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  • Courting Collapse

    Briony Penn

    October 2011

    Both the Fraser River sockeye and Pacific herring stocks are, by many accounts, on the verge of collapse, just as East Coast cod stocks did in the late 1980s. In the case of the cod, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans ignored early warnings from scientists and threatened some with loss of their jobs if they spoke out. Is that pattern repeating itself on the West Coast?


    THE UNFOLDING PRESENTATIONS at the Cohen Commission Inquiry into the 2009 Fraser River sockeye collapse, as well as at a recent symposium on the collapse of the BC herring fishery, suggest that history may be repeating itself. 

    By the time the federal government imposed a moratorium on the eastern cod fishery in 1992, it was too late. Many questioned why the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) didn’t warn the government earlier. 

    The answer was made clear in 1997 with the publication of an article in the Canadian Journal of Fish and Aquatic Science. Entitled “Is Scientific Inquiry Incompatible with Government Information Control?” its authors, scientists Jeffrey Hutchings, Carl Walters and Richard Haedrich—two formerly with DFO—provided evidence of the suppression of and political interference with research by industry-influenced government officials. The article concluded:

    “The present framework for linking science with management can, and has, led to abuses that threaten the ability of scientists to understand fully the causes of fish declines, to identify means of preventing fishery collapses from recurring, to incorporate scientific advice in management decisions, and to communicate research in a timely fashion to as wide an audience as possible. The existing framework of government-sponsored fisheries science needs to be replaced. It has failed to ensure viable fish resources and thereby sustain the fishing people and fishing communities upon which successful fisheries management depends. The economic and societal cost of this failure to Canada has been enormous.”

    Similar issues with government scientists were expressed frequently at the recent and concurrent Cohen Commission and Simon Fraser University symposium on the herring collapse. Sifting through thousands of pages of documents, memos, emails, scientific papers and transcripts, it is hard to find reassurance that DFO has begun to separate research from industry collusion and not interfered in scientific conclusions. Nor has DFO allowed its scientists to communicate publicly about their research, except in controlled situations.

    Independent researchers and representatives of coastal First Nations are showing signs that they will not tolerate a catastrophe of the scale of the eastern cod fishery here on the west coast—but it’s an upstream swim. 


    Muzzled Miller

    Much of the attention at the Cohen Commission has centred around the testimony of DFO scientist Dr Kristi Miller. Miller heads a $6-million salmon-genetics project at the federal Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo. She had an article published in the prestigious journal Science this past winter—but was ordered by her superiors not to do media interviews around it. 

    Miller uncovered what she described at the Cohen Commission as potentially the “smoking gun” for the sockeye collapse. In the course of running genomic profiles on sockeye, she discovered the vast majority of them were carrying the signature of a “novel” virus or parvovirus that could weaken the fish and make them vulnerable to a host of symptoms—variously called marine anemia and plasmacytoid leukemia. She stated that there were many elements of the history and timing of these diseases that potentially implicated this parvovirus in declines of other species of salmon—for example, Chinook in fish farms between 1988 and 1991—and that this is what tipped her to look at the possible linkages of this virus to the sockeye collapse. 

    Under questioning at the Commission, it was revealed that Dr Miller had prepared a report in 2009 that included her hypothesis that this virus may be suggestive that hatcheries and aquaculture were playing a role in the decline of the sockeye. But she was asked by her employer to remove this reference from her report. When asked why, Miller stated, “I honestly don’t remember the dialogue that occurred associated with that, but I think that many felt that to be highly speculative and not really well supported.” 

    She was also restricted from presenting at an earlier Simon Fraser think-tank into the sockeye salmon collapse. When asked about that, she stated, “I think that to be precautionary, they [DFO] would limit the exposure of scientists to any meetings that were likely to attract public attention and media.” 

    While she stated that she is not prevented from publishing her research, she added, “What we have been told is that we’re not to speak about our findings until we testify here in the Cohen Inquiry. I don’t know at what point that ban in speaking to the public will be lifted. I don’t believe it is lifted yet.”

