Thank you, Mr. Chair, for the opportunity to discuss the science conducted by Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
I am the director general responsible for ecosystem science, which includes environment and ecosystems, ocean and climate, fisheries and marine mammal science.
I am joined today by my colleagues from the science sector, who represent a broad range of departmental scientific expertise and our geographic footprint across Canada.
I would like to present Andrew Thomson, regional director, science, Pacific region, who is responsible for the science activities in British Columbia and Yukon; Mr. Matthew Hardy, regional director, gulf region, who is responsible for the science program within the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence; and Tana Worcester, director, strategic science planning and program integrity in the Maritimes region, who leads Canadian science advisory secretariat processes and science planning.
We also have Dr. Judith Leblanc, science advisor for the Quebec region, from the National Contaminants Advisory Group at DFO.
Finally, I would like to present Dr. Kristi Miller-Saunders, research scientist, DFO Pacific, who conducts genetics and genomics research on salmon in B.C.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada relies on a strong and vibrant science sector. Each year, DFO science mobilizes teams of research scientists, biologists and technicians to conduct field and laboratory studies for hundreds of distinct projects in marine and freshwater systems. This results in a wealth of knowledge about our ecosystems and fish populations to support the departmental decision-making. The science sector has expertise in a wide range of fields, including marine environment and aquatic ecosystems, hydrography, oceanography, fisheries, aquaculture and biotechnology.
DFO science is made up of science professionals located in research institutes, laboratories, experimental centres and offices across the country. Science staff collect data and conduct research and monitoring activities, the results of which contribute to the science advice that can be used to answer specific questions or to inform decisions.
As a science-based department, science integrity is essential to the work of the department and its employees. Science integrity is critical to the decision-making process, from the planning and conduct of research to the production and the application of advice. Departmental scientists are bound by our code of ethics and values, and our science integrity policy, which reinforces principles such as transparency, scientific excellence and ensuring high standards of research ethics.
DFO generates science advice in a transparent way, using the Canadian science advisory secretariat, which is based on the principle of evidence-based peer review. Participants in the peer review process participate as objective experts to complete the peer review of the science under consideration. To guide participation, DFO has published a conflict of interest policy and a policy on participation for the CSAS meetings.
Peer review is a vital component of the important challenge function that the DFO science sector provides. Its reviews have included domestic and international scientific experts from government, academia, indigenous communities, environmental non-governmental organizations and industry experts. The objective of the peer review meetings is to provide sound, objective and impartial science information and advice.
The results of these peer reviews and the supporting analyses are published on the department's website. These scientific analyses inform departmental decision-making and provide Canadians with the scientific analyses and advice generated by the departmental science staff. DFO also supports open science, has an action plan and continues to publish data, including through the open government data portals. All DFO science reports are open and accessible.
DFO science works with a range of partners when undertaking its research activities. Our researchers and staff collaborate with scientists from other government departments, universities, indigenous communities, environmental organizations as well as members of industry. Collaboration contributes expertise, knowledge, analyses, data, samples and platforms.
Those collaborations contribute to scientific excellence within our department, extend the breadth of the expertise we have access to, demonstrate Canadian leadership internationally and help to inform the sound and critical science basis for decision-making.
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Thank you to all the witnesses for being with us today.
Canadians need to trust the science, but it is also part of our role to question how fish stocks are assessed and how decisions are made.
In the past two weeks, for example, the department has made decisions that have impacted my region, such as the closure of the spring herring fishery, the closure of the mackerel fishery and significantly decreased shrimp quotas.
I'll start with herring. The herring fishery is closed. The industry had been expecting this for several years, as there has been a noted decline in the resource.
I know Mr. Hardy is from the Gulf region. So, my question is for him, and it's strictly about herring.
Mr. Hardy, how do you make the decision to close a given fishery? How do you collect the data? At what point do you decide to close a fishery?
In 2021, redfish fed on 168,000 tonnes of shrimp, while the TAC for shrimp was at 18,000 tonnes. Again, it's the process that I’m questioning.
Math was not my favourite subject in school, but these two numbers are easy enough for the average person to understand. If redfish consume 168,000 tonnes of shrimp and the TAC is 18,000 tonnes for shrimp, how can we expect the resource to recover?
If redfish feed on that many shrimp and quotas are cut, how does that help the stocks?
