There’s an old saying that lawyers have about cross-examining witnesses in court: never ask a question that you don’t already know what the answer’s going to be. In other words, there are clear dangers to baldfaced fishing missions: sometimes they come up with the results you expect, and sometimes, they don’t.
Keep that context in mind when you think about newly minted NDP Member of Parliament Ryan Cleary, and his quixotic search for a Royal Commission to examine the Atlantic Canadian fishery.
Cleary’s everything-including-the-kitchen-sink inquiry plan may sell as political gamesmanship, but it’s so broad that it literally could take years to complete, and, in the process, give us no more information than already exists.
Here’s what Cleary’s Royal Commission would look like, in his own words: “A commission of inquiry would investigate the effectiveness of the current management system and the state of fisheries science. Such an inquiry would also investigate fisheries enforcement and quotas — who holds the rights to the fish in the sea, and who exactly is fishing the quotas. … An inquiry would also investigate the effectiveness of the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization in managing migratory stocks outside Canada’s 200-mile limit.”
Now there’s been a long history of launching studies to try to find the ills of the fishery: there was the 1928 Maclean Commission; the 1944 “Report on the Canadian Atlantic Sea-Fishery”; the 1953 Walsh Report; the 1956 Gordon Commission; the 1963 National Fisheries Development paper; the 1980 “Royal Commission to Inquire into the Inshore Fishery of Newfoundland and Labrador”; the 1982 Kirby Report Task Force on Atlantic Fisheries — “Navigating Troubled Waters: A New Policy for the Atlantic Fisheries.”
There was Dr. Leslie Harris’ influential 1990 “Independent Review of the State of the Northern Cod Stock: Report of the Northern Cod Review Panel” and the 2004 “Policy Framework for the Management of Fisheries on Canada’s Atlantic Coast.”
In 1993, there was “Charting a New Course: Towards the Fishery of the Future,” the report of the Task Force on Incomes and Adjustments in the Atlantic Fishery, also known as the Cashin Report.
The 1997 Fisheries Resource Conservation Council’s (FRCC) “A Groundfish Conservation Framework for Atlantic Canada.”
The 2001 “Management of Fisheries on Canada’s Atlantic Coast — A Discussion Document on Policy Direction and Principles.”
The 2003 “Preserving the Independence of the Inshore Fleet in Canada’s Atlantic Fisheries.”
Also in 2003, a provincial all-party effort with federal membership produced “Stability, Sustainability and Prosperity, Charting a Future for Northern and Gulf Cod Stocks.”
The 2005 House of Commons Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans report “Northern Cod: A Failure of Canadian Fisheries Management,” and the House Committee’s other regular reports.
And that’s only skimming the surface of the available work: the FRCC alone has issued more than 50 reports on stock conditions and conservation since 1993 on just about every aspect of the fishery — including “Towards Recovered and Sustainable Groundfish Fisheries in Eastern Canada,” which was released Thursday.
Then, the Senate
Add to that a series of reports by the Standing Senate Committee on Fisheries and Oceans, reports that take a variety of positions on the fishery’s problems.
The 2005 Senate Fisheries Committee report, “Reporting on Canada’s New and Evolving Policy Framework for Managing Fisheries and Oceans” pointed to internal issues, raising issues like poor funding for enforcement and science in DFO, and other issues closer to home with fishermen: “In the Atlantic fisheries, highgrading — a kind of strip-mining of the ocean — became entrenched and tacitly accepted as the way of doing business. The committee was first made aware of this destructive and wasteful practice in the Atlantic groundfish fisheries during the mid-1980s.”
Other reports looked outwards: the 2007 Senate Fisheries report “The Management of Atlantic Fish Stocks Beyond the 200-Mile Limit” argued: “While theories abound about what caused the decimation — unsustainable and wasteful fishing practices; environmental factors and changes to the ecosystem; and an out-of-control population of voracious seals — it cannot be denied that the large-scale overfishing by foreign fleets during the mid-1980s and early 1990s exacted a toll on the ‘straddling stocks’ and the several stocks under NAFO’s direct control have suffered disastrous depletion.”
Still others, like Canada’s Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development in 2001, brought things right home to roost: “Environmental conditions, predator-prey relations, and excessive harvesting were identified as major factors in the groundfish decline. Fishing levels were set above conservation standards, fishers caught more than they were allocated, and some fishers used unsustainable fishing practices.
“These practices included unrecorded and misrecorded landings, dumping of bycatch (species not targeted by fishers or allowed by quotas), and highgrading (discarding fish to make room for more valuable fish that bring a better economic return or for which there is a need at the processing plant).”
That’s a message that echoes a report by Canada’s auditor-general in 1997: “In the period prior to the groundfish collapse, although the research surveys indicated that some stocks were declining, the data on offshore commercial fishing showed no such decline. Data on commercial fishing operations reflected the results of selective fishing by experienced captains with increasingly sophisticated electronics and gear, in areas of high fish concentrations.
“In addition, the information on stocks is also inaccurate, due to underreporting, misreporting or additional fishing mortality caused by unsustainable fishing practices… These unsustainable fishing practices have an impact on estimates of fish mortality. Discards and unrecorded landings are generally not reflected in scientists’ data on removals by the commercial fishery; misrecorded landings distort the accuracy of stock assessments. The extent of this imprecision is not easily quantifiable, in part due to lack of data.”
The 1997 report cited both fishing outside the 200-mile limit, but also, more particularly, fishing by inshore and offshore operations based right here in this province.
The 2005 House of Commons committee report, also spread the blame, saying “Overfishing has been clearly identified as the major factor in the decline of cod and other groundfish stocks, but not as the only factor. According to a number of past reports, a combination of factors was responsible, and fishermen, processors, scientists, fisheries managers and politicians all made mistakes.”
You get the idea.
Problem is, Cleary has a long-standing record of maintaining that the problems with the fishery rest primarily with foreign overfishing and DFO mismanagement.
Asking as broad a question as the commission of inquiry would, he might find that the answers he gets — should a commission ever be able to digest a meal that large — might be far more difficult to live with than simply asking the questions.
The moral of the story?
Be careful — and precise — about what you wish for.
Otherwise, it might not be what you actually end up getting.
Russell Wangersky is the editorial page editor of The Telegram.
He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.