    Why didn’t Miller’s smoking gun, when first reported within DFO, trigger the highest red alert and demand the full cooperation of industry? Greg McDade, the lawyer representing biologist Alexandra Morton, only had 15 minutes to determine why some obvious vectors for this mystery virus weren’t explored. He asked Miller why there had been no testing of Atlantic salmon in the fish farms, especially in light of the evidence (eventually released under public pressure) that symptoms of the anemia appeared in sampled farmed fish. Miller responded that she was approached by the BC Salmon Growers Association and told that, “The [fish farm] vets weren’t comfortable with testing for a signature” in their farmed Atlantic salmon, so to-date, none have been tested. 

    It came as a surprise to some that a DFO scientist cannot insist on testing farmed fish when there’s even a small chance that a lethal virus might infect wild stocks.

    Miller’s appearance at the Cohen Commission, besides confirming how government scientists are prohibited from speaking freely, validated what critics have said about the aquaculture industry having too much power. 

    During the week of Miller’s testimony, the fish farms did agree to allow testing to proceed. But Miller may not be able to take advantage of their accommodation. As she stated at the Commission hearings: “Right now, I actually have no departmental money or outside money to work on sockeye salmon from the Fraser River.” That statement confirmed another major public concern: scientists unable to conduct needed research due to lack of funding.


    Morton at the Cohen Commission

    On the stand at the Cohen Commission, Alexandra Morton proudly proclaimed her independence: “I don’t work for a university, the government, the industry, or a First Nation—I’m completely independent.”

    Damien Gillis, who observed the Cohen Commission, wrote after Morton’s appearance: “The fact is, throughout the aquaculture and disease hearings of the past several weeks, most of the Commission’s scientific experts either work for or have worked for the industry or government—a point Morton made clear in the final, heated exchange of the day.”

    A biologist, Morton has worked and lived in the Broughton Archipelago for decades, before and during the period when it became home to a good portion of BC’s fish farms. She observed first-hand their practices and impacts—from the disappearance of the whales she had first gone there to study, to the rise of sea lice infestations on salmon. She has become an expert on sea lice—which often occur in the crowded conditions of fish farm pens, and can carry diseases between farmed and wild stocks. Morton has published articles in scientific journals—including Science—on the subject. 

    In the course of her research, she has become both a passionate advocate for wild salmon and an articulate and severe critic of the aquaculture industry and the government.

    As a person with a “substantial and direct interest in the subject matter of the inquiry,” Morton was granted official standing at the Cohen Commission. This allowed her to access the Commission’s databases—but not, much to her dismay, to divulge her findings, even when she discovered information she believed was critical to the health of salmon stocks.

    At the Cohen Commission, she was questioned (some would say challenged) more about her credentials and her “disrespect” of other scientists than the 60-page report she prepared based on her analysis of the 500,000 pages of government documents that Cohen collected on the Fraser sockeye decline since 1992. She says her research led her to a clear understanding of what is happening to the sockeye, an understanding of why stocks declined in 2009 and rebounded in 2010. When she tried to submit her report to the inquiry, she says, “the lawyers for Canada and the Province of BC blocked me, saying it was ‘hearsay.’ They demanded I use my ‘living voice;’ when I tried to do that they blocked me, saying I am not a vet and therefore my opinion was not allowed.” (“Living voice” is a legal term referring to verbal presentation, as opposed to a document.)

    Because of the way the Commission works—insisting that all documents gathered by the Commission be kept confidential unless a legal ruling is made or they become exhibits at the proceedings—Morton’s report is not available to us, fuelling the key public concern about access to information.

