March 30, 1998
Politics – not science – drives far too many decisions at the government department in charge of Canada’s fisheries. The extent to which the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has become politicized, and the tragic results, have been made frighteningly clear over the course of the past year.
Horror stories first surfaced in May in a prestigious fisheries journal. Three leading scientists complained that when governments administer research, bureaucratic and political interference corrupts the science. In reviewing the collapse of Canada’s East Coast cod stocks – a disaster that threw 40,000 people out of work – they pointed out that for many years the government ignored scientists’ warnings about the perils of overfishing. Preferring to blame stock declines on seals rather than on its own irresponsible policies, the government suppressed and distorted evidence to the contrary and censured scientists who refused to toe the party line.
Just three months after the publication of this damaging article, the discovery of an internal government report confirmed many of the worst allegations. Based on interviews with dozens of researchers, the report stated that scientific information was “gruesomely mangled and corrupted to meet political ends.” It accused management of “fostering an attitude of scientific deception, misinformation, and obfuscation.” It went on to say, “It has become far too convenient for resource managers and others to publicly state that their decisions were based on scientific advice when this is clearly not the case. It appears that science is too much integrated into the politics of the department.”
In the following weeks, more details emerged about the government’s mishandling of research. One scientist reported being sued by senior bureaucrats for libel after telling a journalist about the government’s efforts to suppress his research. Another scientist described DFO’s forbidding him to present his findings in writing at a symposium and former Fisheries Minister Brian Tobin’s later denying that the censored report existed. Mr. Tobin’s response to the accusations was hardly encouraging: Complaining of petulant prima donnas, he said, “Take all of these scientists if they feel constrained working within government and make them free.”
For those who still needed convincing that something is terribly amiss at DFO, the testimony of witnesses appearing before the House of Commons Fisheries Committee this winter left little doubt. One former DFO scientist described numerous incidents of intimidation and harassment of scientists conducting research that contradicted Ottawa’s official position. Condemning what he called “Stalinist behaviour,” he recounted the government’s forcing a colleague to write a letter disowning his perfectly legitimate research conclusions.
After hearing from hundreds of fishers, scientists, and concerned citizens, members of the Fisheries Committee have recommended restructuring DFO, removing some bureaucrats from their positions. But shuffling a few bureaucrats won’t change our inherently unaccountable system. The problem isn’t just personnel – it lies in the very structure of Canadian fisheries management, which places decisions in the hands of politicians instead of fishers and fishing communities.
Politicians and the bureaucrats they control are ill-suited to manage our fisheries. Focussed on the next election, they choose actions with short-term political payoffs, even if they might have disastrous long-term consequences. Beholden to special interests, they face intense pressure to create jobs at all costs. And they’re not held accountable for their decisions: They neither reap financial benefits from making good decisions nor pay the costs of making bad decisions. Nowhere have these perverse incentives been more disastrous than on Canada’s East Coast.
Environment Probe has long demanded reforms that put decision making into the hands of the fishers and fishing communities that have a long-term interest in their fisheries. The revelations of the last year confirm the wisdom of our approach. With your support, we will continue to work to de-politicize the management of our fisheries – to ensure that decisions are made not for short-term political gain but for the long-term health of the fisheries and those who depend upon them. Thank you in advance for your support.