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'Poachers, Polluters and Politics': A Fishery Officer Reflects

Memoir offers rare, funny glimpse into one man's duty to defend the fish.

Kristian Secher 2 Jun

Kristian Secher is completing a practicum at The Tyee. Find his previous stories here.

If fish could sing, they'd surely croon many a good tune for retired fishery officer Randy Nelson.

Nelson accrued many honours and accolades throughout his 35 years serving and protecting British Columbia's marine creatures from poachers and polluters, both for his approach to the job and his efforts to resolve resource management disputes between the government and First Nations.

Working in enforcement, Nelson gained first-hand experience in the creative ways of poachers, whom he successfully outwitted time and time again -- though it was often hard to share that knowledge with his superiors. While Nelson spent each day patrolling B.C.'s many remote areas, most of his managers were stuck behind their desks, far away from the frontline.

Two years after leaving his post as director of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans' Conservation and Protection Branch in B.C., Nelson was ready to write about his incredible and sometimes life-threatening experiences in the line of duty.

It turned into the book Poachers, Polluters and Politics: A Fishery Officer's Career, recently released by Harbour Publishing. Delivered in Nelson's light-hearted and entertaining way, it offers the reader a rare glimpse into the serious business of wildlife protection, and the sometimes frustrating bureaucracy within the federal fisheries department.

The Tyee caught up with Nelson for a chat. Our interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Tyee: Your book is full of remarkable stories, and it's clear how much you enjoyed enforcement. What did you love about your job?

Randy Nelson: "I can't really put a finger on one particular thing. Early on in my career I felt a responsibility to take care of the resources. It wasn't so much the thrill of catching bad guys, but knowing that you were saving fish.

"There were good days, and bad days where I was questioned the purpose of [what I was doing]. I had my shoulder broken and I nearly died on more than one occasion. I mean, this was for fish -- [people have tried] to kill me over fish.

"But you have to have that belief that you're making a difference, that you're making a change and helping out.

"I think that's what draws a lot of people into this field. The appreciation of the vast amount of resources we have here, and the wish to try and slow down the inevitable degradation and the impact that so-called progress is having on them."

Since you retired two years ago, the federal fisheries department, or DFO, has weathered some major budget cuts. What are your thoughts on that?

"It's quite disturbing actually. In this last year, they've quietly shut down six different offices in B.C.

"There's already a glaring difference between the amount of resources allocated to enforcement in B.C. and the eastern provinces. One is that the Pacific Region handles half of all the violations in Canada, but with only one-third of the officers. I really would like someone from back east to look at this and tell me what I'm missing. Why are the numbers so skewed? Population-wise, it's just ridiculous. There's one fishery officer for every 24,000 residents in B.C. while it's much, much lower in the eastern regions.

"This means that some areas don't get patrolled, and you basically have to decide to abandon some areas. There's not nearly enough manpower to go after some of the real bad players who are taking away resources from the rest of us. I think people would be shocked if they knew what was going on.

"With less fishery officers, compliance can nothing but go down. Just think of when you're driving down the highway too fast and a police car comes from the other direction. Everyone slows down. That officer presence is most effective, and we fishery officers are losing that."

A lot of people seem to be concerned with the government's energy plans. What do you think?

"In Canada, we sometimes think we have so many resources, because we do a good job of taking care [them]. That's not the case. It's just that we have so many resources relative to our population. We're actually doing a poor job at taking care of them. Just look what happened to Ontario's pine forests and the eastern cod.

"What I see in the current federal government, and to some extent the provincial one too, is that they're saying we're open for industry, everybody aboard. For example, there's this pipeline idea that's coming across. Personally, I'm not against a pipeline. I think it's inevitable. Not that I like it, because it's going to create a whole lot of risks, but it's less risky than ratcheting up what they've done with the railways.

"But these things have to be done with care, and now the federal government has put the National Energy Board in charge of fish-stream crossings [e.g. roads and bridges over rivers]. My god, where did that idea come from? In my view, it's a ludicrous decision to take it out of the hands of DFO who has, or had, the enforcement abilities to not stop it, but ensure that when [pipelines] cross the stream, it's done in a way that keeps the environment happy. Putting these things in the hand of industry is really wrong in my view."

Changes to the federal Fisheries Act can't have made things easier for enforcement, can it?

"It's absurd. Under the new act, you have to prove that a species of fish is contributing to a commercial fishery for it to be protected. In remote pipeline areas there might not be access, so the fish up there might not be contributing to the commercial fishery.

"It would be like a bank leaving its doors open all the time and asking people to fill out a sign-out sheet. That's what we're doing to our fisheries resources. We're almost abandoning them in some places."

DFO and First Nations often seem to disagree when it comes to fisheries management. What do you think?

"There's huge tension. This year's herring controversy could've been a serious conflict, and these kind of incidents are going to keep happening as long as we procrastinate and don't deal with land claim settlements. If we keep deferring this, it will be at a very large cost for everyone.

"A lot of people in government seem to think it's enough to tell First Nations when they can go fishing, but it's not. And unless there's a fire somewhere, it doesn't seem like there's much interest in improving relationships."

Randy Nelson's book Poachers, Polluters and Politics is currently ranked number three on B.C.'s bestseller list. Nelson is donating all royalties from the book to the fallen officer's fund for North American Fishery and Conservation Officers.  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics, Environment

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