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Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) forum of fishery science in relation to fisheries management: A summary

Keywords: biodiversity, cod, ecosystem, endangered resource, Gadus morhua, information control, overfishing, research management, stock assessment.


General Delivery, Tors Cove, NF A0A 4A0,

On September 5, 1997, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) held a Public Forum in St. John’s, Newfoundland entitled Fisheries Science in relation to Fisheries Management. The Forum was organized by DFO as part of their response to a recent article (Hutchings et al. 1997) in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences (CJFAS). Hutchings et al. questioned whether fisheries science could flourish under the direct administration of a fishery management bureaucracy. They provided examples of interference with in-house science at DFO by upper-level bureaucrats and proposed that government science be made autonomous from management. Amidst the media fervor that followed, DFO denied that their scientists were fettered by management and challenged the authors to a public debate. The impression was left that such a debate would revolve around the specific allegations of meddling in science made by the authors and the proposal to increase the independence of DFO Science Branch.

What transpired was a seven member panel discussion on the following predetermined questions:

  1. What new types of scientific information should be collected to support fishery management and how should fishery scientists, managers, and harvesters be involved in that data collection?

  2. How should that scientific information be analyzed, taking uncertainties and imperfections into account, and who should be involved?

  3. How can the results of those analyses, along with uncertainties about them, best be communicated to others, including decision makers in the fishing industry and in fishery management agencies?

  4. How should decisions in management agencies and the fishing industry best be made that take scientific information and its uncertainties into account?

  5. How should these processes of data collection, data analysis, communication and decision making be organized institutionally, including the roles of fishery scientists, managers, harvesters and others?

Panel members were: W. Doubleday, Director-General of Fishery Science at DFO; J. Hutchings, Assistant Professor, Dalhousie University and principal author of the CJFAS article precipitating the forum; D. Lane, University of Ottawa; T. Pitcher, University of British Columbia; M. Sissenwine, National Marine Fishery Service, Woods Hole, U.S.A.; S. Garcia, Fishery Resource Division of FAO and E. McCurdy, President of the Food and Fisheries Allied Workers, St. John’s.

The forum was chaired by A. May, President of Memorial University of Newfoundland & Labrador and former Assistant and Deputy Minister of Fisheries (DFO). The afternoon began with ten minute presentations from each panel member, followed by panel discussion and questions from the floor. What follows is an attempt to represent in some detail, often using the original phrasing, what was said and by whom.

Panel presentations

Doubleday spoke first, presenting a talk co-authored with a long list of other DFO managers. Having been at the center of much of the recent controversy engulfing DFO, many people attending were particularly keen to hear what he had to say. A number of objectives were stated. Fishery science must have objective quality and acceptance by the clients; long-term observations and sustained research are needed; monitoring should focus not just on fish stocks but also on ecosystems; data analysis requires teamwork; peer review is essential; communication should be rapid, broad and unfiltered; Fishery Science should be a partnership between industry, government, other stakeholders and academia and there should be continuity and accountability. In addition Doubleday commented that Science is most relevant to decisions on conservation measures, not so good when it comes to making allocation decisions, and more influential when housed in a government department.

Garcia emphasized the realization that natural resources are still not well managed and current institutions responsible are not up to the task. In enumerating sources of uncertainty Garcia dwelt to some extent on the absence of clear objectives for management and the failure to integrate national policies into practice. He identified three relevant research areas: the conservation-oriented, the operations-oriented and research on policy. Garcia decried the paucity of research on policy and assessment of management. He suggested that future information should flow increasingly and directly from Science to the Public, Fishers, Non-governmental Organizations and the Media without passing through Management. Later during discussion Garcia urged the government to radicalize its task by leaving industry to pursue research concerned with their own tactical goals and to be less forgiving of regulation transgressions.

Lane was of the opinion that separating science from management was counter-productive and proposed that on the contrary science should be further integrated into management. Pointing out that government has failed to conserve the stock, he suggested that fishing interests had a stake in sustaining the resource and should be recognized as equal partners in resource management. A new form of analysis is needed to shift things to the level of fishery operations. He proposed the use of harvesters to collect “in-season info” for the confirmation or rejection of trends.

