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FOPO Committee Report

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Crisis of Trust in DFO Science

Conservative Party Supplementary Report


On February 1, 2022, the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans (FOPO) passed a motion introduced by MP Mel Arnold for the committee to study how the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) prioritizes, resources, and develops scientific studies and advice for the department, how the results of scientific study are communicated to the Minister and Canadians, and how the Minister applies data and advice provided by the department and other government departments to ministerial decisions.

Science should be a fundamental factor informing decisions of the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans (the Minister) and DFO. While provisions of the Fisheries Act allow for the Minister to exercise discretion and consider multiple factors in making decisions, fisheries and oceans are inherently biological and therefore require science-based assessments, decisions, and strategies if they are to be effectively managed and conserved.

Despite significant investments in DFO science, tangible improvement in management of major stocks is not evident, as some stocks continue to decline, and management decisions have been made in the absence of adequate scientific assessment. The absence of adequate assessments also undermines the ability of the Minister and DFO to identify and make available opportunities that may exist in fisheries capable of supporting sustainable harvest.

Moreover, the weighted values of science and conservation in the decisions, actions and inactions of the Minister and department are repeatedly unclear and unexplained.

After years of witnessing decisions of a series of fisheries ministers and the DFO being announced without science reasons or explanations of factors weighed, Canadians, especially those directly impacted by the decisions, are concerned. Conservatives share these concerns and are motivated to press the government for the answers and change that Canadians deserve.

Unfulfilled Commitments

In the 2015 federal election, the Trudeau Liberals presented Canadians with a platform that stated “[g]overnment should base its policies on facts, not make up facts to suit a preferred policy. Common sense, good policy, and evidence about what works should guide the decisions that government makes.”[1] This appropriate commitment was seemingly reinforced in the mandate letters of the first two of the five fisheries ministers that held the position since 2015.

While Minister Tootoo[2] and Minister LeBlanc[3]’s mandate letters directed them to “ensure that decisions are based on science, facts, and evidence, and serve the public interest,” these mandates were absent in the mandate letters of the three fisheries ministers who followed them since 2018.

Today, the promises of the 2015 Liberal platform and first two fisheries ministers’ mandates have all but disappeared. Rather than basing decisions on transparent science, facts, and evidence, decisions of the Minister and DFO have increasingly been based on policy for political reasons rather than the benefit of the public interest in sustainable fisheries supporting harvesters and the coastal communities and supply chains they sustain.

Conservatives share the concerns of many Canadians that ideology-driven policy has eclipsed factors of science, conservation, and socio-economic considerations in the decisions made by the Minister as she seeks to fulfill her mandate from the Prime Minister- decisions that have destabilized harvester livelihoods and coastal communities while failing to manage, restore, and conserve fisheries.

Study Focus 1: How the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) prioritizes, resources and develops scientific studies and advice for the department.

In assessing how DFO prioritizes science, it is important to again consider mandates from the Prime Minister to his ministers responsible for managing fisheries and oceans. In every mandate letter since 2015, all five fisheries ministers have been mandated to prioritize ocean or marine science while fisheries science has not been mentioned once.

The Prime Minister’s focus on ocean science may serve his political or policy objectives, but it has precipitated an imbalance of priorities and allocations of resources for science in DFO, especially fisheries science. These imbalances have in turn exacerbated science and knowledge gaps directly undermining the ability of the Minister and DFO to make informed management decisions. The absence of fisheries science has led to an increasing reliance on the precautionary principle and several reductions in fisheries access for harvesters and communities that depend on them.

Harvesters raised serious concerns after the Minister reportedly told an annual meeting of the  Canadian Independent Fish Harvesters Federation her vision for the east coast fishery is based on her goal of leaving as many fish in the water as possible and to grow as much vegetation in the water as possible so that the Atlantic Ocean can better absorb carbon to combat climate change.[4]

These statements were followed by a news release from Fish, Food and Allied Workers – Unifor (FFAW) that further stated the Minister, “also stated that fish harvesters will have to accept this sacrifice as part of Canada’s commitment to fight climate change, noting that given techno‐ logical advancements, harvesters could change career paths and work remotely from their communities.”[5]

After the Minister’s statements were raised publicly by FFAW, the Minister’s office released a statement saying that her words had been “publicly mischaracterized.”[6] However, the Minister has not publicly clarified her statements and decisions she has made before and after her statements about leaving “as many fish in the ocean as possible” seem to reinforce that stated goal.

