishing district, ADF&G provides strong incentives to stay within escapement goals because everyone knows who is in charge and who deserves credit or blame.” When regional biologists bear responsibility for a fishery, they become interested in the knowledge of fishermen, Hilborn reports. “During the fishing season district managers spend a good portion of each day meeting with vessel owners and processors. When mistakes are made it is clear where the error originated.”
B.C. commercial fishing WHETHER FOR REASONS of poor habitat management, climate change or poor tracking of the non-commercial catch, B.C.’s salmon runs are shrinking. Fraser sockeye runs come in four-year cycles, and the 2008 return was only 1.7 million; historically the run has been twice that large and more than three times as large as recently as 1994. Exactly why remains a mystery, but the first step in answering it – before investigating the more subtle effects of climate change, decadal cycles and water temperatures – is validating how many fish are actually being pulled out of the water. The DFO is unlikely to do that unless political pressure is applied to it or a coalition of commercial, recreational and First Nations fishermen can see past short-term self-interest to a more long-term approach.

Fishing rights and management issues on the Fraser River are enmeshed with the usual questions of self-interest versus the common good, but they also mingle with a unique and still-raw regional history between First Nations and other Canadians that includes decades of racist fisheries policies, massive urbanization, depredations such as the draining of Sumas Lake, and overfishing by the salmon-canning industry dating back to at least the 1880s. The DFO has tried to redress former policies by treading lightly, but the approach has had vague results. Co-operative relationships are a good start, but a clear regulatory framework that applies to all users is essential to building trust and accountability.

The DFO must continue to pursue measures that will help restore wild fish populations in B.C. while offering fisherman a sustainable livelihood. The emerging PNCIMA (Pacific North Coast Integrated Management Area) process – where industries, First Nations, fishermen, conservationists and scientists chart fishing zones, resource extraction and wise use – is one example. Creating marine protected areas that are off-limits to fishing boats and other industrial uses via the PNCIMA process is another, as is taking action on peer-reviewed, independent research that shows the effects of salmon farms on wild fish. But perhaps the most radical and promising step would be to turn the DFO bureaucracy upside down, Alaska-style – giving local managers real decision-making power and real accountability for local fisheries. This would not make instituting new catch validation schemes an easy task, but it would help the agency gain credibility among fishermen of all kinds.

At the Granville Island wharf, there is hope for reform, but no one is holding their breath. “Within this industry, there’s so many guys that are suffering, they’ve thrown in the towel, and we’re bucking the trend,” says Chauvel as he heads out to the rear deck of Carte Blanche. “We’re working around the impediments that are thrown at us by the bureaucracy and the management regime. It’s just forcing us to be smarter and work harder. We’re not going to be beaten down, in fact quite the opposite. What doesn’t beat us makes us stronger.”