26 November 2005

The political fish

It is hard to know if VOCM got it wrong or if Loyola Hearn actually blamed federal mismanagement for the continued poor state of cod stocks offshore Newfoundland.

Hearn is a member of the the House of Commons standing committee that just released a report on the cod stocks.

VOCM reports that Hearn "says the destruction of the Northern Cod is a direct result of federal mismanagement". VOCM also reports that Hearn is calling on the federal government to implement the recommendations contained in the report linked above.

Check The Telegram for Saturday, November 26, 2005 and there is another quote by Hearn, the guy who tabled the committee report in the Commons: "the destruction of the northern cod and its lack of recovery is a direct result of federal mismanagement."

The odd thing is that Hearn is not quoting the report when he blames the federal government for the lack of cod. Here's what the report actually says in black and white:

...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. As stated by the Fisheries Resource Conservation Council (FRCC) in its 1997 report, "The fishery crisis cannot be related to a single cause or blamed on a single group: it is the failure of our whole fisheries system."

In part, as a result of the "failure of our whole fisheries system," the House of Commons Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans agreed on 8 February 2005 to undertake a study of the northern cod including the events leading to the collapse of the fishery and the failure of the stock to re-establish itself since the moratorium....[Page 2]

It really doesn't get any clearer than that. The cod stocks collapsed as a result of the entire fisheries system including both federal and provincial governments, politicians, processors, and fishermen.

If mismanagement was the cause, as the quote above notes and as the subsequent pages of the report document, the "mismanagement" extended to every sector of the industry.

Only Loyola Hearn can tell us why he misrepresented in such a blatant way the findings of a committee whose report he was tabling in parliament. It is tempting, and indeed, easiest, to simply put Hearn's comments down to the sort of old-fashioned "tell em anything" politics that we have heard from him so many times in the past.

Hearn has repeatedly demonstrated his love affair with misrepresentation. During the offshore revenue discussions over the past two years, for example, Hearn got so many basic facts wrong about oil and gas one would have a hard time believing he had been a provincial cabinet minister at the time the real Atlantic Accord was signed and passed by the legislature.

This is by no means a minor issue. The conclusions of a parliamentary committee should hold weight - indeed Hearn's words have been reported because the committee is taken generally as an important group, one with views that should be heeded.

The committee's report contains a great deal of valuable information and a solid set of recommendations. The report proposes a limited commercial fishery be re-opened where such a fishery can be supported by the populations. It calls for increased scientific research, a call that was seemingly heeded by an announcement by the federal fisheries minister of increased scientific research funding.

The report also contains recommendation for even stronger action against domestic overfishing:


That the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans commit to amending the Fisheries Act to deal with license violations using administrative sanctions subject to appeal through arm'’s-length tribunals;

That, in the interim, the Attorney General of Canada instruct federal prosecutors involved in Fisheries Actlicenseee violation cases to bring to the attention of the court, prior to sentencing, the total cost to the Canadian taxpayer of investigating and prosecuting the offence, and to push for the maximum penalty under the law at sentencing; and

That any financial proceeds forfeited as a result of a conviction for license violations be used to support an enhanced dockside monitoring or some other equally important program.

This is a truly remarkable statement, given Hearn's claim that it was the federal government that bears responsibility for the death of the commercial cod fishery. The committee advocated stronger punishment for poaching and other forms of illegal fishing because witnesses who appeared before it and other evidence accumulated during its deliberations pointed precisely to domestic overfishing as a contributing factor in the decimation of the northern codstocks.

Yet the value in the committee's report does not end there. It's next recommendation is that the federal government create regional harvesting or conservation councils to give fishermen greater input into management decisions. The federal politicians - perhaps with the exception of Hearn - have clearly seen the benefit from similar committees at places like the Eastport peninsula.

This is a little known project but it has proven enormously successful. Local fisheries committees advise the federal fisheries minister on fish quotas. Their advice which combines the best scientific information plus the fishermen's own observations have led to dramatic improvements in the health of stocks such as lobster and have led to a dramatic decline - a near elimination - of poaching and other similar crimes.

This is the sort of progressive management approach that the Department of Fisheries and oceans has been quietly implementing. But few know of it when the news sadly is consumed by the rantings of men who once held positions of great political and industrial influence, but who offer little in the way of meaningful input. The only thing the have managed to do is distract people from both the real issues and the facts of the matter at hand.

All this leads back to Hearn and his false statements.

One of the strongest parts of the fisheries committee report is the comparison between what happened in Canada and what happened elsewhere in the face of problems in the cod fishery. In Canada, politicians seemed unable to ignore the pleadings of the fishing industry that quotas be maintaiend at levels the stocks could not support. They played political games with fish instead of acting responsibly. Our collective reward is the decimation of a fish stock that once fed generations throughout the North Atlantic world.

What we see in Hearn's blatant misrepresentation is truly yet more of the same political pandering to a small interest group against the facts, against the best advice. Ignored are the genuinely positive moves on enforcement of rules and on progressive management. Trotted out, instead, are the hoary myths, just in time for another election.

Having read both the Commons committee report and news coverage over the past two days, one can only agree with Telegram columnist and long-time fisheries reporter Joe Walsh. It is time to get cod out of the pork barrel.

Rather than focusing solely on the current federal government as he did, Walsh should have tossed Loyola Hearn into the mix. Hearn's interventions on fisheries issues since he went to Ottawa have been long on the pork and short - extremely short - on anything approaching a new idea that can be backed by facts.

The fisheries committee report spends a good deal of time documenting the mistakes of the 1980s.

Loyola Hearn should know about them. He sat in a provincial cabinet at the time.

One would have hoped he had learned from mistakes of the past.

All that comes to mind is another mangled phrase by Hearn's former cabinet mate and premier Tom Rideout. It had something to do with small, malodourous creatures that could not change their spots.

Strong language, to be sure, but seemingly appropriate on so many levels.