When asked about these comments when he appeared for the study, FFAW then-President Keith Sullivan testified “I don't think it was mis‐construed. We'd heard similar things before and were quite concerned. Our colleagues on the west coast, as Ms. Burridge mentioned, were highly concerned about a decision we had seen on herring. Our members were very concerned about some of the messages we were seeing, and we just wanted to raise our concerns.”[7]

The Trudeau government’s decision to prioritize ocean science over fisheries science contradicts mandates of the Minister and her department to support sustainable, stable, prosperous fisheries that can “can continue to grow the economy and sustain coastal communities.”[8]

In his appearance for this study, Dr. Robert Rangeley of Oceana Canada testified that “DFO must prioritize and resource the increase in capacity necessary to complete fisheries rebuilding plans.”[9] Rangeley stated how Oceana’s annual fisheries audit found that “only seven of 33 critically depleted stocks—that's about 21%—have rebuilding plans and that most are of poor quality. DFO achieves only 20% of their deliverables laid out in annual work plans, but had they met their priorities, they would have doubled the number of completed rebuilding plans.”

“Because of a lack of science resources, the task may be larger than DFO is acknowledging,” Rangeley continued. “A new analysis that includes data-poor stocks suggests that the total number in the critical zone may be 58, or 25% of all our stocks, not counting salmon.”[10]

In her testimony, Christina Burridge of the BC Seafood Alliance said that “as welcome as the influx of science money has been over the last few years, most of it has gone to ocean science and very little has gone to fisheries science.”[11]

“As I'm sure my colleagues will agree, stock assessment, evaluation of the risk and the risk mitigation that fisheries management undertakes are absolutely essential,” Burridge stated. “We are seeing that the increased demand on science has grown exponentially.”[12]

Burridge also warned that attrition of experienced DFO fisheries stock assessment and technical personnel and absence of any strategy for mentoring the recently graduated next generation of personnel further exacerbates DFO’s already-deficient capacities in fisheries science.[13]

Burridge went on to explain how much of the increased demands for fisheries science has been precipitated by regulations and legislation and these demands are displacing regular stock assessments that are required for eco-certifications of Canadian fish and seafood.[14]

Eco-certifications have a value-adding affect on fish and seafood and the loss of such certification due to an absence of adequate DFO fisheries science devalues Canadian fish and seafood supply chains from the harvester to consumer.

Moreover, inadequate fisheries science at DFO raises serious questions of how fisheries are managed and conserved by the Minister and department. DFO cannot manage what it does not measure, and the absence of priority and adequate resources for fisheries science at DFO directly undermines the Minister’s capacity to lead the department in achieving its stated mandate of “sustainably managing fisheries.”[15]

DFO is also mandated to work “with fishers, coastal and Indigenous communities to enable their continued prosperity from fish and seafood.”[16] The Trudeau government’s failure to ensure DFO has sufficient stock assessments perpetuates continued failures of the Minister and department to identify and grant opportunities that may exist to enable the prosperity of fishers, coastal and Indigenous communities on all coasts.

Harvesters depend on fisheries resources being sustained and have made efforts to fill the science and knowledge gaps in DFO’s fisheries science. Keith Sullivan of the FFAW also told the committee that the union “has invested greatly in building a competent science team with full-time scientists and other staff. We know that much of the science has filled gaps left by the federal government. Each year, over 1,000 individuals volunteer their time and knowledge, making meaningful contributions to science.”[17]

Jean Côté of the Regroupement des pêcheurs professionnels du sud de la Gaspésie (RPPSG) testified that to answer questions of eco-certification assessors, he conducts an annual analysis of fishing bait and bycatch data using catch data provided by harvester members of his organization.[18]

