Monthly Archives: November 2010

Cohen Commission: failing grades or room for improvement?

I had intended to continue on with some analysis, or synthesis, of Justice Cohen’s interim report regarding the Commission into the declines of Fraser sockeye — of which, I suppose I will… however, someone else with a propensity for ranting released his assessment of the interim report.

Unfortunately, Conservative MP John Cummins’ assessment/rant (“Cohen’s Interim Report Gets an “F”) does little in bridging gaping divides between various factions of the great salmon discussion — however, he has a history of this sort of fractious approach; lashing out at First Nation fisheries and other First Nation issues. Even more unfortunate, is that it simply seems to further cement the view of many folks, of what the federal Conservatives (or at least the good ‘ol Canadian Alliance) stand for…

The irony in this, as I’ve pointed out before, is that Mr. Cummins is a member of the governing party these days. When he lashes out at the failings of Justice Cohen , or at the failings of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, or at the Fisheries Minister — he’s simply lashing out at himself and his political party. Yet, I suppose, one might suggest he’s standing up for his constituents in the Fraser Valley and their views.


If that’s the case, then maybe the federal and provincial government need to do a better job of communicating what aboriginal rights and title are, what they mean, and how they continue to be further defined and recognized in both Canadian courts (e.g. case law) and in international statutes and courts — for example, the United Nations Declaration on the rights of Indigenous People.

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First off — what I find so ridiculous about rants on First Nation fisheries — not that there is much of one in Cummins’ latest news release, however, he certainly has slung no shortage of mud on the issue — is that if we start to look at the actual numbers, it’s not quite the great elephant some make it out to be.

Historically, over the last 50 years or so, the commercial (and to much smaller degree, the sport sector) have captured around 95% of the total salmon catch.

First Nation fisheries have captured 5% or less.

Compare this with our immediate neighbors to the south in Washington State — where the Boldt decision of the mid-70s where salmon fisheries were split 50/50 between aboriginal and non-aboriginal fisherfolks.

This year, in BC, would be a great exception to the rule — in the Fraser anyways. Commercial fisheries (largely non-aboriginal) caught about 11.5 million sockeye and First Nation fisheries about 1.5 million sockeye for a catch of about 13% of the total.

So really… the rants about the First Nation impact on commercial fisheries is rather misplaced.

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Cummins’ news release:

There are many references to the Supreme Court’s decision in Sparrow, but only one to the Van der Peet decision and it made no mention of the fact that the court rejected a Sto:lo claim to an aboriginal right to sell or trade salmon, an issue central to many of the fisheries management and enforcement problems on the Fraser.

From someone with a lot of knowledge of the Fraser fishery, this last sentence is sadly mistaken. I’d be curious to hear from Mr. Cummins how he figures that issues with the Sto:lo on the lower Fraser  “are central to many of the fisheries management and enforcement problems on the [entire] Fraser.”

Bit of a stretch I’d say…

There are probably over 100 separate First Nations in BC (some numbers suggest 150) that rely on Fraser salmon, especially sockeye — from approach areas along Vancouver Island and coastal areas, up the Fraser to headwaters north and east of Prince George.

If this wide ranging collection of communities relies on, and has relied on for eons, the annual return of salmon — generally catches less than 10% of the total, often less than 5% (and once caught 100% prior to contact) — and has rights to catch these fish as recognized by Canada’s Constitution and a growing collection of case law in Canada’s highest courts (far more than just the Sparrow and Van der Peet decisions) — and that must rally against well-funded lobby groups (and politicians) that represent commercial and sport fishing interests —

I do wonder, then, where are the actual “fisheries management and enforcement problems” on the Fraser?

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From reading Justice Cohen’s interim report, I found numerous suggestions that “the issue central to many of the fisheries management and enforcement problems on the Fraser” lies with the federal ministry – DFO – that is supposed to perform those two crucial functions: fisheries management and enforcement.

Cummins’ new release:

Instead of selecting investigations which were directly relevant to his inquiry, Cohen simply summarizes the recommendations of 22 different reports. Some were noteworthy but most were inconsequential.

It’s surprising that a federal MP figures that reports by either provincial or federal Auditor Generals are “inconsequential”. (I certainly remember the Conservative Party of Canada riding the coattails of a significant Auditor General report right into power in Parliament).

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In Cohen’s interim report:

In 1997, the Auditor General of Canada examined DFO’s activities in conserving the Pacific salmon habitat… It concluded that DFO had not prepared an overview report on the status of fish habitat conservation in Canada, nor had it yet developed an acceptable, standardized measure of habitat productivity. The auditor general made a series of recommendations, including the following:

  • DFO should give the collection and management of information on Pacific salmon stocks and habitat a high priority in order to meet the needs of resource managers in the field and any reporting requirements on the status of the resource.
  • DFO should clarify the extent to which it intends to apply sustainability and genetic diversity practices to the management of individual salmon stocks and their habitats.

