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Fisheries official denies coverup accusations on research into endangered BC steelhead

Written by Javed Iqbal

A senior Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) official has dismissed allegations that the federal government covered up scientific findings about a unique species of rainbow trout in BC in an attempt to justify continued commercial fishing that endangers the species.

The accusations come in part from BC Wildlife Federation executive director Jesse Zeman, who said the federal government still won’t release peer-reviewed scientific research that concludes fishing should be restricted to save steelhead in the Thompson and Chilcotin rivers from extinction.

The species, a member of the salmon family, migrates to the sea for most of its life, but hatches and spawns in the two rivers.

Zoologists and conservation groups in BC have been warning about its dangerous condition for years, and a annual update on the species last month BC’s Ministry of Forests warned that its numbers are now at historic lows, with preliminary estimates that only 104 Thompson River steelhead and 19 Chilcotin River steelhead are spawning this year.

Speaking of CBCs Dawn Kamloops on Friday, Andrew Thomson, DFO’s Vancouver-based regional director for the Pacific, rejected claims that an assessment of the species’ recovery potential has yet to be published and that a science advisory report was edited by DFO officials without scientists’ knowledge. .

“Of course [DFO] is very committed to sharing information as part of our scientific process,” Thomson said.

Assessment of recovery potential

Zeman argues that the primary threat to steelhead comes from bycatch and purse seining in Johnstone Strait and the Salish Sea off BC’s south coast and the Lower Fraser River, and therefore DFO should prohibit these practices by designating them as threatened under the federal Species at Risk Act.

In January 2018, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), an independent advisory group to the federal government, called for the Interior Fraser steelhead to be listed as threatened.

A red colored fish looks out of a net at the sea.
BC conservation groups say the primary threat to Interior Fraser steelhead comes from bycatch and salmon net fishing in the Johnstone Strait, Salish Sea and Lower Fraser River. (Chris Furlong/Getty Images)

This prompted the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat (CSAS) to invite scientists to conduct a peer-reviewed assessment of the recovery potential of the species and to publish a scientific advisory report based on the assessment in the same year for DFO to refer to in its policy formulation.

Thomson said the assessment can be found on DFO’s website. But Zeman said the document is really the scientific advisory report and the actual assessment has never been made public.

Allegation of DFO interference in report

Based on communication between DFO, CSAS and the BC government, accessed through freedom of information requests — seen by CBC News — Zeman says the federal agency hid the peer-reviewed assessment from the public because it did the scientific advisory report and did its policy recommendation very different from that in the assessment.

In an email dated December 2018, DFO scientist Scott Decker said the BC government had complained about the federal agency’s unilateral change in the wording of the scientific advisory report.

The assessment said that lowering the frequency of salmon exploitation is the only way to save steelhead from extinction, but the final draft of the report said that “allowable damages should not be allowed to exceed current levels” — language that, as Zeman says, could be interpreted to mean that there is no urgency to list steelhead under the Endangered Species Act.

Zeman says this led to federal Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson’s decision in July 2019 to prohibit recreational fishing in the Thompson and Chilcotin rivers, but not to prohibit commercial fishing by placing the species under the Act.

In an email dated October 2018, CSAS Chair Sean MacConnachie said DFO’s associate deputy secretary’s office edited the language of the science advisory report multiple times without his knowledge.

Two months later, in an email to DFO, BC Fisheries Director Jennifer Davis said the report’s conclusions were inconsistent with the consensus of scientists who conducted the recovery potential assessment.

‘Real concern about transparency’

Zeman says earlier this year DFO refused his freedom of information request to release the recovery potential assessment, meaning he will have to sue the federal government to get access to the document.

“We know that DFO can do good science, but we also know that DFO science is not shown to the public,” he said on CBC’s Dawn south.

“There is a real concern about transparency.”

University of British Columbia (UBC) zoology professor Eric Taylor has studied steelhead populations across the province for three decades and chaired COSEWIC from 2014 to 2018. He agrees that there is very little transparency in how DFO handles steelhead research .

“Technically, it really is scientific fraud,” Taylor said. “If that report is not completely clean and completely honest and above board, it detracts from the credibility of the whole process.”

Taylor says DFO has conflicting mandates to promote commercial fishing and to conserve fish stocks, and argues that the conservation mandate should be given to Environment Canada instead.

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Javed Iqbal

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