Despite such efforts and investments of harvester organizations such as these, the committee heard that DFO is not receptive of their work. Côté stated that despite spending over 10 years conducting surveys and analyses of lobster stocks in the Gaspé, DFO has provided no opportunity for his organization to “move towards further collaboration with DFO on data analysis and scientific work done by the RPPSG.”[19]

Sullivan likewise testified that despite his union’s investments and contributions to fisheries science, “harvesters still do not have a valued seat at the table, and DFO continues to disregard harvesters and their contributions.” [20]

Former DFO Regional Director of Fisheries Management, Morley Knight, echoed the reality that in the absence of essential fisheries science capacities, the DFO does not utilize data from harvesters. Despite being internationally recognized and well-funded, Knight stated that “DFO science is often unable to produce science advice adequate for the management of the fisheries.”[21]

Knight pointed to troves of harvester data that remains unused by DFO. “Available information is not always included in the output or in the models, including logbook data or observer data,” Knight testified. “There is not enough emphasis on getting harvesters to collect data and samples. Stock status reports are produced without due consideration of anecdotal information from fish harvesters and indigenous groups about the health of the stock.”[22]

In discussing DFO’s assessment and management decisions for transboundary Atlantic mackerel stocks, retired DFO Senior Fisheries Manager Christopher Jones was asked about whether science and stock management were coordinated between Canadian and US regulators and Jones responded that he is not aware of such coordination.[23]

Jones was then asked whether ocean water temperatures during DFO’s spawning biomass surveys assessing the biomass of the Atlantic mackerel stocks are a factor that should be considered.

Jones responded “what it suggests is that it needs broader input into the science assessment. Temperature and egg stock status reference is one. However, years ago and perhaps over a decade ago, we had scientists come along the coasts of both Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, working with the fishing industry, doing measurements and expanding the database for the assessment of mackerel.”[24]

Morley Knight also provided perspectives on DFO’s assessment of Atlantic mackerel and stated “science programs and scientists are married to theoretical processes and models. These processes fall apart when a survey doesn't get completed or when the models just aren't producing results consistent with a glaring body of evidence that shows the models just aren't producing a reality.”[25]

“Models use data such as abundance, size at age, maturity, natural mortality, etc., as well as some judgments by scientists, but can never account for all variables such as, for example, unknown changes in the size at maturity,” Knight stated. “The models are not always right.”[26]

Knight also spoke to the need to ensure “that the ships that scientists need to do their work are operating. They should be made a priority to get the science done, and people should be held accountable for making sure that the program gets delivered.”[27]

DFO Science Resourcing

The Minister has stated that she is responsible for her department and for fulfilling the mandate provided to her by the Prime Minister, so it is no surprise that apparent priorities reflected in funding decisions of the Minister and DFO dovetail with the mandates issued by the Prime Minister.

Mandate letters from Prime Minister Trudeau to Ministers Tootoo (2015), LeBlanc (2016), and Wilkinson (2018) mandated the ministers to act on Cohen Commission recommendations. However, this mandate was absent in the Prime Minister’s mandates to Ministers Jordan (2019) and Murray (2021).

The Cohen Commission was established in 2009 to investigate declines of Fraser River sockeye salmon. In his report released in late 2012, Justice Cohen stated that in assessing impacts of Pacific salmon farms on wild salmon stocks, he had not determined a “smoking gun,”[28] but did accept that “likelihood of harm” exists.[29]  In his recommendations, Cohen prescribed focused scientific examination of such impacts and the federal government promptly responded by establishing the Strategic Salmon Health Initiative (SSHI) in early 2013.

The committee received testimony from Dr. Kristi Miller-Saunders who previously led the SSHI and was the only DFO scientist who appeared as a witness for the study. Despite increased funding for DFO science, SSHI’s scientific examination of impacts of BC salmon farms on wild salmon was not provided funding to complete the third phase of its four-phase mandate.[30]

For decades, British Columbians, DFO, federal and provincial governments, and salmon farm operators have been confronted with major questions of what impacts BC salmon farms have on wild Pacific salmon- questions that require funded and focused science over time to be answered. This is what Cohen concluded and this why the SSHI was established in 2013, but the Trudeau government has failed to move Cohen’s recommendations or the SSHI to completion.