I'm trying to understand how you evaluate these things.
Thank you for the question.
In all cases, when we produce scientific advice, we assess the causes that explain the trajectory of fish stocks, whether it is due to fishing or other causes. We often find that natural mortality, for all sorts of reasons, including predation, is a predominant factor compared to mortality caused by fishing.
In many cases, despite the increase in the population of some pinniped species to almost historic levels, we see that this is not a predominant factor in predicting the trajectory of fish stocks. There are also logistical constraints when considering management approaches for pinniped populations.
A big thank you to all of those who are here today, all the witnesses and all those from the science sector. It's great to have you all here and to learn more about the work you're doing, which is vital to our ability to ensure that sound decision-making is being done.
I have many questions, but there is one in particular I am hoping to find out a little more on from Dr. Miller-Saunders.
Dr. Miller-Saunders, I know, was at DFO prior to my time of being elected as a member of Parliament, and I appreciated reading the information that was presented at that time. The report was published in March, which was initially written, of course, in 2012, around the PRV found in B.C.'s open-net fish farms. I'm wondering if we could learn a little bit more, now that this report has been published, around the importance of this knowledge being presented in a timely manner, and maybe some more information around what happened in that delay.
Thank you very much, Dr. Miller-Saunders. That sounds like some really vital information for us to have, to understand and to be able to use in decisions around how to best move forward with fish farms, so I appreciate that information.
You mentioned the story around the process here. I wanted to share a bit about what Bob Chamberlin shared around the CSAS process. Specifically, he said that, basically, at every step of the way in the process, in the steering committee, in the terms of reference, in the discussion paper and in the peer review process, there was undue influence by industry as they could select who will participate in the peer review process.
I'm being confusing, but I'm wondering if you can share a bit around whether you agree or not that the process that we currently have in place can impede our ability to access timely scientific information, when we have a peer review process that is heavily weighted by industry and perhaps those who may have conflict in the future with the decisions that are being made.
Before I go to Mr. Arnold, I want to check with our witnesses to make sure they're okay with staying a little longer, because we lost time earlier. I know I mentioned that we'd get our full time, but I didn't take into account your schedules at that time.
Is that still okay? I'm seeing nodding.
We'll now go to Mr. Arnold, for five minutes or less, please.
Thank you to the witnesses for being here today on this study that I put forward for the committee. I want to start off with Ms. Leblanc, if I could.
Ms. Leblanc, you made several statements in your letter to the deputy minister, Timothy Sargent, last November. My recollection is that you gave examples of scientific advice that was meddled with after it had passed through the scientific peer review.
You've stated today that, here as a representative of DFO, you're not able to comment on that. I believe that you were invited as a witness as a member of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada. If we were to invite you back as a representative of that organization, would you be able to comment and give answers regarding those comments you made?
Thank you for the clarification.
The parameters of the scientific study itself—the proposal—are led and decided on by the research scientists and the scientists of the department.
What is set, for the management of the science, are the priorities we would like to address through research or monitoring proposals. Some of the priorities come from specific proposals to the Government of Canada, such as the investment in science needed to support the fish stock provisions. With others, we have a bit more flexibility within the existing envelope, so we try to adjust the priorities in consultation with our client stakeholders and communicate that to the research community. They, in turn, then develop the proposal that will support the initiation of a research study.
Thank you for the question.
Uncertainty is a means to reflect incomplete scientific information, or studies and interpretations that may contradict one another. Where there's uncertainty, there's an expectation that policies will be more precautionary, especially in cases where there's a resource in crisis. Therefore, in cases where risk is determined to be minimal but there's a high degree of uncertainty, there should be a strong motivation to fill the knowledge gaps and re-evaluate the assessment of risk upon receipt of new information.
Until that time—until such time when uncertainty is declared to be low—managers need to proceed with caution in putting a consensus judgment into action.
In short, yes, there is a need to apply the precautionary principle where there's a high degree of uncertainty.
Certainly the results of that study were made available within the department. Every piece of science that is done in my group is reported up through the chain if it could potentially impact policies or regulations. The department certainly knew, even back in 2012, of those findings.
Publicly, the findings of PRV were first put out by another group, based on the IP in the findings of my group. I wasn't able to publish the first discovery of PRV in Canada, nor was I able to carry out a lot of new research in that area, and certainly not with those particular samples.
