DFO scientists' union says members' work in N.L. undermined by industry and political interference

DFO scientists have 'grave concerns' about scientific independence and integrity, according to the union that represents them. (CBC - image credit)
DFO scientists have 'grave concerns' about scientific independence and integrity, according to the union that represents them. (CBC - image credit)

In a blistering letter, the union representing scientists at Fisheries and Oceans Canada is accusing lobbyists, industry, senior members of the department and at least one politician of undermining the work of their members in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Judith Leblanc of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) wrote to the deputy minister of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Timothy Sargent, in November, expressing the "hurt" scientists have felt.

"A pattern of decisions and events has emerged in the department that is causing scientists in the Newfoundland and Labrador region to have grave concerns about the current status and future direction in the department's science advice, scientific independence, scientific excellence and integrity," she wrote.

Concerns about scientific interference

Leblanc's letter notes that in 2019, DFO began using a new model to assess the health of the cod stock off Newfoundland's south coast, in an area known as 3Ps. The new model, incorporating new data, led to the cod stock being moved from the cautious zone to the critical zone.

As a result, DFO management would face increasing pressure to cut quotas on those who caught and processed fish.

According to Leblanc, the federal fisheries minister was lobbied by the Fish, Food and Allied Workers union and the Atlantic Groundfish Council to appoint a three-person panel to review the new assessment model.

Leblanc said DFO scientists and staff produced a memo that stated there was "no scientific justification for establishing an independent review panel for work that had already been externally reviewed on multiple occasions."

But Leblanc alleges the memo was altered before it reached the deputy minister's office and the recommendation to reject the review never made to Sargent. The panel subsequently got the go-ahead from the minister's office.

The PIPSC wants the process around that decision to be investigated — and a commitment that scientific advice won't be undermined.

DFO declined to comment on the letter, but said in an email to CBC News that the department has every confidence in the integrity of departmental science.

"When employees have concerns, they may bring those forward through the established internal processes to be addressed," DFO said.

DFO
DFO

The email also said the department did review the new assessment model, engaging three fisheries scientists, all internationally recognized experts.

They found that the new model is, "of a high standard and appropriate for assessing the stock given the available data," and that it "is a considerable advancement in the technical basis for the stock assessment of 3Ps cod."

Fish harvesters 'primary stakeholders,' union says

Keith Sullivan, president of the FFAW, says harvesters aren't lobbyists, but have a vested interest in the health of the stock.

"They're primary stakeholders, it's their livelihoods and they have an immense amount of knowledge and expertise to share," Sullivan said.

He makes no apology for requesting an assessment of the 3Ps model, and said that while there are some improvements in the new assessment model, "it still doesn't say that we got it all right and I think there's work to be done."

Terry Roberts/CBC
Terry Roberts/CBC

Kris Vascatto, executive director of the Atlantic Groundfish Council, says members are industry participants directly impacted by the decision on moving forward with the new model, "which recast several decades of scientific inclusion."

The council's members harvest and process offshore quotas and include companies like Ocean Choice International and Icewater Seafoods.

Vascatto said the council was quite concerned when the stock, "assessed annually by DFO science over a period of 30 years, [was] suddenly deemed by the same process to have been wrong, with little explanation as to why."

Pattern of interference

Leblanc listed other examples of where the department has, "exhibited a pattern where interference with scientific work is commonplace."

Leblanc said a recent survey conducted by PIPSC found 30 per cent of DFO respondents "have experienced or witnessed situations where there was an interference with the department's science-based work by business or industry lobbyists" in the past three years.

"Our scientists are dedicated staff who want the best for the department; they have felt hurt, and still are, and have had their confidence in the department's scientific process undermined," she wrote.

One instance cited Tony Blanchard, DFO's regional director general for Newfoundland and Labrador.

Leblanc says during a review of Grieg salmon farms in Placentia Bay, Blanchard, "called an urgent meeting with the co-chairs and the CSAS (Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat) coordinator prior to the start of the peer review process and requested that at the end of the meeting, the co-chairs request a vote by participants on whether to publish the resulting science advice or postpone the meeting to a later date."

Leblanc said this is contrary to CSAS policy and process, as the findings of all peer review processes are published to support transparency and openness.

Patrick Butler/CBC
Patrick Butler/CBC

In another example, Leblanc writes that during a January 2020 CSAS process looking at measures to protect corals and sponges during exploratory oil and gas development, Andrew Parsons, minister of Industry, Energy and Technology, was leaked a copy of the draft science advisory report

She alleges Parsons, "lobbied DFO to change or withhold the publication of its science advice."

When contacted to talk about these allegations, Parsons in an email said, "no comment."

Atlantic Seal Task Team should be disbanded

Leblanc's letter goes on to take aim at the Atlantic Seal Task Team, calling for it to be disbanded.

The team was announced by DFO in August 2019, to gain input on the priorities of the department's Atlantic seal science program and increase the involvement of the fishing industry in seal science projects.

Leblanc writes that, "the task team is composed of six to 10 individuals from industry and stakeholder groups; none of the members are scientists or are involved in scientific research of any nature."

She said that this isn't an example of the scientific community collaborating, "but rather industry influencing departmental science."

A report hasn't been produced by the team in the more than two years since it was created, despite being established to serve for a maximum of one year.

DFO said the team is expected to submit its report to the department in the coming months, at which time it will be made publicly available.

Other complaints from PIPSC include DFO's agreement to review an alternative precautionary approach framework for snow crab drafted by the FFAW.

DFO said more than 40 people contributed to the review process and they found, "significant issues with the proposed approach and reference points."

Participants decided the proposed FFAW model for managing snow crab should not be adopted.

In her letter, Leblanc called for the deputy minister of Fisheries and Oceans Canada to recognize the effect on DFO scientists and hold a meeting with scientists and the assistant deputy minister of Ecosystems and Ocean Science to find a way forward.

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