Ummm, yeah, that was 1997. It’s now 2010 — where is the clarity on how DFO intends to apply sustainability and genetic diversity practices?

Oh right, that was the DFO testimony the other day at the Cohen Commission — DFO is now ready to actually implement “ecosystem-based management”. Not bad, only 13 years later…

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Cohen continues:

In 1999, the Auditor General of Canada concluded that, given the need to satisfy conservation requirements while optimizing fishing opportunities, a better understanding of the genetic diversity of stocks is essential. DFO’s Pacific Region office indicated that, to protect genetic diversity, it would manage salmon on the basis of Conservation Units – groupings of stocks with related genetic characteristics – similar to those adopted in the United States. The auditor general made several recommendations:

  • In order to protect the genetic diversity of salmon stocks, DFO should move quickly to determine Conservation Units for all five species.
  • DFO should produce comprehensive, integrated status reports on stocks and habitats based on the new Conservation Units for each salmon species. The report should be updated annually and used in developing, implementing, and evaluating fisheries management plans.

Response: DFO agreed that there was a need to improve the integration of information about stock and habitat assessment in order to help guide decisions about fisheries management. This process would be consistent with the ecological approach to fisheries management to which the department is committed and it would be implemented in a staged manner.

Sooo, in 1999, eleven years ago, the Auditor General suggested serious work needed to be done to “satisfy conservation” and “optimizing [sustainable] fishing opportunities.”

Wow, curious that… sure sounds similar to Justice Cohen’s terms of reference. I guess DFO missed the “move quickly” part of the Auditor General’s recommendations. But then “move quickly” and large federal bureaucracies is rather oxymoron-ish.

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And, in 1999, DFO suggested that it: “would be consistent with the ecological approach to fisheries management”?

And, yet, it stands before the Cohen Commission eleven years later saying virtually the same thing?

Come on…

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A big part of the problem here is the inherent problem with large federal bureaucracies that really know little of what is happening with the left hand, while the right hand gives the finger to over 20 previous reports.

Add in the Peter Principle — which suggests that people rise to their level of incompetence within hierarchical organizations (e.g. bureaucracies).

Add in a ministry with a large proportion of folks riding out the last few years to a decent pension (e.g. don’t rock the boat).

And, to be fair, a federal ministry that has to deal with a changing governing regime every couple years, a current minority regime, and the simple fact that the bulk of federal representatives in Canada come from two provinces (Ontario and Quebec – and a PM from the Prairies) that are as about as concerned with ‘ocean’ issues as outgoing Conservative MP, and Environment Minister, Jim Prentice will be about the environment in his new posting in the senior ranks of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC).

Salmon may be iconic — unfortunately, that status doesn’t stretch all that far east of the Rockies.

(those Pacific coho implanted in the Great Lakes don’t really count…)

As such, I hope that maybe Mr. Cummins and any others reconsider the opinion that the issue central to many of the fisheries management and enforcement problems on the Fraser is aboriginal fisheries and aboriginal rights to salmon.

That might be a bit narrow…

In the meantime, if I was a grading-type individual I would pass along a passing mark to Cohen’s interim report. It’s a pretty thankless task that he is faced with — along with a ridiculous timeline to do the issue justice. As they say in the legal realm: the jury is still out…

I’m guessing that Justice Cohen in receiving a failing grade from one observer is not sitting at home feeling like a chastised child, grounded by his parents for failing the math exam.

Although, I do wonder about the wisdom of lashing out at the Commission when one represents the party that was automatically granted ‘standing’ in this process — the federal government…?

what good is a ‘sustainable’ fishery without fish?

Brueghel the Elder -- Fish Market. Is it a sustainable "fish market"?

I’ve had some time to read through the interim report from the Cohen Commission — about 140 pages of text in the report and over 300 pages overall — it’s a nice light, Sunday morning read…

Justice Cohen summarizes the terms of reference for the Commission into Fraser sockeye declines:

  • “to consider the policies and practices of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans” (DFO) with respect to the Fraser River sockeye salmon fishery;
  • “to investigate and make findings of fact regarding … the causes for the decline,” the current state of stocks; and the long-term projections for those stocks; and
  • “to develop recommendations for improving the future sustainability of the … fishery.”

He continues:

The overall aim of this commission is to respect the conservation of the sockeye salmon stock and to encourage broad co-operation among the stakeholders.