It's a hard question. There has been a lot of research on that particular virus now. There have been laboratory challenge studies undertaken. There have been a lot of field studies. PRV has been tracked within the department for several years, largely in cultured fish, but my program has tracked it in wild fish.
There is a mounting weight of evidence on the impacts of PRV. It's really important to note that, everywhere else in the world, PRV is known to be a disease agent, and all strains of PRV have been shown to be capable of causing disease in salmon—in Pacific salmon and in Atlantic salmon. The research from my lab would back up that international viewpoint.
I don't know.... It's hard to turn back the clock and know how things would have been different if that had been made public at the time. However, I think that significant inroads have been made since that time.
I want to, first of all, thank my colleague Mr. Arnold for putting this study forward. It's a very important study. It's a study of science at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
Forgive my preamble, but it will take a few minutes.
I wanted to highlight another example that you may not have heard. It's a science-based proposal to have a brief opening to fish for hatchery chinook in B.C. Modest science supported the sport fishing advisory board proposals, but they were not approved due to undisclosed concerns. These previously undisclosed concerns were new concerns, and they were finally made known to the sport fishing advisory board post facto. This is based on closures last year and hoping for an opening this year.
Proposals have been put forward that address these new concerns in Howe Sound, Pacific fisheries management area 28 and southeast Vancouver Island PFMAs 17, 18, and 19. Again, these amended proposals, which were already ranked as low risk, provide even more protection for local and Fraser River stocks of concern. So far, during the current integrated harvest planning process, senior DFO Pacific region staff have informed the sport fishing advisory board that they will not reopen the existing 2021-22 salmon IFMP.
The sport fishing advisory board has met the department's new information requirement and has substantially adjusted its proposals based on this new information. However, despite the promising to listen to the science-based proposal, we have recently heard that the minister completely disregarded the science-based proposal.
This is a question for Ms. Leblanc and and Ms. Miller-Saunders. Does it surprise you that the for DFO disregarded sound science. Please answer yes or no.
Dr. Vigneault, from reading your opening statement, you used words like “transparency” and “transparent”. Peer review is a vital component of the important challenge function that the DFO science sector provides, and your reviews have included domestic and international scientific experts from academia, indigenous communities, environmental non-governmental organizations and industry experts.
Dr. Vigneault, has DFO science ever gotten decisions wrong in the past based on the data that your own department has? I'm using that in relation, because various fisher organizations engage scientists. They do their own data. How do you interpret the scientific information that they're providing you versus what you're receiving from DFO's scientific division?
Your advice is provided to the minister in making decisions on quota, and it's always interesting. When the decision is to increase the quota, everybody agrees with the science. When the recommendation is to cut the quota, that's when the different opinions come forward.
On the information that you receive from fishers, you used.... I'm quoting you, but not directly. You provide the fisher information, and it goes as part of your briefing to the minister. Do you put an opinion in that as well on the fishers' advice you received or the data they received?
Thank you for the question. That's a really broad question. It speaks to the changes we're seeing in the environment.
Generally speaking, across all our pelagic fish in Atlantic Canada and specifically in the gulf region and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, we are seeing changes in environmental conditions happening quicker. That affects productivity, recruitment and the overall biomass.
Certainly it's to be expected that across the range for various pelagic species, from a north to south distribution and across the Atlantic, there can be localized differences. As to how that relates to specific management measures that are applied between Canada or Iceland, I'm not familiar enough that I could speculate on whether those are impacting the overall trends.
Thank you very much for the question.
Yes, we ensure that at different steps of the process. I mentioned earlier the collaboration with the industry stakeholders. There's also lots of ongoing collaboration with the indigenous organizations right from the start, in designing research activities or collaborating with us on the surveying and data gathering. We invite them to participate in the peer review process, so that they can provide their expertise to the discussion and inform the analysis of the data. That's all being input into the science-advised decision.
Above and beyond that, the has other considerations when making a decision. That includes the direct input from the indigenous communities, including the traditional knowledge as well as industry input, as we mentioned earlier.
Thank you for the question.
Yes, I think it's fundamental to have the science available to all, so that they can look at it and contribute to it. From the peer review at CSAS, hundreds of advice are published yearly on top of several hundred scientific publications.