In her testimony to the committee, Dr. Miller-Saunders stated “funding in the department is largely based on competitive proposals. There is the new Pacific salmon strategy initiative. I have not yet received any funding from that strategy, but I anticipate that hopefully I will.”[31]

Miller-Saunders further testified, “I fund my program principally through money outside of the department, because I have better success in generating funds to do my research with outside granting agencies than I do inside the department.”

These statements raise serious questions about how DFO prioritizes resources for science research. If the $647 million Pacific Salmon Strategy Initiative (PSSI) is meant to “stem the devastating historic declines in key Pacific salmon stocks and rebuild these species to a sustainable level,” then why do DFO scientists like Dr. Miller-Saunders need to seek funding from outside of DFO?

The removal of previous ministerial mandates to act on Cohen recommendations and the non-allocation of resources for completing all phases of the corresponding SSHI science work raises serious questions of why the Prime Minister in his mandate letters has abandoned Cohen Commission recommendations and essential science for fisheries management such as investigations that the SSHI was mandated to complete.

Development of Science Advice

During its study, the committee received testimony describing how science provided to DFO managers has resulted in science advice to decision makers that does not align with the initial scientific findings of scientists.

The committee was told how DFO scientists “have very little control...or a limited amount of input on what science moves forward to the minister, or even to upper managers in Ottawa, and how they utilize that science.” [32] Jesse Zeman testified that the BC Wildlife Federation “is not concerned with DFO scientists' ability to conduct science. It is concerned with decision-makers and senior managers' willingness to edit, suppress and hide that science.”[33]

Greg Taylor of Watershed Watch Salmon Society DFO previously developed the sustainable fisheries framework (SFF) comprised of “bits and bites of science programmed into policy, and they often provide specific direction to managers.”[34] “Unfortunately,” Taylor continued, “these powerful science-based policies and the management guidance laid out within them are ignored in management decisions.”[35]

“Recent examples of this failure are not hard to find. In 2019, the Canadian fishing industry, after a decade of DFO's promising to implement its national policies, was forced to drop out of its hard-earned certification of sustainability from the Marine Stewardship Council, losing important and key access to world markets,” Taylor stated.[36] 

“This year, the minister made an arbitrary decision to cut in half the harvest of herring on the west coast, even though the fishery was consistent with both science advice and policy,” Taylor continued. “Last year, the minister announced the closure of 60% of commercial fisheries. The decision was not founded on a scientific analysis of what fisheries should be closed. In fact, development of a methodology to decide which fisheries should be closed is only happening now, without direct input from science.”[37]

Dr. Andrew Bateman of the Pacific Salmon Foundation testified that “science is not the only decision-making factor at the table.” “The decision-makers, as others have mentioned, have to weigh competing or complementary demands, the economy being one of them,” Bateman stated. “It's really that the science advice that's presented to the decision-makers, ultimately to the minister, needs to be unfettered by departmental manipulation by mid- and upper-level managers.”[38]

More recently, Atlantic Canadians who harvest shrimp in waters of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Area 6 have raised their concerns regarding DFO’s Species Quota Report[39] that harvesters expect will be followed by a decision reducing harvest opportunities. Again, we see a DFO decisions progressing without adequate fisheries science or assessment.

Adequate science is not consistently available to inform decisions of the Minister and DFO. Witnesses told the committee that even when science advice is provided to decision makers, it does not always directly reflect scientific data submitted by scientists and the process of providing science advice is not transparent.

How the results of scientific study are communicated to the Minister and Canadians.