Sounds like a simple task… (yeah right)

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The interim report discusses the multitude of reports, investigations, and inquiries into Pacific salmon over the last couple decades: 25 reports between 1982 and 2010. In addition, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans recently provided the Commission with a report: “Recommendations Related to Fraser River Sockeye Salmon and Responses by the Government of Canada, 1982–2010.” — a 289 pg. document (more light reading).

In the 25 previous reports, are over 700 recommendations for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Quite remarkable.

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Starting into Cohen’s interim report, I was struck by Justice Cohen’s optimism: that this might be the inquiry to stop all inquiries; that this inquiry will stop the flowing tide of reports and investigations such as the previous twenty-five; that this inquiry might just stop the profuse bleeding and triage required within a profoundly broken behemoth of a bureaucracy that is DFO.

In my opinion, this fair and reasonable approach should result in a set of findings and recommendations that, I trust, will end the cycle of reviewing the same issues over and over again. (pg 128)

Good on him for remaining optimistic, and my hope would be that someone undertaking this “mission of utmost importance” (line from Bruce Willis movie: “The Fifth Element“) would be optimistic that they and their team could make a difference and take a different approach.

I do see somewhat of a different approach — with my limited knowledge of these sorts of things (e.g. reading many of the previous 25 reports referenced). Yet… I also see some of the same — as well as some significant challenges.

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For example:

Justice Cohen has a headline on page 10:

A common will to conserve sockeye (pg 10)

I believe there is a common will to do what is necessary to conserve Fraser sockeye stocks, and I am cautiously optimistic that, with the co-operation of the participants, recommendations will be made to satisfy our mandate of improving the future sustainability of the fishery…

… From commission staff to participants to other interested citizens, we all share the common goal of doing our very best to identify the causes for the decline in numbers of Fraser River sockeye salmon and to make meaningful recommendations for the fishery’s future sustainability.

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“Conserve” and “Sustainability” — two of the greatest terms to be debated over the next couple of decades.

These could be fronted as contradictory terms, such as “conserve” vs. “sustain” or “conservation” vs. “sustainability”. The terms are somewhat inherently contradictory in the present age. Maybe not so much in their roots though…

Conserve largely comes from Latin roots suggesting: “to preserve”.

Sustain also comes from Latin roots suggesting: “to hold” or “to hold up from below”.

In recent times, though, the two terms have become completely convoluted, co-opted, bureaucratically spun, and overused-cliche terms of industry, government, and environmental organizations and gurus.

I have commented on both terms in previous posts on this site. The great difficulty with these terms is by what definition, by whom, and for what purposes?

If to “conserve” at its roots means “to preserve” or in other words to protect — then how does this word, and practice of,  get married to industrial fisheries?

Yet, that is clearly laid out in Justice Cohen’s mandate: 1. the “overall aim of this commission is to respect conservation of Fraser sockeye” and 2. to “develop recommendations for improving the future sustainability of the … fishery.”

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One of the first challenges that come to my mind: it’s at least fifty years too late for that, if not one hundred years too late — especially in relation to a ‘sustainable’ Fraser salmon fishery. Guided by the concept of maximum sustainable yield (MSY), for the last 50 – 60 years (at least) salmon fisheries have had upwards of 80% of their total returning population hammered in industrial mixed-stock fisheries.

It has not been a time of “conservation”. Salmon as an entity, and conservation as a practice, have not gone hand in hand until the end of the last century when it started becoming a little clearer that we had a problem.

‘Conservation’ has now entered the realm when we, as one species out of hundreds that relies on salmon, finally realized that the resource is not unlimited. And that we don’t even know how many of the once over 200 individual Fraser salmon stocks — we have lost.

“a common will to do what is necessary to conserve Fraser sockeye stocks” — should be more aptly framed to suggest, do whatever is possible, in a triage setting, to conserve whatever diversity is left of Fraser sockeye stocks. Fisheries management over the last 50-100 years has resembled that great mythical bull in a china shop…

This is the exact reason why this great search for a smoking gun in relation to salmon population crashes drive me absolutely batty. We simply need to look in a mirror. Someone show me where a conservation ethic — or even the word ‘conservation’ is mentioned in the salmon fisheries literature of the 1950s and 60s.

Or the word ‘sustainable’…

Not there.

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This is the proverbial hangover… yet no one seems to want to admit the errors of the past in this great culpability search.

It’s ludicrous, and it’s shameful.

We are the problem. Plain and simple.

We drank far too many salmon cocktails in the evenings previous, now we have a splitting lack-of-conservation headache, yet we’re not doing the good ‘ol “I’ll never swill that many salmon cocktails again!”

