Institutional & Systemic Issues that Undermine DFO’s Capacity to Fulfill their Mandate to Protect Marine Life, Habitat, and Oceans

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On February 22nd, we recieved a response to our January 3rd Open Letter, from the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, the Hon. Dominic LeBlanc. It spoke to issues about the herring crisis that we asked almost two months ago. We already knew 95% of the information in his response. On the other hand, the Minister did not address any of the institutional and systemic issues we identified in our January 3rd letter. Below is our reply.

Council of Canadians – Kent County NB Chapter
coc.kent.county.nb@gmail.com

February 28, 2017

The Honourable Dominic LeBlanc
Minister of Fisheries, Oceans, and the Canadian Coast Guard
200 Kent Street, Station 15N100
Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0E6

Dear Minister LeBlanc:

Thank you for your response. After November 22nd, it is evident that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) initiated a professional investigation of possible causes of the unprecedented herring die-off in the Bay of Fundy.

As you know from reading our file of correspondence and supporting documents, we are deeply concerned about the institutional and systemic issues highlighted by this crisis. Most of these matters were also emphasized in your November 2015 “Mandate Letter.” When you were appointed Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Prime Minister Trudeau stressed that “openness and transparency in government” is vital; and that “Government and its information should be open by default” because for “Canadians to trust their government, we need a government that trusts Canadians.” In the following paragraphs, we explore related points.

The Value of Peoples’ Knowledges and DFO Communications Strategy

Our position was and is that the people closest to the situation must be regarded as very important stakeholders. These are the little people who do not have huge profit margins or access to public money. Consequently, their standard and quality of life is directly affected by an event like the herringcide. As taxpayers, they pay government salaries. As coastal dwellers, they know the water and the creatures living in the water. Their perspectives deserve full respect and due regard.

For democracy to thrive, government must be accountable, responsive, and transparent. In our view, with so much potentially at stake, it was essential to address valid community concerns about the extraordinarily synchronistic timing between the die-offs and the turbine installation. The actions we advocated were: immediate visual monitoring of Minas Passage herring activity, prompt necropsy of beached herring further down the Bay, and swift reportage on what was learned. Instead, DFO staff simply continued to assert that the turbine was not a factor in the herring die-offs. This set no one’s mind at ease. It caused rancour and distrust that continues to this day, and will challenge relationships between government and community into the future.

Here are three examples of how it appears DFO did not show respect for the opinions and concerns of grassroots community members:

  1. Invites to two DFO briefings held in the first week of January were not inclusive of pertinent organizations – for example, the Bay of Fundy Inshore Fishermen’s Association (BFIFA) was not invited to either one of them.
  2. Our Kent County chapter did manage to phone-in to one such briefing on January 5th, as did one independent small-scale Minas Basin fisherman. Your moderator made several attempts to prevent our participation, finally telling us that we would have to wait to the end to ask any questions. She then tried to close the briefing without letting us speak. I had to remind her she had agreed to let us ask questions of the panel after all reporters were finished.
  3. Both the fisherman and I asked questions the expert panel could not answer at that moment. Promises were made to put that information on your website. I found out some time later that one of my requests was also raised by a staff person with an Environmental NGO invited to your January 6th briefing. Specifically, your staff agreed to provide data (ideally a map) of areas where die-offs happened, indicating what tests were done from there, complete with dates. The DFO “herring” webpage still does not have the promised details.

Why do we ask for this sort of information? As one example, its absence means the issue of anoxia is not satisfactorily addressed. Obviously, massive numbers of fish in small areas will reduce oxygen levels. Upstream conditions can exacerbate oxygen depletion, and the die-offs were at or near river mouths. Where were the oxygen samples taken? When will this online map be provided?

What Authority does DFO Have?

In April 2016, your Science Advisory panel published an extremely critical report about Cape Sharp’s environmental protection plan. Despite all the flaws noted by your experts, the province of Nova Scotia very quickly decided to let the turbine installation proceed. How does this fit with your department’s mandate to protect the creatures that live in the water and their habitat?

On January 5th we sent your office a supplementary email, via your Ministerial Correspondence staff Ms. Aileen Kenny (cc’d below). A 2013 National Energy Board (NEB) Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with DFO had just come to our attention. We asked that your response to our January 3rd letter also provide information about this. It gives the NEB override authority on decisions re: fisheries impacts and endangered species protection regarding NEB-regulated pipeline and power line energy development proposals. This totally undermines DFO’s mandate to protect marine animals and their habitats, so we specifically asked:

  1. Is this MOU still in place?
  2. Are there other similar MOU’s? 
  3. Or, is it now simply “standard practice” that DFO stands down on issues related to marine health where energy development projects are being implemented?

Your February 22nd response did not address the above huge issues. We look forward to further information on these questions.

The Damage Done to DFO by the Previous Federal Government

As your Mandate Letter recognizes, there were massive budget and mandate cuts to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans during Stephen Harper’s Conservative government. Personnel were moved and terminated. Scientists were muzzled. Apparently libraries of crucial scientific research were eliminated. You have a clear mandate from Prime Minister Trudeau to restore DFO staffing, mandate and regulations to the level necessary to truly protect marine life and habitat in Canada’s coastal and ocean environments. This is urgent. How fast are you moving on this?

The existence of the MOU mentioned above is evidence of the restructuring that happened during the Harper years. DFO’s full mandate for protection of marine animals and their habitat has not been restored if there exists a body of interdepartmental or intergovernmental formal or informal (“standard practice”) understandings that your Department’s scientists will routinely stand down to expedite energy development, or perhaps other resource industry, proposals. These operational policies must be rescinded. Has this been done?