In assessing how DFO communicates science to the Canadians, it is important to again note the 2015 Liberal platform that stated “[w]e will value science and treat scientists with respect. We will appoint a Chief Science Officer who will ensure that government science is fully available to the public, that scientists are able to speak freely about their work, and that scientific analyses are considered when the government makes decisions.”[40]

In 2017, Dr. Mona Nemer was appointed to the position of Chief Science Advisor (CSA) and in 2018 was tasked with leading the Independent Expert Panel on Aquaculture (the Panel) in producing a report for the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans and DFO with recommendations on “on the appropriate use of scientific evidence in risk-based aquaculture decision-making, the priority-setting process for aquaculture science at DFO, and the communication of aquaculture science and resulting decisions to Canadians.”[41]

When Dr. Nemer appeared as a witness, it was apparent that she had not followed-up with the Minister or DFO on how or if the 19 recommendations of the panel’s report have been implemented. “I must say that I have not looked in detail, but I do believe a number of them are still outstanding,” Dr. Nemer replied.[42]  When asked if she was responsible for following up on whether fundamental questions she was mandated with were answered, Nemer responded, “again it's not part of my role and mandate to follow up on what's been implemented in the various departments.”[43]

The lone Panel report recommendation that Dr. Nemer confirmed had been implemented was the appointment of DFO’s Departmental Science Advisor, Dr. Paul Snelgrove. However, despite being appointed to his position in 2020, it is unclear what Dr. Snelgrove’s mandate, role, and responsibilities are within DFO let alone what Dr. Snelgrove has done at DFO since his appointment.

There are no apparent links of collaboration or coordination between Dr. Snelgrove or Dr. Nemer and DFO decisions, including day to day decisions of the department determining science priorities, funding allocations, or communication or science and decisions to Canadians.

It is very troubling that the Chief Science Advisor position was created for purposes of ensuring government science is fully available to the public, that scientists are able to speak freely about their work, and that scientific analyses are considered when the government makes decisions, yet there is scant, if any, evidence of these three objectives being progressed. All of these objectives are necessary, yet the Chief Science Advisor’s appearance for our study on science at DFO raised more questions than it answered around how Dr. Nemer is facilitating movement in DFO toward achieving the objectives her role was meant to achieve.

How the minister applies data and advice provided by the department and other government departments to ministerial decisions.

We share the concerns of Canadians related to how the Trudeau government and fisheries Minister apply science data and advice to decisions. These concerns are a direct result of years of decisions announced by the government, fisheries ministers and DFO without any scientific analyses cited let alone such science being made available to the public.

Prime examples of such decisions include the 2019 Liberal campaign platform promise to transition salmon farms in British Columbia by 2025 and the first (2020) and second (2023) Discovery Islands decisions. The 2019 campaign promise and 2020 Discovery Islands decision were presented to Canadians with no mention of science or scientific basis- and there should have been. The DFO news release for the 2023 Discovery Islands decision made a single brief reference to “recent science,” but still did not describe scientific reasons for the decision, let alone provide the science that was cited.[44]

What is more, neither of the Discovery Islands decisions nor the 2019 campaign promise were announced with any citation or consideration of socio-economic factors considered in the decisions nor a plan to support transitions of Indigenous and non-Indigenous workers and communities in British Columbia directly impacted by these three announcements.


Despite almost eight years of the current government’s promises, ministerial mandates, creations of new science advisor positions and the existence of established protocols like the sustainable fisheries framework, successive Ministers of Fisheries and Oceans and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans do not treat science with respect that ensures their decisions are based on science, facts, and evidence, and serve the public interest.

While unfettered scientific analysis and advice is not consistently provided to the Minister and DFO decision makers, major decisions continue to be made- many of them exacting harmful effects on Canadians and communities that depend on fisheries resources.

After years of being marginalized and watching their contributions being ignored by the Minister and DFO, harvesters have little, if any, trust in those whose decisions rule their lives. At the same time, Canadians see some environmental non-government organizations being granted increasing influence in fisheries and oceans policies and decisions.

Taken together, these conclusions make it impossible for Canadians to know what the balance of influence and factors are in fisheries and oceans decisions of the government that was supposed to ensure decisions were based on science, facts, and evidence to serve the public interest. The government’s own Chief Science Advisor cannot account for whether she has delivered on the supposed objectives of her role including ensuring decisions consider scientific analysis and ensuring science is provided to Canadians. 

The crisis of trust that exists between the regulated and the regulator in Canada’s sphere of fisheries and oceans must be dealt with and this must be led by the Minister.