Instead… we’re blaming it on the ingredients of the cocktails, or the bartender that served the drinks, or the waiter that served the meal, or the weather — rather than taking some fricking responsibility and changing our practices.

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That rant out of the way…

Type in “definition of sustainability” into Google and one will most likely be given Wikipedia as one of the top returns. Now, yes, Wikipedia does not necessarily represent the hallowed halls of peer reviewed, preeminent science — however this particular entry highlights the problem with the word, and the concept of sustainability:

A universally accepted definition of sustainability is elusive because it is expected to achieve many things.

On the one hand it needs to be factual and scientific, a clear statement of a specific “destination” [e.g. Cohen: to investigate and make findings of fact regarding … the causes for the decline]. The simple definition “sustainability is improving the quality of human life while living within the carrying capacity of supporting eco-systems”, though vague, conveys the idea of sustainability having quantifiable limits. But sustainability is also a call to action, a task in progress or “journey” and therefore a political process, so some definitions set out common goals and values…

…For all these reasons sustainability is perceived, at one extreme, as nothing more than a feel-good buzzword with little meaning or substance but, at the other, as an important but unfocused concept like “liberty” or “justice”. It has also been described as a “dialogue of values that defies consensual definition“.

With this sort of confusion and obfuscation around the term… I am greatly curious how Justice Cohen intends to define a “sustainable” Fraser sockeye fishery.

I am also greatly curious how Justice Cohen and his team determines “conservation” — as in: the “overall aim of th[e] commission is to respect the conservation of the sockeye salmon stock…”

If “conservation” means, in essence, to ‘preserve’. How do preservation of fish AND a ‘sustainable’ fishery go hand in hand?

And how large is a “sustainable fishery”?

If I am the only one fishing and there are 10 fish and I catch one — that seems sustainable.

But what about when there are 10 million fish — how big is a ‘sustainable fishery’; and conducted by how many people, and by how many boats (if any) — and very importantly: where (in-river or marine-based)? Corporately-controlled (e.g. Jimmy Pattison’s CanFisco) or mom-and-pop troller or First Nation in-river net fisheries?

What about price crashes as a result of a glut of farmed fish on the market?

What about the participation of eco-scams like the Marine Stewardship Council and WalMart?

“Conservation of Fraser Sockeye” and “Sustainable fisheries”? — curious conundrum.

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In the spirit of ecological economist Herman Daly who asks: “what good is a sawmill without a forest?”:

what good is a sustainable fishery without fish?

It’s not that I have necessarily a defeatist attitude and think this exercise hopeless — I simply look to my own life experience growing up and living on the BC coast for much of my life… go ask the once healthy troll fleet of Haida Gwaii how many days of fishing they now see; or the troll fleet of western Vancouver Island; or ask the once great fishing boat builders of Haida Gwaii how busy they are now… oh wait, a fishing boat hasn’t rolled into the water there in a lifetime.

The time for ‘conserving’ salmon to support ‘sustainable’ fisheries — has appeared to come and gone on the BC coast. So many salmon runs have been lost — go look in River’s Inlet for the once great runs, or the myriad of east coast Vancouver Island runs, or the once incredible runs of Haida Gwaii…

You know those taglines from beer and other alcohol commercials: ‘drink responsibly and within your limits’?…

let the theory parade continue…

Add another theory to the search for culprits in the sockeye crash last year:

Brain lesions linked to sharp drop in sockeye stocks

After the dramatic collapse of sockeye salmon stocks in the Fraser River last year, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans quickly identified the three “most likely” causes – including a mysterious disease that causes brain lesions in fish.

“The evidence of brain lesions is new and it will take some time to document the geographic extent and to understand a relationship (if any) between a disease agent and mortality,” states a Dec. 11, 2009, Memorandum for the Minister signed by deputy Minister Claire Dansereau.

In an Oct. 8, 2009, email to Ms. Dansereau, Mr. Sprout, who is now retired, listed 10 possible causes of the sockeye collapse. But in her subsequent memo, Ms. Dansereau narrowed the list to three, and focused on one – a disease associated with a pattern in the way some genes become active in salmon as they make their way back to freshwater.

Let’s just keep the search on for a mystical cause — rather than looking in the fricking mirror.

Disease, parasites, food shortages and so on have been with wild salmon since the beginning of salmon time. That’s the importance of biodiversity, ensuring stocks don’t go extinct, and protecting habitat.

The issue here is that we have been fishing off 60-80% of total runs for close to fifty years in mixed stock fisheries that have caused many sockeye stocks to go extinct, along with hammering habitat — especially in the Fraser. With this sort of pressure, the magnitude of diseases all of a sudden seems catastrophic when runs are under significant pressure to survive.

