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DFO Paid Top Official to Work for Fish Farm Boosters

Critics charge conflict of interest, slam DFO credibility.

Tom Sandborn 9 Aug 2005TheTyee.ca

Tom Sandborn was born in Alaska and raised in the wilderness by wolves. Later, Jesuits at the University of San Francisco and radical feminists in Vancouver generously gave time and energy to the difficult task of educating and humanizing him. Tom has a formal education, too: a BA from UBC. He has been practicing the dark arts of journalism off and on ever since university, and now also has about five decades of social justice, peace and environmental campaigning under his belt.

Tom's goal is to live up to the classic definition of a journalist's job from H. L. Menken - to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Reporting Beat: Labour and social justice, health policy, and occasionally environmental issues.

What is the most important issue facing British Columbians?: Two key issues face BC residents (and they're both so compelling and complex that Tom refuses to rank them): income equality and environmental degradation. Both desperately need solutions.

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For years, Ron Ginetz was the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ go-to guy on fish farm policy on the Pacific Coast. As Regional Aquaculture Coordinator on this coast from 1987 until 2000, Ginetz, a lifetime civil servant with more than three decades at DFO, was responsible for implementing government policy in a controversial industry.

Make that a highly controversial industry: Critics say open-net farms along the BC coast endanger wild stocks by promoting sea lice infestations and letting loose competing Atlantic salmon, while concentrating toxins in the flesh of the farmed fish and polluting the sea bed with chemicals and excrement.

That’s why the news that Ginetz spent more than two years working for the BC Salmon Farmers Association, while continuing to draw a DFO paycheque, has drawn alarmed responses from BC environmentalists and salmon experts. “Appalling”, “unprofessional” and “a conflict of interest” are some of their angry characterizations of the arrangement.

‘Positive steps’

Ginetz worked for the BC Salmon Farmers Association through a staff exchange conducted under a federal program called Interchange Canada. Fisheries and Oceans spokespeople describe the Ginetz secondment as one of various “positive steps” in a larger effort to promote stronger ties between federal public administrators and organizations in other sectors.

Another such “positive step” in DFO’s view is a 2004 deal that saw a coastal fish farm company pay salary costs for a consultant carrying out environmental impact studies for the DFO on fish farms operated by its competitors.

Deborah Phelan, DFO’s Regional Director of Communications, told The Tyee by email that the ministry has averaged about two employees a year involved in Interchange Canada secondments on the Pacific Coast. She described the program as “a framework through which employees in one sector can accept temporary assignments in another sector, thereby promoting the sharing of knowledge and business practices and processes across sectors and encouraging the professional and personal development of employees.”

‘Severed all communications’

Ron Ginetz told The Tyee last month that he had worked for the BC Salmon Farmers Association from July of 2001 until March of 2004. He rejects any suggestion that his cross over from federal regulator to regulated industry represents a conflict of interest.

“That’s totally incorrect. I severed all my communications with DFO while at BCSFA, and I had no access to government files during my stay. They needed advice and I provided it in a neutral manner. I wasn’t speaking for industry. At times I was critical. For example, I wanted to make sure they were monitoring for sea lice levels. I was simply reinforcing what they were already doing.”

And that, for at least some environmentalists, was just the problem. Researcher Alexandra Morton, for example, a prominent critic of DFO’s support for open net salmon farms, told The Tyee by email: “I don’t think it’s a good idea for DFO to contribute to the salary of a man that not only is working for industry, but who also knows very well the workings of DFO on the subject of aquaculture.

“Ron Ginetz and I had a great deal of contact in the early 1990s,” added Morton, “and it seemed to me that his objective was always to deflect my concerns away from the growing evidence of aquaculture impacts on fish and marine mammals.”

DFO’s credibility questioned

“Appalling and unprofessional” is how Vicky Husband, Sierra Club Canada’s BC Conservation Chair, described Ginetz’s secondment to work for the Salmon Farmers Association. “The DFO has a mandate to protect wild salmon first. With this kind of exchange they can’t do so. This is another proof that DFO’s mandate is deeply conflicted,” Husband told The Tyee.