It would be appropriate and helpful for the Minister to provide Canadians with a clear commitment of ensuring her decisions and those of her department will be based on science, facts, and evidence, and serve the public interest. The Minister could also build public confidence in decisions she and her department make by committing to making science related to those decisions fully available to Canadians.

Managing fisheries, oceans and aquatic habitats is complicated, but better outcomes and relationships can be achieved if the Minister takes a personal interest in providing greater transparency and accountability by driving the improvement that DFO desperately needs in its science capacities and processes, decisions, and relationships that it, as the regulator, ought to foster and respect.

Those living and working under the authority of the Minister and DFO are not just the regulated, they are Canadians who sustain families and communities; they deserve to be informed and they deserve to be heard.

[1] “A New Plan for a Strong Middle Class,” Liberal Party of Canada 2015 platform, p. 36.

[4]Fish Harvester Unions Speak Out Against DFO Minister,” FFAW News Release,17 Feb 2022.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “N.L. fisheries' union head calls federal minister 'grossly misinformed' over reported climate change comments,” CBC Online New Story, 22 February 2022.

[7] Keith Sullivan, President, Fish, Food and Allied Workers - Unifor, Evidence, 2 June 2022.

[9] Robert Rangeley, Director of Science, Oceana Canada, Evidence, 14 June 2022.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Christina Burridge, Executive Director, BC Seafood Alliance, Evidence, 2 June 2022.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Christina Burridge, Executive Director, BC Seafood Alliance, Evidence, 2 June 2022.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Keith Sullivan, President, Fish, Food and Allied Workers - Unifor, Evidence, 2 June 2022.

[18] Jean Côté, Scientific Director, Regroupement des pêcheurs professionnels du sud de la Gaspésie, Evidence,

2 June 2022.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Keith Sullivan, President, Fish, Food and Allied Workers - Unifor, Evidence, 2 June 2022.

[21] Morley Knight, Former Assistant Deputy Minister, Fisheries Policy, Department of Fisheries and Oceans (Retired), as an individual, Evidence, 7 October 2022.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Christopher Jones, Senior Fisheries Manager, Department of Fisheries and Oceans (Retired), As an individual, Evidence, 14 June 2022.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Morley Knight, Former Assistant Deputy Minister, Fisheries Policy, Department of Fisheries and Oceans (Retired), as an individual, Evidence, 7 October 2022.

[26] Morley Knight, Former Assistant Deputy Minister, Fisheries Policy, Department of Fisheries and Oceans (Retired), as an individual, Evidence, 7 October 2022.

[27] Ibid.

[28] “The Uncertain Future of Fraser River Sockeye,” Cohen Commission Report- Vol.III, p.88.

[29] “The Uncertain Future of Fraser River Sockeye,” Cohen Commission Report- Vol.III, p.21.

[30] Brian E. Riddell, Science Advisor, Pacific Salmon Foundation, Evidence, 28 April 2022.

[31] Dr. Kristi Miller-Saunders, Senior Research Scientist, DFO, Evidence, 26 April 2022.

[32] Dr. Kristi Miller-Saunders, Senior Research Scientist, DFO, Evidence, 26 April 2022.

[33] Jesse Zeman, Executive Director, B.C. Wildlife Federation, Evidence, 28 April 2022.

[34] Greg Taylor, Consultant and Fisheries Advisor, Watershed Watch Salmon Society, Evidence, 28 April 2022.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Greg Taylor, Consultant and Fisheries Advisor, Watershed Watch Salmon Society, Evidence, 28 April 2022.

[38] Andrew Bateman, Manager, Salmon Health, Pacific Salmon Foundation, Evidence, 28 April 2022.

[39] Species Quota Report, DFO Web Page, Updated 26 February 2023 21:09.

[40] “A New Plan for a Strong Middle Class,” Liberal Party of Canada 2015 platform, p. 36.

[42] Mona Nemer, Chief Science Advisor, Office of the Chief Science Advisor, Evidence, 26 April 2022.

[43] Mona Nemer, Chief Science Advisor, Office of the Chief Science Advisor, Evidence, 26 April 2022.

[44] “Government of Canada takes action to protect wild Pacific salmon migrating through the Discovery Islands,” DFO News Release, 17 February 2023.