Cohen Commisson: Science Advisory Panel disbanded; member speaks out

Yesterday evening just before dinner, on the CBC Radio program All Points West here in BC, host Joanne Roberts spoke to Dr. Carl Walters regarding the recently “disbanded” Cohen Commission Scientific Advisory Panel. I was  a bit surprised by the use of the word disbanded, as that was most-certainly not the phrase used in the Commission news release the other day.

The news release is worded slickly. Reading it may leave one with the impression that many of the “pre-eminent” scientists involved on the Panel may be taking on the twelve “research” projects related to the Commission’s work; or maybe another function. The word “disbanded” … not used.

Surprisingly as well… was the reason given by Dr. Walters for the disbanding — e.g. the controversy surrounding many of the members potential for conflict of interest (see a few earlier posts on this site).

Dr. Walters didn’t mention the potential for conflict of interest (which includes himself); however he did bring up the controversy surrounding some of the appointments. Maybe that includes the resignation of Dr. Brian Riddell?– a 30+ yr DFO scientist prior to leaving DFO, and taking over at the Pacific Salmon Foundation.

This reasoning is a bit of a slippery slope, and I’m sure there’s potentially more to the story — however, is there not a danger now, that the Cohen Commission could be perceived as flawed and susceptible to public pressure?

Might one not suggest, that as the Cohen Commission works feverishly to produce some 10,000+ pages of paper (with writing on them) by May 2011 that various public interest groups can just start squawking and screeching and thus influence the workings of the Commission?

Furthermore, if the reasons for disbanding the Scientific Panel are because folks were right — in raising the potential for conflict of interest — is the early work of the Commission now tainted? How big are the finger prints of the individuals on the Commission who were potentially in a conflict of interest?

First a resignation, then a full disbanding…?

And now what happens if the public doesn’t like the researchers chosen for the 12 research priorities?


_ _ _ _

And then to add more pie in the face, Dr. Walters decided to take some parting shots. He sounded a bit like a kid who was selected last for the school yard game of red rover. He figured that his idea for research priorities should have been chosen — the idea that commercial fisheries have “lost out” on some $100 million of economic opportunities because of DFO mis-management.

He explained that he feels that DFO management of sockeye salmon is a giant experiment (of which I most certainly agree); however, he suggests the current method of allocating commercial catch is messed because commercial fisherfolks should be getting much higher allocations.

His suggestion is that in the 1990s, DFO started to reduce the total percentage of Fraser sockeye caught from the highs of 70-80% of the run  down closer to 50% of the run. He figures that this is the reason for the lower productivity that we are now experiencing because in essence ‘too many salmon are spawning’ and this means that baby salmon have too much competition in their nursery lakes and thus fewer baby salmon heading out to sea, and in turn fewer adults returning.

Apparently, Dr. Walters a long-time fisheries scientist and often outspoken individual, has bought into the idea of Maximum Sustainable Yield, which in my humble observations obviously ain’t too sustainable now is it?

Now, I’m not a “pre-eminent” fisheries scientist — nor is Ms. Roberts who hosts the CBC Radio program — however her tone was indicative of mine… although, I think I might have dropped a few more f-bombs with question marks (not too appropriate for public radio). Ms. Roberts questions and puzzlement were much more politely phrased.

I would most certainly like to see Dr. Walters’ data on this issue — as I’ve pointed out in many other posts, the history of “fisheries science” is not such a good one. Actually… maybe it’s one of the most questionable of “scientific” practices (I can hear the tomatoes hitting my computer now…). There’s a reason why the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has suggested that well over 70% of the world’s fished fisheries populations are either over-exploited, fully exploited, or trying to recover. The history of fisheries science and management over the last century or so, is abysmal.

Of course, many might suggest the problem is more the “management” not the “science”…

_ _ _ _

Dr. Walters’ logic suggests that because DFO has allowed “too many” fish into the river — the commercial fishing industry has “missed out” on over $100 million of “economic opportunities”.

Wow… strong statement. Enough to incite rioting in the fishing crews of the coast.

Sadly, and this is my main point on this issue, Dr. Walters has maybe not traveled to enough BC First Nation communities that depend on Fraser sockeye (however, maybe he has and has some better logic on this issue). Under the Constitution of Canada within Section 35 rights (as I understand it, and I stand to be corrected) — the federal government has a fiduciary responsibility to provide First Nations with access to fish to meet food, social and ceremonial (FSC) needs.