We have more than 450 datasets, including data that are used for a full range of decision-making—not just for fishery but implementation of the Impact Assessment Act and others. In many areas we're using leading-edge technology to expand the amount of data.
We're developing expertise in acoustic data, remote sensing data and genomic data. All that is made available to all who contribute to the science process.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair, and good afternoon to you and all the members of the committee.
I want to thank the committee for inviting me here today, and I welcome the committee's interest in science.
I am very pleased by your interest in science.
Science helps government decision-makers gather data, analyze evidence and assess different policy options and their impacts.
Let me begin by briefing you about my office, our mandate and some of the work we've done since my appointment in September 2017.
My mandate is to provide the government with advice and recommendations to advance three main objectives.
One, ensuring that government science is fully available to the public and that scientists...
My mandate is to provide the government with advice and recommendations to advance three main objectives.
One, ensuring that government science is fully available to the public and that federal scientists are able to speak freely about their work.
Two, improving the science advisory function within the federal government, so that scientific analyses are considered when the government makes decisions.
And three, recommending ways for the government to better support quality scientific research within the federal system.
Over the past few years I have had the opportunity to observe the interplay between science and policy-making. By science, I mean not just the physical and natural sciences, but the social and behavioural sciences as well. Here are some of my observations that relate to the work of this committee.
First, it's crucial for federal government scientists to provide high-quality research that directly informs legislative, regulatory or policy decision-making. For this reason, one of my office's first initiatives was the creation of a model scientific integrity policy, which has now been adopted by more than 20 federal departments and agencies, including DFO. The policy provides a framework, laying out everyone's role in the conduct of high-quality science that is free of undue influence. The best science advice is based on high-quality, transparent research.
Second, it's important for federal departments to have structured mechanisms for engaging and evaluating external research. That's because a great deal of relevant scientific expertise exists outside of the federal government.
Third, it's essential that the scientists and policy-makers understand each other's imperatives. Scientists need to understand what evidence is relevant to the policy objectives at hand, and policy-makers must understand both the benefits and limits of what scientific evidence can provide. This is why my office, in collaboration with Health Canada, has developed an online self-directed course on effective science policy conversations. This course will soon be offered through the Canada School of Public Service.
In my capacity as adviser to the Prime Minister and cabinet, I can be called upon to provide formal or informal science advice. For example, in 2018, the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans asked me to lead an independent expert panel to provide recommendations on the appropriate use of scientific evidence in aquaculture decision-making. My office brought together experts from Canada and around the world to advise on this issue.
Our publicly available report made a number of recommendations that are designed to improve science advice, scientific priority setting and science communications. One of them was the appointment of a departmental science adviser at DFO. That recommendation was implemented, and I want to acknowledge the work done by DFO science adviser, Dr. Paul Snelgrove. It's my understanding that work continues on several other recommendations from the expert panel's report.
The report on aquaculture science is one of many pieces of scientific advice that my office has provided to the government since the beginning of my mandate. Much of the advice my office has provided to government in recent years has been related to the pandemic. The pandemic revealed the public's interest in science and the scientific evidence used in decision making. Open science and transparency are essential not only for creating good policy, but also for maintaining and building trust in our public institutions.
It's my hope that we will use the lessons learned from the past two years to nurture a more scientifically literate society as well as stronger and more open institutions.
I was pleased to hear that you examine the quality of the science being provided to decision-makers, and the process. With all of your responsibilities for science in the government, I'm not sure how far you get into the mud—or your team does—in terms of science such as that conducted by DFO.
I want to use, if I could, a recent example, to understand how far your agency may go into the science. The minister recently closed the Atlantic mackerel fishery. The basis of the decision was obviously based on the science, combined with the catch numbers. Would it surprise you that the spawning science that DFO has done in the Gulf of St. Lawrence over the last decade has moved to a week earlier in the month of June, further away from the peak period of spawning on June 24?
All palegic fish, especially on spawning and migration, are water-dependent. Generally, earlier on when the science is being done, DFO is actually doing science on the spawning mass when the water is two degrees lower than when mackerel spawn. They're doing it at around 8°C rather than 10°C to 13°C degrees. As a result, they're finding a smaller and smaller biomass.