Only very recently were DFO staff informed that they could now speak publicly on issues. Could the institutional culture of terror and silencing under the past government be the cause of the inadequate flow of information between the Department and the public-at-large during the herring crisis? Points made elsewhere in this letter demonstrate this lack and further examples can be provided. What was the cause of this shortcoming? Are frontline and research staff still worried whether they have executive support for speaking with the public and media? Is there a lack of capacity in DFO regions to engage with the public appropriately? Are staffing levels too low?

No Explanation Offered for the Herring Deaths

We want to make clear that Council of Canadians’ chapters never asserted the Cape Sharp turbine was the cause of the herringcide. In the December 14th backgrounder, ten possible causes are examined. We published this participatory social research because your Department was virtually mute on what it was doing about the herring die-offs during the first few weeks of the crisis. Our research was based on what was surmised or known at the time by those closest to the crisis, such as: fisherfolk, ecotourism operators, coastal residents, environmentalists, etc.

These coastal knowledge-holders could not find a basis to blame the “usual suspects” – as was proven by your department’s preliminary and subsequent conclusive testing. The major outstanding factor identified by our community allies and other coastal community members was the new turbine. The fact that its testing and commission period completely synchronized with the beginning of the herring die-off was evident to everyone.

As time went on, your Department staff continued to assert the turbine was not a factor because it was too far away. This did not alleviate concerns. The turbine as a major factor in the herringcide was a consistent theme in social media (including in comments in the petition I launched; now closed and signatures sent to the Prime Minister). The turbine as a possible cause was mentioned frequently in mainstream media reports throughout December 2016.  Further, as you know, on January 2, 2017 the Bay of Fundy Inshore Fishermens’ Association directly asked Cape Sharp Tidal Ventures to turn off the turbine “experiment,” to see if that could be a cause. (NOTE to the Reader: copies of this letter are available on request.)  The turbine issue was addressed further in our wrap-up document on the herringcide, but primarily in the context of your Department’s community relations deficits.

What we do know is that there was an extraordinary number of herring in the locations where the die-offs were seen. At the January 5th media briefing, this is the only fact on which the government staff expert panel confidently agreed. Some experts called this “densification” and others called it an excessive “aggregation.” Your staff offered no theory as to why this happened.

Where did these extra herring come from? The fishermen and other coastal residents have their theories related to the turbine. As you know some of these issues are before the courts. If there is no substantial Spring Herring Run in the Minas area of the Bay, we will know they were unfortunately correct. Our group sees another major unexamined factor, which we take up below.

What is DFO Doing Now?

It appears your staff have taken the position that after an event like this finishes, there is nothing more to be done. We disagree.

As an environmentalist who is not a fisherman or a scientist, I can reasonably surmise that climate change might have something to do with this extraordinary “densification.” The Gulf of Maine is perhaps the fastest warming portion of the world’s oceans. Ocean warming affects fish populations: for example, there is emerging research on the impact of warming waters on the New England cod fishery. As another example, considerable research is now emerging on marine species moving to cooler waters in response to chemical and temperature changes wrought by global warming of our oceans. It is noteworthy that this relevant and crucial research does not seem to originate in Canada. This feels wrong in this time of deepening ocean ecocrisis. As your Mandate Letter emphasizes, Canada has more coastal area to steward and protect than any other nation.

Something was responsible for the extraordinary densification of herring in the Bay of Fundy die-off locations. Perhaps it is neither the environmental disturbance caused by the turbine nor the warming temperature in the Gulf. We do know there are many recent instances of similar sudden, large, unexplained herring die-offs around the world. This suggests considerable probability mass herring die-offs will continue. Something must be done to help the stressed herring.

In Canada, DFO is responsible for protecting marine animals and habitats. In the face of the global ocean warming and acidification crisis, this means proactive engagement, not just reactive response. Has DFO initiated contact with other global marine scientists to collaborate on an international body of knowledge re: what might be done in the way of mitigation to assist herring? If not, is this due to a lack of resources, perhaps related to the gutting of all environmental programs by the Harper government? If there is a lack of resources, what is being done to rectify it?

One final point: on January 5th I confirmed to Ms. Aileen Kenny the email addresses for the final count of seven Council of Canadians’ chapter who support our Open Letter of January 3rd. In regards to your correspondence of February 22, 2017, I noted that not all had received your reply. I have forwarded your letter to Jean Louis Deveau of our Fredericton chapter (he is named but was not emailed on February 22nd), as well as Leo Broderick of our PEI Chapter, and Leticia Adair of our Saint John NB chapter. All are also cc’d in this reply. We look forward to your response.
Respectfully,

Ann Pohl

Council of Canadians – Kent County NB Chapter

Copies:

  • Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
  • Premier Brian Gallant
  • Premier Stephen McNeil
  • Ms. Aileen Kenny, Ministerial Correspondence, Fisheries and Oceans Canada
  • Council of Canadians signatories to the Jan. 3, 2017 “Open Letter to Political Leaders”
  • Supporters of the Council of Canadians – Kent County NB Chapter

For other news about what we are up to, please read this blog by Brent Patterson. Exciting news that it is now *30 chapters* of Council of Canadians seeking a meeting with the Prime Minister on better protection of coastal life, marine health, and our oceans. We have received confirmation that our communication has been passed to the PMO section that responds to requests for meetings. You will hear more on this…

 

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