    The Commission has not put up transcripts of Morton’s testimony as of press time, but on her blog Morton notes: “Only the sockeye that closely passed salmon farms collapsed. DFO science found evidence of a virus in the ones that were dying. The clinical condition of these fish and genomic evidence pointed to a mystery sickness that began in Chinook salmon farms on the Fraser sockeye route in the early 1990s, exactly when the sockeye began to collapse. The pale gills, swollen kidneys and tumour-like lesions were found in both the farm Chinook salmon and the sockeye. When the Norwegian companies quietly removed the Chinook farms mid-2007, the first sockeye generation that went to sea since 1992 without being exposed returned in historic numbers in 2010. This is what Canada and the Province of BC would not let me talk about. This is the uncomfortable truth that defies the policy that salmon farms do not kill wild salmon. I told the courtroom that when push comes to shove, the government hands it to the industry, not the wild salmon.”

    She says that at the Commission, “The lawyers for Canada and the Province of BC did not want to hear about the emails where DFO scientists were talking about the dying sockeye in the Fraser River. They were trying to figure it out, but had no money. The government lawyers did not want to hear that the provincial vet examining farm salmon is meticulously documenting new lesions. He reports these lesions are similar to the dangerous Norwegian Salmon Alphavirus, Heart and Skeletal Muscle Inflammation (which causes the farm salmon to die of heart attacks as they are being harvested), Pancreatic Disease and Infectious Salmon Anemia virus. They did not want to hear that the province is developing tests for viruses they say are not here. They refused to meet me on the battlefield, opting instead to throw rocks from the bushes. They attacked my education, my Registered Professional Biologist standing, our freedom to move over the ocean freely in a boat, and the right to free speech.”

    With so much at stake, at an inquiry that is perhaps the last chance to prevent the salmon from going the way of the cod, it doesn’t seem a wise way to treat an independent scientist.

    Up the river from the Cohen Commission, another key coastal fishery on the verge of collapse was being discussed, but with no lawyers badgering witnesses. While DFO’s past ineffectiveness was condemned there as well, the fact that some DFO scientists joined in the discussion with independent scientists and First Nations was viewed as a big step forward.


    Herring mismanagement causes a cultural genocide

    In late August, academics, First Nations and media joined with several scientists from DFO for Simon Fraser University’s three-day research symposium (brilliantly named The Herring School Workshop) “to digest and discuss the dismal fate of herring in the Pacific Northwest.” 

    Michelle Washington of the Sliammon First Nations set the mood for the days ahead. With tears pouring down her cheeks, she recalled the day when a way of life—one that had endured for thousands of years—ended. She was 14 years old when the commercial fleet of herring boats arrived in front of her village of Teeshoshum (“waters white with herring spawn”) on the Sunshine Coast. “There were so many boats that they blocked our view to the island across the bay.” That was 27 years ago and the herring, which provided both food and livelihoods, have never returned. 

    Throughout the conference, representatives from First Nations for the entire coast stood up for the first time, one after the other, sharing their common experiences, traditional knowledge, grief and frustration. Each pinpointed the year and cause of the loss of the distinct herring populations on which these cultures and ecosystems were built. Barb Wilson, a Haida grandmother and Parks Canada employee, was a little girl when the commercial herring fleet came to fish the spawning herring in her village bay off Skidegate. She remembers the way the boat lights lit up the bay as they fished through the night. That was in the 1950s, and the herring have never returned in numbers since.

    Frank Brown, Heiltsuk First Nation, spoke of the intense frustrations his people had in trying to change the herring management practices in the once-vital spawning grounds of Spiller Channel. “For five years, we went to fisheries and science meetings of DFO with our own herring fishery management plan, as it is a communal aboriginal right affirmed by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1996. Then we went out on to the grounds as a nation to try and stop the fishery in 2003, 2004, 2005. Canada sent in the RCMP and a paramilitary force with snipers to enforce the law. Whose law are we talking about enforcing now? The highest law in the land gave us the highest priority access. At the end of the day, the fishing fleet fished through the night and got their quota in Spiller Channel.”

    Cliff Atleo, Nuu-chah-nuulth First Nations, repeated a similar story about the once-rich herring spawning locations in his territory on west Vancouver Island over the last 40 years, and the specific years in which the sac-roe fisheries came and cleaned them out from Barkley to Clayoquot sounds. 

