Seals, Cod and Politics

by Peter Meisenheimer

Date: Wed, 06 Dec 1995

I wish to initiate a discussion on the broad issue of political interference in fisheries resource management. A string of fiascos involving the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans is the impetus for this posting, but the problem is certainly not restricted to Canada. If I understand the news reports properly, the Australian media have recently featured an acrimonious debate about the role of some governmental agencies in mismanaging natural resources and stifling debate about their failings. The activities of the Republican Right in the US are international news.

The recent Canadian situation has been succinctly summarised in a New Scientist article by Deborah MacKenzie (The cod that disappeared, September 16, 1995). MacKenzie draws on the opinions of eminent fisheries scientists such as Sidney Holt and Daniel Pauly in her critique, but her analysis fails to include the pattern of politically motivated suppression of science that has plagued DFO. In light of the obvious problems exposed by the cod collapse, corruption such as the Kemano River diversion and catastrophes such as the Pacific salmon stock collapse should have rung alarm bells, but the pattern continues.

The most recent example is the perverse campaign by the government of Canada to have seals declared a "conservation problem". Why the Department of Fisheries and Oceans would choose to go beyond a finding that harp seals can be sustainably exploited is a question that anyone with an interest in conservation should be asking. Every result produced by DFO scientists who have actually looked for evidence of an impact on stock recruitment has shown absolutely none. In a recent paper in Science, DFO biologists found no evidence. At a recent North Atlantic Fisheries Organisation meeting, DFO folks presented an abstract which specifically addressed the issue of seals and stock recruitment and reported no evidence of an impact.

Whatever the reason, DFO has chosen to ignore the findings of these biologists and has pursued a campaign that is an insult to those who are legitimately concerned with conservation and to many of their own staff. In support of their position, they have used a population model of harp seal abundance that is close to outrageous. The population survey is methodologically biased toward producing a higher result in the recent year; an inappropriate statistical test is employed, apparently because the appropriate test would find no significant difference in population between 1990 and 1994; and DFO PR indicates that there has been a stepwise annual increase in population over the years, when they have no data to show such a finding. Models for grey seals are structured around the assumption of an effect on recruitment and are then used as evidence of such an effect.

This has culminated in a release from DFO (posted on their WWW site last Friday) in which they make the definitive and utterly false statement that harp seals are limiting groundfish stock recruitment. DFO scientists who have made public statements contradicting this absurd claim are rumoured to have been officially reprimanded.

The motivation for this is apparently a desire to justify a subsidy for seal meat. Although the harp seal herds can be shown to be able to sustain a hunt, there is a very limited market for anything but the males' genitalia and the federal Canadian government and the government of Newfoundland are therefore paying subsidies on seal meat. Debating the legitimacy of this decision would not normally fall within the mandate of fisheries biologists. However, the government's subversion of science in an effort to justify their actions is disturbing in light of the role political meddling played in the destruction of the northern cod, and a response from the scientific community is amply justified.

Seals make for nasty politics in Canada, and the feds are apparently counting on polarisation around the political subtext that any discussion of sealing carries to divert criticism from the larger issues. However, a disaster of the magnitude of Canada's mismanagement of its fisheries resources must not be permitted to pass without an effort to remove political meddling from the equation. If politicians wish to ignore the science presented to them, they must be made to do so explicitly, and only after all of the science (not just the bits that fit the political agenda) has been presented in its own right.

I believe that the only way to ensure that this sort of thing ends is to put the science at arms length to the politics of management. Resource management professionals must be given the same protection from interference that the courts and police enjoy in western democracies. Research that takes place in an environment of censorship and misrepresentation does not deserve to be called science and politicians (at least in Canada) have shown themselves unfit to participate directly in scientific enterprises.

Peter Meisenheimer - email:

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