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)

_ _ _ _ _

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.

_ _ _ _

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.

_ _ _ _ _

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.

_ _ _ _ _

“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.”

_ _ _ _ _

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.

_ _ _ _ _

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.

_ _ _ _ _

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.

_ _ _ _ _ _

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’?…

2 thoughts on “what good is a ‘sustainable’ fishery without fish?

  1. kd

    nice one

    I Havent heard if Cohen’s recommendations are binding or not…I would guess they are just like the 700 recommendations from the previous 25 reports on salmon you mention…and just fade into oblivion on some DFO bookcase…

    how does Cohen think his stab at this will be any different??

  2. salmon guy Post author

    thanks for that — I don’t think the recommendations are binding, esp. as the terms of reference specifically state that Justice Cohen is not to find fault with anyone.

    to be fair, he does lay out in his interim report why he thinks this inquiry will be different than all the previous efforts. As mentioned in the post, I appreciate the optimism — however, I’m also keenly aware that we are talking about one species of salmon in one river in BC. Also… in reading through some of the recommendations from some of the previous 25 reports, it’s much too clear that the behemoth of a bureaucracy (DFO) is like the old joke: what does a 500 lb gorilla do?

    “what ever it wants…”

    for example, reports from the mid to late 90s highlight the importance of a more ecosystem-based approach… it’s now 2010 and DFO higher-ups are bumbling on about how “new” ecosystem-based management practices are rolling out (see posts from last week). And yet, as asked by Cohen Commission counsel, where’s the beef? where’s the details on those plans?

    “ummm… oh… well… ummm…”

    When the lead bureaucrat on implementing the Wild Salmon Policy stumbles along at meetings saying there’s only $1 million to implement the Policy and that there are significant challenges within the Ministry to secure resources (financial and human) to actually implement the Policy… I find it hard to believe that the great buzzword “ecosystem-based management” is rolling out with much force and impact.

    I, too, am trying to be optimistic that Justice Cohen can really pinpoint down some serious beef in his work… unfortunately, that’s probably going to require a 500-700 pg report to do so, $15-$20 million, another long list of recommendations, and a lot of lawyerly work. And hopefully, if there is some serious repercussions flowing from this Commission’s work, it flows outward to begin rebuilding and protecting the other hundreds upon hundreds of BC salmon runs that float towards oblivion. Certain stocks that are simply becoming names on a dusty shelf…

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