McCurdy complained of past relations between Science, Management and Harvesters in which information from harvesters had been systematically dismissed as anecdotal. Referring to fishers as the PhDs of the briny deep he scorned over reliance on mathematical models at the expense of intuition and experience. Urging scientists to get out among fishers and praising the Sentinel Fishery as a good example of this, McCurdy emphasized the importance of attitude over institutional trappings. Cautioning that there was a point at which co-management becomes naive, McCurdy noted the difficulty of being a “partner” with the enforcement officer or with someone who’s always after your money. The necessity of adequate budgets for DFO to fulfill mandates was stated. Concern was expressed that the ultimate application of the Precautionary Principle was not to fish at all.

Pitcher proposed that the management objective of sustainability be exchanged for one of rebuilding. Having altered systems by the successive removal of larger longer-lived species (k-selected species) to the point where trophic linkages, biodiversity and resilience have all been lowered has, Pitcher argues, compromised future options to generate wealth. The ultimate fate of oceans under such regimes is manifest in the South China Sea where anything larger than a prawn is rare. This ecological shift has been accompanied in Fisheries Management by a psychological shift. Historic memory now encompasses no more than the length of one’s career. In advocating rebuilding to historic levels as the preferred management objective Pitcher pointed out the need for data on non-commercial species, and the use of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) to understand past ecosystem configurations. He proposed large closed areas as the most easily enforced tool for rebuilding and the better use of high tech acoustics, adaptive management strategies and ecosystem models. Pitcher clearly stated the need for independent science in the most open forum possible where bureaucratic interference was not tolerated and that while not perfect, the peer review system is the best model we have.

Sissenwine reacted to what he saw as finger-pointing at the personal level for failure to manage fisheries. He alluded to larger scale sources of our problems such as the legacy of a paradigm of inexhaustibility. Addressing himself primarily to the problem of how to make Fisheries Science better he presented a catch list of four “R”s. Science must be relevant, right, respected and responsive. Adequate investment of resources was necessary to facilitate a good track record and responsibility for Scientific advice should be independent of Management. He questioned the efficacy of traditional peer review and rejected the notion of a collection of completely independent scientists fulfilling the role of Fishery Science in favor of one large well funded body with mechanisms in place to ward off political influence. The New Zealand model of privatizing research was rejected as having undermined Scientific cooperation as a result of excessive competition for funding. Sissenwine outlined a format that would include a Steering Committee to set research priorities, Working Groups in which everything would be on the table and open for debate, Stock Assessment Review Committees with both government and other scientists participating, and at all times the option to convene totally independent reviews.

Hutchings defined the primary technical goal of Fisheries Management as the control of fishing mortality and reminded us of the failure to meet this goal for Northern Cod. Model output being only as good as model input meant that fishery data resulting from unacknowledged discarding and high-grading was inherently flawed. The very large error bars on stock status estimates quantify the level of uncertainty but uncertainty does not imply incompetence. Rather he urged the formal acknowledgment of uncertainty and its effect on our understanding. Hutchings offered up several points for discussion: 1) to be meaningful, external participation in stock assessments must be preceded by explicit reference to the expectations which accompany external participation and the relevant data be available in advance to those interested; 2) stock assessments should include assessment of the risk involved and management objectives must be articulated; 3) scientific uncertainty must be accepted and policy must resist taking risks when uncertainty is large and 4) all data should be completely public. Hutchings reflected on the corporatist nature of our society in which group loyalties often exceed public responsibility and stressed the need to maximize the independence of Fishery Science by design. The International Halibut Commission was put forward as a potential model for successful management. A Standing Committee on Fisheries to report on the biological risks of management decisions was suggested. Such a Committee could have rotating terms of two to three years and report to the Auditor General after consulting with scientists from both within and outside of government.

Panel and audience response

Following their prepared comments the Panel engaged in some discussion. Sissenwine suggested that if a Minister’s decision misrepresented Science then government scientists should be free to disagree with the Minister and be protected from retribution. Hutchings emphasized the issue concerning the degree to which biological consequences of management decisions are made public. Pitcher reiterated Hutchings point regarding the tendency of loyalties to interfere with independence as an argument in defense of the peer review process. He added that the last thing you want to do is lock people in a room together to make a decision. Their desire to get along together tends to undermine independence. Doubleday pointed out that the need to have someone speaking for science at the decision table was best served by keeping science within the government institution and that any new involvement for the Auditor-General would be redundant. Lane stated that the notion of scientific advice as something separate was dangerous and that what we need is “fishery management advice.” McCurdy had experienced enough of the paralysis in government to know that the last party he’d like to see get involved would be the Auditor-General. That would be a move away from the better marriage of fishers with science. He was leery of separating science from management and feared the creation of three solitudes: Science, Management and Harvesters. Hutchings responded that he was talking about science and not management. He agreed that fishers need to be more involved in management decisions. Once again he emphasized his desire that the biological consequences of management decisions be made explicit to the public.

