Twenty-five years ago, after the collapse of the Atlantic cod fishery, Jeffrey Hutchings, a preeminent fisheries scientist and professor at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, sounded the alarm that Canada’s federal fisheries department was allowing “nonscience influences” in critical decision-making.
Writing at the time, he said, “There is a clear and immediate need for Canadians to examine very seriously the role of bureaucrats and politicians in the management of Canada’s natural resources.”
Today, a new crop of researchers is once again imploring Fisheries and Oceans Canada, commonly referred to as DFO, to change its ways. At the core of their concerns is a number of systemic and structural ways in which DFO gathers, parses and handles scientific information, and how that advice is passed on to decision-makers.
“DFO has a legal duty to protect and conserve fish for Canada,” says Gideon Mordecai, a researcher at the University of British Columbia who specializes in fish viruses. “We’re saying that legal duty is not being met.”
In a new paper, Mordecai and his colleagues lay out their critiques of how DFO handles — or mishandles — scientific advice.
One of their prime criticisms is aimed at the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat, which co-ordinates scientific peer review and science advice for DFO, including on fish stocks, marine ecology and aquaculture. The problem, according to Mordecai and his colleagues, is that industry representatives sit on the secretariat and participate in debates on science advice to government. The fear, the paper states, is that “vested interests can manipulate the science policy process,” including “by seeding doubt about scientific consensus.”
The researchers appreciate that politicians may have other factors to weigh in addition to science in their final decision-making on fisheries issues.
“We understand that someone like the fisheries minister has a really difficult job,” Mordecai says. “But our thesis is that the science that leads into that process needs to be unfettered,” adding, “there’s always going to be a need for some involvement from industry with their data, with their knowledge, but it’s that vote at the table we take issue with.”
To highlight long-standing concerns that the federal government is failing to ensure it is making decisions with scientific “quality, integrity and objectivity” free of political influence, the scientists put special focus on British Columbia’s highly controversial salmon aquaculture industry.
In particular, they highlight DFO’s long-criticized dual mandate. The department is tasked with both protecting wild salmon and promoting salmon farming. In British Columbia, where the presence of open-net-pen salmon aquaculture is associated with the spread of disease and pests, these two mandates can butt heads.
Mordecai and his colleagues’ concerns have a precedent: in 2012, a federal inquiry report recommended DFO focus on meeting its “paramount regulatory objective to conserve wild fish” and no longer promote “salmon farming as an industry and farmed salmon as a product.”
Similarly, a 2018 report by the Office of the Auditor General of Canada said DFO’s “commitment to advancing aquaculture” raises questions about precautionary fisheries management and how much risk the government deems acceptable to wild stocks. The litany of concerns continues. Mordecai and his co-authors also critique the aquaculture industry’s funding of federal salmon aquaculture research, which they argue can lead to biased results.
“The research within DFO that is funded or co-authored by the salmon farming industry has often painted the activities of the industry in a positive light or as posing low risk,” the scientists write.
That DFO senior aquaculture officials and other staff routinely switch jobs back and forth with the salmon farming industry — the researchers describe it as a “revolving door” — “raises obvious questions about the impartiality of DFO employees charged with regulating an industry in order to safeguard wild fish populations,” they write.
Mordecai and his colleagues have recommendations they think could help resolve the problem.
Creating a new advisory body — a “politically independent organization of fisheries scientists” with a strict conflict of interest policy — would help, they say, in offering impartial, evidence-based, transparent and independently reviewed scientific advice.
As a model, Mordecai points to the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, a body chaired by the late Hutchings from 2006 to 2010. This independent science group advises government on the conservation status of wild species. While its recommendations are not always adopted by the federal government, Mordecai says the presented science is at least sound and defensible.
Not everyone agrees DFO should be keeping industry experts at arm’s length, however. That’s the stance taken by Brian Riddell, a science adviser with the Pacific Salmon Foundation — a British Columbia–based non-profit focused on protecting and restoring wild Pacific salmon. Riddell spent 30 years working in fisheries science at DFO, including in salmon aquaculture. He was not involved in Mordecai’s paper, but the Pacific Salmon Foundation currently employs or funds three of the paper’s five authors.
Barring industry participation in DFO’s scientific processes, Riddell says, “would continually call into question the balance and objectivity of a council that excluded that perspective.” If industry scientists commit to accepted scientific research procedures, they should be allowed to sit on an advisory board, he says.
Riddell also opposes DFO separating its dual mandate, though he does have some stern advice for the agency’s current employees. With aquaculture one of the many pressures on wild salmon, he says it’s something the government must address. (The Canadian federal government already has plans to end open-net-pen salmon farming in British Columbia by 2025.)
Other experts who were not involved in the paper support Mordecai and his colleagues’ assertions that DFO has structural problems, though they’re skeptical of the government’s determination to take strong action.
The paper’s authors “are spot on,” says Marvin Rosenau, a former provincial fish biologist and instructor at the British Columbia Institute of Technology who has offered expert fish testimony for and against DFO over the years in court cases ranging from gravel extraction to dam water releases.
“We need these independent reviewers, independent mechanisms to force the agencies to do the right thing,” he says.
Asked for comment, Brenda McCorquodale, senior director of the DFO’s aquaculture management division, referred questions to the department’s media relations office. In an emailed statement, the office says that “the department continuously reviews its peer review processes to ensure objective, impartial and evidence-based science advice. This includes reviewing the recommendations in this study.”
The Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat involves “expert review and critical evaluation” of scientific information, and hears from a range of experts both from within and outside the government, the statement says, noting as well that DFO continues to “reinforce transparent, impartial and evidence-based peer review and scientific advice for decision-makers.” To this end, in June, the department launched the Registry for External Science Experts, inviting authorities in relevant fields who do not work in government to participate in the review process.
“Debate among researchers is a normal and healthy part of the development of scientific knowledge and helps contribute to better research outcomes,” the statement says. In conclusion, DFO “continues to stand behind its science.”
Still, pressure is mounting to bring major changes to DFO’s foundations, including from politicians.
In March 2023, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans made 48 recommendations related to DFO’s handling of science, including requests for DFO to engage in “robust peer-reviewed, non-biased science”; for all DFO research and data to be publicly available; and for an investigation into the extent to which management is influencing the work of departmental scientists.
It all harkens back to Hutchings and his co-authors. In 1997, they wrote that a body of independent fisheries scientists operating outside of DFO represented a “timely idea that merits immediate, serious and open debate.”
A quarter century later, researchers are still waiting.