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Friday, November 13, 2009

Where Have all the Fishes Gone?

“…In 1992, Ottawa imposed a moratorium on the Northern cod fishery. It resulted in the largest layoff in Canadian history: 30,000 jobs. The latest science says that stock has barely recovered.”Jeffry Simpson, Globe and Mail, November 13, 2009.

The Globe & Mail article in which Mr. Simpson made that statement was dedicated to discussion of the Canadian government’s recently announced plans to hold a judicial inquiry into declining salmon stocks on the Fraser River in B.C.

Perhaps a judicial inquiry on the BC situation is a good idea but the announcement of one, not to mention the Globe’s comparison of the West Coast issue to the collapse of the East Coast cod fishery, brings to mind a very simple question: Why has an inquiry never been held into the Atlantic fisheries collapse?

Sure, studies have been conducted, scientists have debated the problem for years and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans continues to count all the little fishies in the sea, but where has any of that gotten us?

The fish are still on the missing list.

Eighteen years after the fishery was first closed the ground fish stocks haven’t recovered. Doesn’t that reality alone warrant an inquiry to help uncover not only what led to the collapse but what has been done, or hasn’t been, in the nearly 2 decades since.

The North Atlantic fishery collapse led to 10’s of thousands of people being thrown out of work overnight. In the years that followed entire towns and villages disappeared as the people who lived there were forced to give up their way of life. Ultimately the fisheries collapse led to the largest mass out-migration from any province in Canadian history.

To this day no inquiry has ever been conducted.

Admittedly some steps were taken. Fisheries task forces, committees and the like have come and gone and while those are all well and good they have their limits.

A judicial inquiry, with the power to access official records and question witnesses under oath, whether they like it or not, might be our only hope of ever shedding even a glimmer of light on one of the most devastating economic, commercial, cultural and environmental catastrophes of our collective history.

Did the Federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans really mismanage the fish stocks as they’ve so often been accused of doing? Are they mismanaging those stocks even today?

Are politicians, both Provincial and Federal, past and present, at fault for promoting unsustainable levels of fishing with no other goal in mind but to pander to voters?

Did Ottawa secretly barter away fishing rights as a means to improve trade relations with foreign nations and prop up the economy in other parts of Canada?

The questions that might be asked are almost limitless but sadly, to date, the answers have been non-existent.

Why, nearly 20 years into a fishing moratorium, has no official inquiry ever been called?

There are those who believe the time for an inquiry has passed, that perhaps one should have been conducted back in the mid-nineties when the moratorium was put in place. I disagree.

At the time the moratorium was introduced the public was led to believe that a couple of years down the road the stocks would rebound and all would be well again. That didn’t happen and I strongly believe an inquiry now would have the benefit of hindsight when looking for the reasons why.

Nearly 20 years after the fact many of the politicians, bureaucrats, government scientists and DFO staffers who were involved at the time but who might have been hesitant to answer the tough questions are likely to be retired from public life or close to being so today. This fact alone would help loosen stiffened tongues that might not have been as willing to be loosened back in 1992.

The timing is ripe for an inquiry of this nature unfortunately the collective spirit in Ottawa is, as usual, very weak.

The near collapse of salmon stocks on the West Coast is indeed a worthy reason to hold a judicial inquiry and I applaud the federal Conservative government for taking this action so quickly. That said, I can’t help but wonder why Mr. Harper and his recent predecessors (no matter the political stripe) have all been so comfortable in ignoring the devastation of the East Coast fishery.

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