The last part of the Forum allowed for questions from the audience with responses from the Panel. One question from the floor contrasted the values of science and bureaucracy suggesting they were so diametrically opposed as to make the creation of separate solitudes unavoidable. Doubleday replied that all managers in the DFO Science program have science backgrounds, and that in his experience there was no dichotomy between the values of management in Ottawa and the regions.

A concern was expressed regarding cuts to Science funding at a time when the need for research was increasing. It was noted that most current fisheries research money was spent on stock assessment when we desperately need more basic biological information. Sissenwine cautioned against designing more than could be delivered on. Grand plans need to be made operational.

A representative of a Nova Scotia Fisheries Association gave an account of a DFO scientist being told to formulate reports in concordance with government policy and asked Doubleday how they could have any confidence in his Departments representation of Science given this kind of interference. Doubleday replied that he was unfamiliar with the cases described and that they were surprising and out of character for the department.

The Globe and Mail Science reporter asked 1) how skepticism among DFO scientists concerning management decisions was conveyed to the Minister, 2) was it not the responsibility of scientists to point out when Ministerial decisions contradicted their science and 3) if there was a point when the discordance between scientific advice and policy would lead Doubleday to resign and if so, what was that point. Doubleday replied that this was a hypothetical question and he had never had cause to consider resignation. He suggested that divergence of opinions resulted in gradual revisions within the department and there was ample opportunity for anyone with concerns within the department to express them.

Frustration was expressed by fishers charging that DFO forced everything down their throats, only asking for input when it suited DFO. Another fisherman said it was politically correct to talk about involving fishermen in the process of fisheries management but he saw no real evidence that the efforts were genuine. After three years of Sentinel Fishery surveys they still had not found a way to interpret the information. Doubleday responded that Sentinel Surveys were an important source of information but they were in a technical bind and the good catch rates experienced by some Sentinel fisheries were confined to an area near shore. McCurdy complained again of too heavy a reliance on mathematical models and that declining catch rates and fish size should be the alarm bells. He did not trust the models. They had not worked in the past. Fishers information had been rejected then, as now, because it did not fit the model.

A representative of the Ecology Action Center in Nova Scotia remarked on the very good audience turn out as evidence of a real thirst for information on the issue and a need to re-examine the status quo. He referred to two recent management decisions in Nova Scotia which had ignored the Science. He suggested it was inappropriate for DFO to be the author of their own review. Fishers and the public deserve a public inquiry into the root causes of how Fishery Management at DFO has failed. Doubleday replied that there had been two independent reviews of the cod collapse since the initial moratorium in 1992: the third chapter of the Cashin Report and a Fisheries Resource Conservation Council (FRCC) Report. Everyone had to take some responsibility for what had happened. Someone from the floor wondered why there was not more reference to the FRCC as they had been set up in the wake of the Moratorium to address perceived problems.

Barb Neis of Memorial University furthered the call for a public inquiry noting how numerous and widespread previous requests have been. She found it striking how those in power were emphasizing a forward looking approach at the expense of examining the past. There is a lot of evidence of manipulation of science within DFO. Neis had first hand negative experience concerning access to data which she recounted. Neis ended by asking if there should be a public inquiry and why had there not been one to date. Doubleday replied that the idea that they had downplayed overfishing as the primary cause of the collapse of the Northern Cod was totally false and that overfishing as a factor had always been recognized. Bruce Atkinson of DFO later spoke from the floor to make it clear that DFO shares data with Memorial University scientists and that it is not a closed system.

McCurdy questioned the utility of a public inquiry, saying he was more interested in how to get from where we are now to a profitable future. Quoting a NAFO Scientific Council estimate of how much juvenile cod seals eat, McCurdy’s guess was that regarding explanations for the failure of the stock to rebound, seals were near the top of the list.

Lane suggested that a Public Inquiry could only be a disappointment and that we need to see the present as an opportunity for change and look forward. Sissenwine also reacted negatively to the suggestion of an inquiry suggesting it would waste resources. Overly optimistic stock assessments had led to overfishing. He was surprised at how this had been reduced to the personal level and stated his interest in generic level questions about the Science. Hutchings again urged for specific recommendations to improve the efficacy of Fisheries Science.