    Arvid Charlie of the Cowichan Tribes recounted how the herring spawns disappeared from Cowichan Bay, Genoa Bay and Gorge Harbour when he was a little boy in the ’40s from the reduction fisheries. “They came and caught the herring by the scowfuls and the herring never came back.” 

    Cliff Atleo argued that the mismanagement of herring is causing a cultural genocide of coastal people. “These are strong words but they are true, as herring are a cultural keystone species upon which all life and cultures depend.” 

    Frank Brown said the fact that scientists from DFO had actually come to participate was an important step in the right direction. He also acknowledged restrictions that scientists might work under because of industry interests, and said: “If we agree that herring is a keystone species, then we have to come together and try to overcome the fear around issues related to people’s employment, whether it is through allocations of herring or their jobs within the civil service.”


    Research doesn’t support DFO’s assumptions

    The smoking gun of the herring declines that indigenous representatives at the Herring School pointed to was the commercial fishery. First, the reduction fisheries that were closed in 1967, and then the current sac-roe fishery which kills the spawning fish. 

    The commercial herring fishery and processing operations are now entirely owned by Jimmy Pattison (Canfisco); and Canfisco’s senior director of fishing operations, Chris Cue, sits on advisory boards for the fishery. 

    At the Herring School, Dennis Chalmers, a fisheries manager all his career, first for the federal government and now at the provincial level, outlined past fisheries management, admitting the reduction fisheries were a disaster until their closure in 1967. But he defended current management practices for the sac-roe fishery. “We scientifically estimate pre-roe harvest biomass and only take 20 percent of the total, which is low by fisheries standards.” If biomass drops below a dangerous threshold in a large management section, which it has in four out of five regions, they don’t allow a fishery.

    Coastal First Nations people believe that the management model used by DFO, which treats the herring population as a single, undifferentiated mass that can move around within five large management units, is too simplistic. They have been arguing for decades that herring have behaviourally distinct bay populations, differentiated by geography, migratory behaviour and/or by time of spawn. For example, there are early spawners like the Gorge and Ganges populations, and some are late, like the Cherry Point population across the Strait of Georgia—all of them on the brink of extinction. 

    Not paying attention to this variability in behaviour and numbers has enabled the sac-roe fleet to aggressively target each last substantive bay population to get their quota—which has remained the same percentage, despite a decline in overall biomass.

    The stories from Sliammon to Haida Gwaii point to the fact that once fished out, these local bay populations fail to recover even after decades have passed, and the main cause has been the sac-roe fishery. Local populations have flickered out everywhere, even in Baynes Sound, which is still being fished by Pattison’s fleet. 

    However, DFO claims they haven’t found evidence that local populations are distinct, nor that the 20 percent quota of estimated biomass is a factor in the decline. Jake Schweigert, DFO herring scientist, says herring move, and he points to historical highs of the Strait of Georgia Management Unit at Baynes Sound and the Sliammon population moving around to Savary Island—although there’s been no research or catch in this section since 2000. 

    DFO scientists have been advocating this “moving herring” hypothesis for years, with no real evidence. And now there is new, independent evidence emerging that they’ve been wrong. 

    Dr Dana Lepofsky, who heads up the Herring School of researchers at SFU, has been working on the archaeology of herring for the last five years. Through excavations of village sites like Teeshoshum and Namu on the Central Coast, they have uncovered 7000 years of herring ecology and DNA in herring bones which could confirm what elders have been saying all along—that there is long-term site fidelity if these specific locations are not overfished. Abundance at these sites corresponds well to oral traditions that identify places of high concentrations of herring spawn. 

    Lorenz Hauser of University of Washington, Donga Yang at SFU, and Camilla Speller at University of Calgary have now figured out how to get nuclear DNA from the ancient bones and believe that this research direction might help us to better understand possible genetic differences between herring populations from place to place. 