I’m really looking forward to the point in time when DFO accepts responsibility for ‘management’ planning over the last several decades and actually says: “gee, you know what, maybe our management role has had the biggest impact on salmon runs… these then increase the magnitude of impacts of things like disease and parasites…”

It’s a novel concept.

One brave decision… and one absurd, pathetic, lost federal Ministry

After much back and forth between various media, communities and opinions from all ‘wings’ (left, right, etc.) the federal government finally made a decision on the fate of the Prosperity project in Tsilqot’in Territory in central B.C.

It appears that mining proposals to kill pristine lakes are just not going to fly in B.C.

First, Northgate Mineral’s proposed Kemess North project, which had slated to use Amazay (Duncan) Lake as a tailings facility. That proposal was turned down by an Environmental Assessment panel in 2007 and supported by the Federal government a few months later.

Update: Northgate is now proposing to go underground at the proposed Kemess North project.With gold at $1300+ an ounce things start looking a little more economic.

Today: the federal government decided to support the findings of a federal Environmental Assessment panel on Taseko’s proposed Prosperity Project, which proposed to turn Teztan Biny (Fish Lake) into a tailings facility.

Ottawa vetoes controversial Prosperity mine project in B.C.

Quite amazingly, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) maintained opposition to this project for close to a decade. Even with a revolving door of officials within the bureaucracy, opposition remained.

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In other headlines today:

DFO restructuring emphasizes ecosystem management, panel told

I don’t whether to laugh or cry at some of the DFO statements…

…Department of Fisheries and Oceans testified Monday [at the Cohen Commission] that the agency is undergoing major changes.

Claire Dansereau, DFO deputy minister, told the Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River that her department is in the process of restructuring to put more emphasis on ecosystem management.

Wow, Ms. Dansereau… have you actually read your Ministry’s Wild Salmon Policy?

You know… that document that was instituted in 2005 and has been floating around since 1999. It’s plastered with the term “ecosystem-based management”. It seems, in fact, that over five years ago (at a minimum) that DFO was supposed to be “restructuring”.

Ms. Dansereau, who appeared with a panel of top DFO officials, said that in the past the department has been too concerned with managing individual stocks of salmon, and with allowing fisheries based on the numbers of fish in a given stock.

“If we do what we did in the past, which is count fish [for harvest] … and forget oceanographic conditions, etc., we could be taking too big a risk,” she said.

Geee, do you think?

And this year’s fishery on the “historic” Fraser run was managed differently — how?

200 distinct Fraser sockeye stocks… somewhere between 35-40 separate Conservation Units (nobody in DFO has been able to give me an accurate count on how many CUs exactly)… and only 19 stocks with sufficient data over the last few decades to actually “manage” fisheries.

And how does DFO currently contemplate environmental conditions (such as “oceanographic conditions”) and ecosystem components… well… it has a Management Adjustment (MA) that is factored into four groupings of stocks.

What is an MA?

Well… it factors in river conditions such as flow and temperature.

Wow… this is serious “restructuring”…

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But Brian Wallace, senior commission counsel, wondered why DFO’s new commitment to ecosystem management isn’t spelled out in departmental documents that set the goals for 2010-2011.

“I was struck by one specific … under the heading departmental priorities … I don’t see anything that talks about conservation, ecosystem management … could you explain the omission?” he asked.

Excellent question — thank-you Mr. Wallace.

The Cohen Commission counsel is supposed to represent the public’s interests throughout the process of the Commission — hopefully the honest, hard questioning of DFO can continue. As this is the same Ministry that lackadaisically managed the North Atlantic Cod to near extinction — largely because of bureaucratic bafflegab, bumpf, and political dillydallying.

“I wouldn’t characterize it as an omission … for us the notion of conservation … permeates everything we do,” she said. “It is part of our DNA.”

Ummm, sure, yup… but since when is “conservation” the only component of ecosystem-based management?

And “conserve”? By who’s definition? For whom or what? and Why?

Why conserve?

Ms. Dansereau said DFO was due for an organizational overhaul because it has had the same structure for a decade, and “it was my belief we should be better organized around ecosystem management.”


Give me a break.

Is it going to the be case of the classic ‘organizational consultant’ that comes into ‘overhaul’ an organization and moves everyone out of cubicles, more horizontal management, open, transparent, etc. etc.


five years later comes back and put’s all the cubicles back in: more structure, and accountability, and roles and responsiblities, etc. etc.


five years later comes and takes the cubicles out again: more open, flowing, dynamic… etc., etc.

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Maybe third-party management for a little bit would ship things into shape?