In the upper Fraser River — this requirement has not been met in most First Nation communities for decades… if not the last century. It’s written clear as day in the Wild Salmon Policy and it’s clear in legislation, and it’s been clear in the courts.When it comes to salmon:

  • Conservation first;
  • then First Nation food, social, and ceremonial needs;
  • then commercial and sport allocations (depending on species for which interest group first)

I know many folks out there love to quibble about this and some like to make right-leaning comments and lack of equality and race-based fisheries and so on and so on… yet the law is pretty clear on this one; as is the Constitution.

Like it or not that’s what we have to go by.

_ _ _ _

So, maybe before Dr. Walters starts carrying on about all the “lost economic opportunities” at the mouth of the river, inciting rage in the commercial fishing boat owners, and suggesting the Cohen Commission should be looking into this issue… we could add a research project to the twelve listed by the Cohen Commission that looks into just what are the food, social and ceremonial needs of First Nations for the 150 or so different Nations, Bands and communities that depend on the annual return of salmon. As that has higher priority than commercial fisheries — by law.

How much has the catch for communities dwindled over the last 50-60 years when DFO management kicked in?

The needs are most certainly, more than the arbitrary 1 million that’s thrown their way now in Fraser allocations.

_ _ _ _

Or maybe, just maybe, we could investigate what are true needs of the ecosystem — in regards to salmon returns. What do the bears need?

In the 1930s a study conducted in the Columbia River watershed found (through sampling grizzly bear fur) found that grizzly bears over 1000 km from the ocean depended on up to 90% of their diet from salmon. How has that changed? How has it changed in the Fraser?

It’s great that the Commission is looking at marine predation… but how about marine animal needs, the needs of animals upstream, and so on?

Just some thoughts…

8 thoughts on “Cohen Commisson: Science Advisory Panel disbanded; member speaks out

  1. kd

    looks like the downward spiral of this Inquiry has begun…should have spent the money on the fish rather than lawyers and bureaucrats

  2. Priscilla Judd

    Great post Salmonguy.
    I too was surprised. I thought it was the height of arrogance for Dr. Walters to assume a prior right to commercial fisheries when the Siska band went hungry last winter because there was not enough fish to fish after the commercial fisheries took their less than could have been harvested… at least that is according to Dr. Walters. No wonder his project was not selected.

  3. Carl Walters

    You seem determined to misrepresent what I said. I said nothing about MSY policies, nor about who (commercial vs First Nations) should get the fish. The waste is loss to all users, with escapements far in excess of the numbers needed to fully seed nursery lakes and in fact enough to likely trigger ecological changes (predators, disease) that will reduce future productivity. Would you really like to see the data that we use for sockeye population dynamics? I would be glad to send spreadsheets with the basic information and calculations. A lot of people have devoted their lives to collecting and analyzing sockeye data. Your interpretation would be most welcome.

  4. tlellami

    Thanks for the post Salmonguy, I missed the CBC interview, so your blog is the first I’ve heard of the “disbandment”.

    It surprises me that people, like Dr. Walters, still use the excuse that too many fish spawned in the previous few years, and that resulted in lower returns – for the resource competition reasons you mentioned. I know very few of us were around in the early 1900’s, but I’m pretty sure we had both higher escapements AND higher returns. I’m confident the Fraser can support many more fish on the spawning grounds than we have let on recently. We need to give this excuse a break…


  5. salmon guy Post author

    thanks very much Carl for the comment – much appreciated.
    Your reputation precedes you… I have had it explained that you are certainly one for stirring the pot, and the CBC interviews certainly appear to have been successful at that — and I truly appreciate you taking the time to comment here.

    And fair enough in your comments about my potential “misrepresentation” re: MSY and allocation. The transcript from one of your CBC interviews suggests:

    “WALTERS: They [DFO] basically should move from what they’re trying to implement now, I think called the fixed escapement policy, where you try to get the fish on the spawning grounds up to a target before you harvest. The historical measurement policy that worked very well through most of the twentieth century involved taking the same percentage of the fish every year, like 80 percent whether it was a big run or a little run. Fishermen always got to fish whether it was a good year or bad. And that worked very well. Spawning runs went up and down some, but stayed very productive. And they need to return to that policy. They need to make allowances for recent loss of fish because of goofy migration patterns up the river and mortality. But they still should be harvesting every year at much higher rates than they are now.”

    The Wild Salmon Policy clearly lays out MSY policies (albeit based on a smaller % of total run size to be harvested than in the past), and past salmon policies clearly articulated MSY — which just as your comments suggest, was to take approx. 80% of the run every year “whether it was a big run or little run”. The graphs from the SFU Salmon Think Tank demonstrate this clearly — about 80% of the Fraser sockeye run was harvested every year for about 4 decades. I’d certainly beg to differ with your comment “And that worked very well”. Maybe for the commercial sector, but it’s appearing that maybe not so well for the salmon — nor all the other critters that depend on them. Nor, potentially, for the productivity of the Fraser sockeye runs (as the other think tank graph suggests) – however this is up for conjecture isn’t it?

    but really… we don’t know… we can hypothesize and theorize, but we don’t know, nor will we ever… it’s all a giant experiment.