Pitcher pointed out a mismatch between the evidence and Doubleday’s claims that the DFO had properly acknowledged overfishing as the primary cause of the collapse of groundfish stocks. He emphasized the existence of numerous peer reviewed papers which clearly identify overfishing as the cause of the collapse. Pitcher testified regarding his own experience of DFO meddling in science.

Chris Finlayson from the audience suggested our failure to manage fisheries suggests that we lack adequate tools. We have emphasized the fish biology while forgetting we don’t just manage fish but people. A form of fisheries management is needed which incorporates social science expertise. Sissenwine strongly agreed.

With reference to the objective quality and acceptance of Science by the clients mentioned earlier, a Graduate Student asked who the clients were and whether the information should not be disseminated throughout the public domain. Doubleday later replied that fishermen were the primary clients of the DFO. They had made several attempts to communicate with the public but with limited success.

An inshore fisherman pointed out that fishers had just gone through five years of moratoria and putting forward ideas. They were now at a point where the problem of cod bycatch was barring participation in most fisheries. Another fisherman disagreed with the recent opening of a food fishery on the South Coast of Nfld. and presuming it was based on scientific advice expressed the view that fishermen did not have much respect for Scientists at this time.

Sissenwine noted there was much reference to the importance of independent scientists but the fact of the matter was they are in short supply. The same ones are forced to either burn out or sell out. He wondered what mechanisms could be sought to change this.

Pitcher agreed that the evaluation of policy suggested earlier by Garcia is a legitimate exercise. He encouraged Doubleday to ensure his department follow his policy of openness. There was obviously something wrong such that the openness being espoused has not been achieved. Perhaps once the objective was changed from simply sustaining things to rebuilding, many of the problems would fall out.

A member of the audience asked what the organizers had in mind as follow-up to the forum. Doubleday replied that they would be preparing a proceedings and publishing the report. Hutchings added his desire to see some specific recommendations come out of the exercise.


As part of DFO’s response to Hutchings et al. (1997), the forum failed to deal specifically with the central issues which these authors raised. With the exception of question five the forum’s pre-defined questions diverted attention from the question of whether or not scientific inquiry is threatened by government information control. The seven member panel was itself too large to facilitate justice to the questions. These factors wasted a considerable amount of the event’s potential.

Four members of the Panel clearly stated a need to maximize the independence of Fisheries Science, two proposed that on the contrary, Science should be integrated more fully into Management and the other did not concede a need for change. Everyone acknowledged that Fisheries Management had failed to protect Northern Cod from overfishing. A number of constructive suggestions were made which merit further discussion if not immediate implementation, including the following:

  1. DFO data be publicly available,

  2. the biological consequences of management decisions be explicit and public,

  3. Government Scientists be free to contradict the Minister if the Minister misrepresents science and they be protected from management retribution,

  4. the management objective of sustaining the resource be exchanged for one of rebuilding to richer historic levels,

  5. industry be made responsible for operations related research.

Much of what was said, both by some Panel members and audience members, reveals a disturbing and widespread lack of understanding of what Science is. This is not a trivial problem. People are divided in their desire to accord increased independence to Science to a large degree based on their perception of what Science is. Aside from the problem of what can be done about public understanding of Science in general, this raises the immediate practical problem of how to institute mechanisms to facilitate increased rigour in Science in the face of opposition based on misunderstanding.

Overwhelmingly there was a feeling that this forum must be the start of a public debate and not the end of one. There were several explicit requests for a public inquiry into how Fisheries Management had failed the resource. Many voiced concern that concrete recommendations follow the forum. The only way that this event will be judged other than a DFO whitewash is if it spawns change in the status quo or at the very least a more detailed and practical examination of how in-house government Science can be restructured to maximize the potential for independence.

The question remains: Is scientific inquiry incompatible with government information control? While most of the forum may have been off the topic, evidence was presented suggesting the answer to Hutchings et al.’s question is, yes. The next question is, what is to be done about it?


Hutchings, J., C. Walters and R.L. Haedrich. 1997. Is scientific inquiry incompatible with government information control? Can. J. Fish. Aquat. Sci. 54: 1198-1210.

1 Janet Russell is a graduate student at Memorial University, Newfoundland studying seabird feeding ecology, and a former International Fisheries Observer.

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