Friday, May 7, 2010

Cod damned (without a recovery plan anyway)

“Scientists were also explicitly ordered then, as they are today, not to discuss ‘politically sensitive matters’ (e.g. the status of fish stocks currently under moratoria) with the public, irrespective of the scientific basis, and publication status, of the scientists’ concerns.”
— Drs. Jeffrey Hutchings, Carl Walters and Richard Haedrich, three respective university scientists, in the 1997 paper, Is Scientific Inquiry Incompatible with Government Information Control?
•••
It’s hard to believe that anyone would tell Dr. Jeff Hutchings what to say about fish.

He's one of the scientists who blew the whistle years ago on bureaucratic interference with the communication of research findings.

In fact, he won a "whistle-blower" award.

Hutchings doesn’t even have a public relations director.

Which is unheard of these days.

In a time when most info is vetted.

Blogs even.

Not this one, mind you.

Dr. Hutchings is a well-known fish scientist with N.S.'s Dalhousie University, and chair of the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), a group of experts that decides which wildlife species are in danger of disappearing.

The group announced this week that Atlantic cod should be declared an “endangered species.”

I e-mailed Dr. Hutchings on Thursday (May 6th) with a few questions, and he got back to me within minutes.

No public relations director, remember.

He asked for me to call him, giving out his number, or that I give him my telephone number so he could call ME.

I can’t tell you the last time a fish scientist offered to do that.

Oh right.

Never.
•••
The Danny Williams administration and the fishermen’s union disagreed with COSEWIC that four species of Atlantic cod — in particular northern cod, found off Newfoundland’s northeast coast and Labrador — should be declared endangered.

There’s tons of fish, they say.

And signs of improvement — particularly with bay stocks.

According to the editorial in today’s Telegram, the fishermen’s union immediately dismissed the COSEWIC concerns as “political science,” among other things.

Which I found interesting, considering the whistle that practically hangs around Hutchings' neck.

That said, COSEWIC bases its recommendation on DFO science.

And to quote our great codfather — the right retired John Crosbie:

“You can’t discount the fact there are problems with science fitting into the government structure, and that scientists may feel that they have to adopt or adhere to some kind of official departmental, bureaucratic position.”
•••
Neither the fishermen’s union nor the provincial government trust fish science.

Certainly not from the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Which has been off a time or two.

It may be time for an independent review of DFO’s science branch to see if it’s independent enough.

And up to the challenge, with enough scientists and surveys to start whittling away at the margin of error.
•••
I contacted Dr. Hutchings with a specific question.

No one denies the fact groundfish stocks such as cod aren’t what they once were.

The question is this: What can we do about it?

Hutchings’ response was surprising.

It’s been 18 years since the northern cod moratorium was first introduced, and — get this — there’s still no rebuilding plan.

In fact, almost 20 years after the fall of the commercial fisheries and there’s no plan for rebuilding any of the battered groundfish stocks.

Is that true, you ask?

True as cod.

Hutchings says a rebuilding plan would cover four elements:

1) Quantitative recovery targets.
2) Reference points on abundance, below which a stock must not decline.
3) A rebuilding time line.
4) Harvesting rules to control catch levels.

Stock recovery plans are in place in countries like New Zealand, Australia, and Northern Europe where commercial fish stocks have also collapsed.

Hutchings says there’s no will in this country to turn Atlantic cod stocks around.

Not at the political level.

Or any level.

In the absence of a recovery plan, he says the only way fish stocks can turn around is by “good fortune.”

And if anything could be declared endangered, it's that.

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