    I won’t even get into the devastation that mixed-stock ocean fisheries pose on smaller Fraser sockeye stocks, or other co-migrating salmon stocks (e.g. could the devastation of interior Fraser coho or Chinook 4 sub 2s have any relationship?). Nor, the devastation on upper Fraser River First Nation communities posed by the 80% MSY catch policies — e.g. Early Stuart group from the Nechako — at and around the Fraser mouth.

    I have the same issue with your comments that letting fish actually reach the spawning grounds is a “waste”. This appears to be parallel thinking that dictated clear-cut logging policies up and down the coast of western North America from approximately 1950-1990. Clear cutting forests was based on the false assumption that this practice “mimiced natural disturbances” and that if we [humans] didn’t harvest the decadent, over-mature trees (e.g. old-growth) that we were just “wasting” that wood.

    Salmon did pretty darn good, one might assume, before western science arrived a little over a century ago — the same time that Fraser sockeye returns were most likely over 100 million per year on peak returns. In any naturally functioning ecosystem… there is no “waste”… plus that kind of goes against the first law of themodynamics:
    Energy can be changed from one form to another, but it cannot be created or destroyed. I find it hard to believe that the “energy” represented in a salmon carcass (largely coming from deep within the North Pacific) is simply “waste” if it reaches spawning grounds… something will utilize it.

    Respectfully, I’d make the suggestion that your comments on this are simply more about human priorities and human dominion over salmon populations — i.e. the apparent $100 million of lost economic opps. — not ecosystem functioning. Furthermore, you are right in suggesting that you didn’t separate from commercial and First Nation — however I was simply implying from your comment: “Fishermen always got to fish whether it was a good year or bad” that we’re discussing the commercial sector (of which there has certainly been quite a bit of First Nation participation in past decades… not now though).

    Having grown up on Haida Gwaii — I’ve seen this in plain sight. Fishing fleet up there? what fleet?

    Aboriginal fisherfolks — they have not got to fish whether it was a ‘good or bad season’ (some very interesting books on this subject coming out of UBC, as I’m sure you well know, Douglas Harris, Dianne Newell, etc.); hence, the litany of court challenges over the last several decades and some shaping of aboriginal law in Canada due to Supreme Court cases involving fishing disputes. Plus, my experience suggests that First Nation fisherfolks don’t measure the salmon they catch in economic terms (although the recent Ahousat/Nuu-chat-Nulth court case is broaching this topic), so if someone makes mention of the “lost economic opportunities” because of “wasted fish” — I tend to draw an assumption that this is referring to the commercial industry… however, maybe it’s not a fair conclusion?

    thanks again for the comments — and I’d definitely be interested in having a look at any data you’d be willing to share — esp. when it comes to Fraser sockeye productivity. In my questioning of DFO they explained to me that they are only looking at two lakes in the entire Fraser system (Chilko and Cultus… if I remember correctly). Seems some pretty broad assumptions being made about Fraser watershed lakes with very little information. My contact email is on this site.

    Look forward to a time in the future where we can chat about some of this stuff over a coffee or otherwise.
    many thanks,

  6. salmon guy Post author

    could be quite true kd, quite true… i’m trying to remain hopeful that this isn’t the case; I’ve met some of the folks involved directly with the Commission and I think there’s certainly a desire to instigate change… but rushed and unrealistic timelines, not very well thought-out and pondered plan of attack, and a highly, highly charged and polarized issue are all bad combinations for real change to occur.

    this is a quagmire… a quagmire with only about 9 mos left to sort itself out. I do feel for Justice Cohen… it’s his name attached to this thing and I’m guessing there must be days where he wonders what he got himself into…

    maybe we could have both, hey? A public inquiry and a decision to put money into the fish? what a thought…
    (and maybe a fundamental dismantling and rebuilding of DFO… like a third-party evaluation system)

  7. salmon guy Post author


    maybe there is — in very limited, localized situations where too many fish can hit the spawning grounds. However, salmon have been looking after themselves for a few million years or so before this tiny blip in time when humans started theorizing about “over-escapement”…

    It’s just much too convenient a theory for harvesting more fish… and not missing out on “lost economic opportunities”.

    Maybe there needs to be some solid lessons in the halls of fisheries science and management about “short term gain vs. long term loss and impacts….”

    Maybe we could start with another analysis of North Atlantic cod…

    p.s. you can visit CBC All points west website and listen to the show or dig out the transcripts.

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