DFO buried scientists’ concerns about endangered steelhead, B.C. deputy minister says
Federal Environment Minister urged to accept the unaltered version of the Science Advisory Report on Fraser Steelhead
Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) suppressed elements of a scientific assessment that could have led to stronger protections for a steelhead population on the brink of extinction, according to a letter written by B.C. Deputy Minister of the Environment Mark Zacharias.
DFO unilaterally changed the conclusions to “support status-quo commercial salmon harvesting” in a report based on a stock assessment of the Interior Fraser steelhead, reads the letter sent to federal Deputy Minister of the Environment Stephen Lucas.
The changes could also affect Environment Minister Catherine McKenna’s decision on whether to protect the stock now at “imminent risk of extinction” under the Species at Risk Act (SARA).
“…(T)he DFO-authored summary is no long scientifically defensible,” writes Zacharias, who adds that when confronted about the changes, DFO refused to restore the summary points supported by B.C. and the lead authors of the assessment.
Salmon harvesting is the “only substantial threat to Interior Fraser steelhead that can be immediately mitigated” to save a population that has fallen from 8,000 spawners to only 277, writes Zacharias.
DFO is still crafting its response to the letter.
The Recovery Potential Assessment recently completed by DFO was peer-reviewed by the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat (CSAS) peer review process, according to the ministry.
The resulting Science Advisory Report provides “the best available consensus-based science advice.”
Because steelhead are an unintentional by-catch of salmon fisheries, DFO is proposing to continue with 27-day rolling closures of commercial and First Nations salmon fisheries implemented last year, which are “designed to protect the central 90 per cent of the steelhead migration from key fisheries.”
The closures anticipate the steelhead as they migrate through the Johnstone Strait and the Strait of Juan de Fuca and into the Fraser River.
But critics such as Watershed Watch and the B.C. Wildlife Federation say the science supports closures between 60 to 84 days to protect the run from imminent extinction.
The original research document, produced in a rare collaboration by provincial and federal scientists and outside contractors, was vetted by 42 experts from government, academia, First Nations and conservation groups, but never publicly released.
“The best available science was whitewashed by DFO,” said BCWF spokesman Jesse Zeman.
The DFO process uses modelling to predict how long a closure their target number of steelhead need to get through, but stakeholders are concerned that their target is based on the current run size, a tiny fraction of the run’s historic abundance, said Greg Taylor, senior fisheries advisor for Watershed Watch.
B.C. has already limited recreational trout fishing and taken measures to protect critical steelhead streams, while First Nations in the Interior have voluntarily stopped fishing salmon runs that result in steelhead by-catch, Zacharias says.
In addition, B.C. is updating an Interior Fraser Steelhead Emergency Action Plan using updated science and monitoring data gathered last year.
“We remain concerned over DFO’s salmon harvesting allocations, as loss of steelhead through by-catch is a known challenge to recovery efforts,” said a Ministry of Forests (FLNRORD) spokesperson. “The numbers of fish that returned last season was the second lowest on record.”
As for the joint scientific assessment at the heart of the conflict, “… we look forward to this work becoming publicly available through the DFO processes.”
Early last year, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) recommended an emergency listing order for the Interior Fraser steelhead under SARA, which Minister McKenna is obligated to consider.
“It is essential that decision-makers, including (McKenna), be provided with scientific evidence that is independent of fisheries management decisions,” Zacharias writes.
However, if the steelhead are officially protected under SARA, it becomes illegal to “kill, harm, harass, capture or take an individual” of the species, which would effectively shut down any salmon fishery that might intercept them.
In practice, the federal government never lists a fish under SARA where it could impact commercial fisheries, said Taylor.
Eight of the 24 distinct sockeye populations that spawn in the Fraser and its tributaries are now regarded as endangered by COSEWIC. None has been listed under SARA.
The Steelhead Society of B.C. urged the provincial government to keep up the pressure on Ottawa to act.
“It is evident that the DFO cannot be expected to simultaneously manage commercial fishing interests and fish conservation objectives,” said president Brian Braidwood. “We urge federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna to accept the unaltered version of the Science Advisory Report, and declare Interior Fraser steelhead an endangered species.”
“The minister is required to make a decision based on best-available science and federal bureaucrats have attempted to interfere by spinning the information she is provided,” he said.
- Randy Shore
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