It's sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you take out the results from the last decade of the sampling they're doing in the water that is colder than when mackerel normally spawn—when you eliminate that—you find that the spawning mass is actually 48% from its high in the 1980s. However, DFO is basing its decisions with that lower temperature included, which means the reporting that the biomass is only 5% of its peak in the 1980s informs the minister's decision that the stock is in trouble. They're going out too early, and they're not finding it at the same spot.
Would your department be looking into those kinds of things and analyzing whether or not the science quality is delivering what it should be?
Thank you for the answer.
I will switch to another area, marine protected areas. I'm sure you've been part of some of the international conferences where the government is promoting 25% by 2025 and 30% by 2030. I recently, in the last few months, attended a meeting, a consultation with the fishing industry in eastern Nova Scotia, about the proposed marine refuge off the Scotian shelf.
DFO science said that the reason they were proposing this was to protect a particular type of Gorgonian coral that exists on the edge of the shelf in that area where they have a very robust halibut fishery, and it would potentially mean the end of that halibut fishery.
When I asked the scientists if they had specific data on the level of coral development in that area over time, say, the last decade, and whether it had been going higher or lower in that area and, if it had been depleting and been affected negatively, whether they could draw a direct cause to fishing, climate change or others issues of storms, they referred me to the science, generally, that they had. I looked at it, and it had absolutely no science on that geographic area. It was a general bit of science with regard to Gorgonian coral and the effects of trawling, which isn't done in this area, and that type of thing.
I'm worried that DFO is proposing that we shut down large areas of our commercial fishery for this artificial goal in marine protected areas based on absolutely no science on the effects of fishing done in these specific areas.
Thank you, Dr. Nemer, for appearing today.
There was a time when this office didn't exist. It's relatively new, having been established or at least re-established in 2017 by the Liberal government.
In general, since taking office, where have you seen gaps in science informing policy? How has your office attempted to correct this? Maybe this is a chance for you to elaborate on some of your initial comments.
Thank you for these questions.
The office has certainly been very busy in the past five years, and certainly in the past two years with the pandemic. However, from the get-go we saw our role as really looking at the horizontal issues, and making recommendations for the enhancement of all the science advice and the science itself. As part of this, I can't say that I did an audit of any particular department. I did visit many labs. I spoke with scientists. We looked into how research and science was being conducted.
That's why one of the first things we did was to introduce the science integrity policy. For those who are not familiar, this is the equivalent, really, of a policy on the responsible conduct of research. That's something that exists in academic institutions. It's actually an obligation of both the institutions and the researchers who receive federal funding to comply with the responsible conduct of our research.
The policy does delineate the role and the responsibility of both the employer and the employee in many ways. It suggests ways to disclose, for example, conflict of interest. It suggests ways by which people can talk about their research, about their science, without undue influence. This was very important.
The second thing we did as a follow-up, of course, to this was to propose a road map for open science. We've all seen during this pandemic the importance of open science, not only for enhancing the trust of the public but also for accelerating innovation, for accelerating the production in this case of diagnostics and preventive measures.
We proposed this road map, and we have worked with departments to achieve it so that the science that is conducted by federal scientists is easily accessible, whether it's in the form of published reports and manuscripts or that of the observational data part as well.
There are well-established standards, if you want, in terms of the quality of the science and the strength of the evidence. Of course, ideally, we would like to have the same findings being reproduced by others, being peer-reviewed, but under difficult circumstances and with lots of uncertainties, people can determine whether the available science, the available evidence, is of sufficient quality to be incorporated into decision-making. In the case that it's not, and there is a void in the evidence anyway, it's then up to the policy-makers, of course, to take the relevant course of action.
Again, thank you for this question.
As part of our analysis of the aquaculture science, we took a good look at the CSAS process at DFO, and I have to say that it is certainly very good that this process exists to synthesize the science. However, we made a number of recommendations to perhaps increase the efficiency and the transparency of the process itself, to examine how the topics and the people—the experts—are chosen, and to look at where the results of the CSAS process, whether it's a report or the synthesis of a symposium, are put and how quickly that is done.
I have to say that I was pleased to see that they've introduced a conflict of interest requirement, which is extremely important. It's not that you can't have people who come from industry or from other countries or other departments or even the same department, but any conflict of interest, perceived or real, needs to be disclosed, and that's a best practice.