    If this proves to be the case, DFO would have to accept an alternative hypothesis and embrace traditional practices—which have long been ignored but reflect this diversity. The first task, according to Arvid Charlie, would be to call for a moratorium on the herring fishery to give the last spawning groups a rest. For Karri Humchitt, Heiltsuk First Nation, the only solution is true co-management with the people who live with and understand the fish.

    At the symposium, DFO’s Schweigert defended current management and suggested that declines and failure to recover are linked to many causes. But his first choice of cause was predation by growing numbers of sea lions and humpback whales, as well as climate change. When he presented this argument, there were audible gasps from the audience, one that would have fully remembered a similar argument proffered to explain the cod collapse.

    They would also have recalled the 1995 muzzling of DFO scientist Ransom Myers over the causes of the cod collapse. Myers had found no evidence that predation by seals or environmental conditions were responsible for trends in total mortality of the 1985-87 cod stocks, yet his findings were removed from the pivotal Stock Status Report of 1995 and virtually none of the evidence that fishing was an important cause of the stock declines was included. When Myers spoke to the press directly in 1995 and stated categorically that the collapse of the cod fishery had nothing to do with seals and everything to do with overfishing, he was reprimanded and threatened with the loss of his job. 

    Many of the speakers at the Herring School Workshop knew of the Myers case and had long exposure to the problem of an industry-captured agency. So they weren’t buying Schweigert’s hypothesis. 

    Yet, once again, the fact that DFO scientists were participating was cited as progress. Two points of agreement were reached by the group. First, Steve Martell from DFO affirmed the criticism that there were information gaps in the old modelling and problems in making reliable stock assessments. Second, everyone agreed that in areas where there hasn’t been any fishing for years, the herring aren’t recovering and it isn’t clear why.

    But there are precious few people to answer that question. As Dr Ashleen Benson of SFU noted, Canadian science policy budgets have been cut by 40 percent and a third of the staff cut. Benson pointed out that they have 48 other species—in addition to sockeye and herring—for which stock assessments are required, but there is neither the staff nor budgets to do them. And there appears to be no political will to change the situation. 

    A recent example of what the federal government really cares about was their virtual scuttling—after a decade of work—of the multiple-stakeholder Pacific Northern Coast Integrated Management Area (PNCIMA), because some funding was going to come from the conservation-oriented Moore Foundation. Many believe the federal conservatives feared the agreement could negatively affect Enbridge Inc’s proposed $5.5 billion Northern Gateway pipeline. 


    What’s at stake

    At the end of the herring symposium, Heiltsuk representative Frank Brown summed up the events and made a call for collective action. “We are in a crisis—ecological and economic. Climate change is upon us. We are all aware of the games that get played. So we have to look really long and hard in order to build a solid foundation to move forward. We need a call to action. The stocks haven’t come back. Why? Why? The question should be a collective call to action of why?” 

    Summing up his feelings, elder Edwin Newman said, “We have been at war with DFO for decades, but we are all at the end now. Unless we all work towards saving these stocks together, and rebuild the trust, the herring will go extinct and so will everything that depends on them, from the salmon to our cultures.”

    A couple of days after her Cohen Commission appearances, Alex Morton headed out in her boat to Blackfish Sound. As she wrote in her blog, she wondered: “How could government and their lawyers be so blind to such wealth of the natural systems. Without the natural resources, BC would be poor, and yet we are destroying it so fast we will leave only the ruins to the next generation…These lawyers prevented the terrible truth from coming forward—DFO did nothing while millions of sockeye died at their feet. Fisheries were closed, salmon became scarce in some years to the people whose bodies require it. And then when one of their own stumbled on the answer to ‘Why?’ DFO prevented her from attending meetings, speaking to media, and she has no funding to work on sockeye salmon.”

    One might think the devastation of the cod fishery—and the subsequent findings of lack of responsible action—would have had more impact on us and our government.


    Briony Penn lives in Fulford Harbour, Salt Spring Island, where the last big spawn was 1983 and, despite local protests, charity and bait fisheries were still allowed. The wildlife have disappeared, and for her too, a way of life as a naturalist.

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