Jim McIsaac, Cleanwater Director for the T.Buck Suzuki Foundation, said, “This use of public funds to put a regulator into an industry office is questionable. The regulator has to be at arm’s length. These arrangements create relationships that make enforcement difficult, and create difficulties for the staff whose mandate is to protect the resource.”

Lori McBride, of the Georgia Strait Alliance, called Ginetz’s work for the BC Salmon Farmers Association “a clear conflict of interest. This kind of exchange challenges DFO’s role as an unbiased regulator.”

As budgets have decreased at DFO, the department has created more partnerships with industry says Bill Wareham, Acting Director of Marine Conservation Programs for the David Suzuki Foundation.

“These staff shares are standard operating procedure now,” asserts Wareham. “They really just give industry a freer rein. We’d like to see a clearer break between industry and government.”

“The problem is that DFO has a mandate to promote aquaculture and is failing to meet its other mandate: to protect the resource,” said Wareham. “Too often, it seems that DFO is putting economic value over protecting the resource.”

He added: “If government is going to fund industry, the least we could look for is better funding for environmental NGOs.”

Consulting questions

More questions about conflicts of interest have been raised about the arrangement made last year for a private consultant, Malcolm Winsby, of North Vancouver, to work for DFO conducting environmental impact studies on fish farms.

There is nothing unusual about the DFO, like many federal ministries, employing outside consultants as needed. What has raised a few eyebrows in environmental circles, however, is the revelation that Mr. Winsby’s salary was paid while doing this federal work by Grieg Sea Foods of Campbell River, a firm that holds permits and approvals to operate eight fish farms in the Esperanza Inlet/Nooka Sound area. This private funding for government work was confirmed to The Tyee by Sue Farlinger, DFO’s Regional Director of Oceans and Habitat Enhancement and her staff.

Some observers told the Tyee that this arrangement, like Ron Ginetz’s stint working for the fish farm industry umbrella organization, poses conflict of interest questions.

Said Craig Orr, of Watershed Watch Salmon Society: “You can’t be a protector of industry and a protector of wild fish at the same time and do an effective job at either.”

Andy Thompson, Senior Aquaculture Officer for DFO’s Pacific Region, sees the matter differently. “We view it as a positive step when industry takes on some of the costs of managing the resource. It’s not like Malcolm had final sign-off on these impact studies. Final decisions were made in house by DFO staff,” Thompson told The Tyee.

Thompson emphasized that none of the environmental impact studies conducted by Winsby were of fish farms operated by Grieg Sea Foods, and that the contractor was required to sign a conflict of interest agreement before doing the industry funded DFO studies.

Malcolm Winsby, contacted by The Tyee, also underlined that none of the impact studies he conducted were on farms operated by the firm that provided his contract fees. Nor, he said, had he worked for Grieg Sea Foods in the past.

On the other hand, he said, “I would be interested in offering my services to the private sector in the future.”

‘Blurring the line’

Tim Davies, Lease and Environmental Manager for Grieg Sea Foods, told The Tyee that “Grieg was willing to provide funding for the contractor simply because of DFO’s lack of internal capacity to deal with applications in a reasonable time.”

Davies rejected suggestions that the private pay for public work arrangement around Mr. Winsby’s contract with DFO posed questions of conflict of interest.

“No,” he wrote in an email, “Mr. Winsby took his direction from DFO staff not Grieg.”

But critics like Craig Orr of Watershed Watch Salmon Society wonder whether such a crisp separation can be achieved, and kept.

“The Gomery Inquiry is showing us how important it is to monitor the interaction between government and private industry,” said Orr. “In the Ginetz and Winsby cases, we once again seem to be blurring the line between guarding the public interest and serving a narrow private interest that may in fact be damaging our collective interests.”

Tom Sandborn is a Vancouver journalist and occasional contributor to The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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