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Internal documents reveal DFO suppressed, downplayed threats to this B.C. endangered species

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada undermined a scientific consensus that spelled out fishing threats to an endangered species in B.C., documents suggest. Now, some are calling for DFO to be torn down and rebuilt with scientists at the helm.
Steelhead trout
Steelhead trout have been decimated in recent years, as climate change, habitat loss and fishing have squeezed populations in the Chilcotin and Thompson watersheds.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) undermined a scientific report spelling out existential threats to two endangered B.C. steelhead trout populations, according to hundreds of pages of internal documents obtained by the BC Wildlife Federation.

Much of the nearly 2,700 pages, obtained through the Access to Information and Privacy Act, stem from a January 2018 decision from the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) to classify steelhead trout on the Thompson and Chilcotin rivers as endangered.

At the time, COSEWIC’s emergency assessment found that over three generations, spawning steelhead trout had declined 79 per cent in the Thompson River and 81 per cent in the Chilcotin River. 

That triggered a process to officially list the two trout populations under the Species at Risk Act, something that would have legally protected steelhead and unlocked measures to prevent its extirpation.

Genetically a trout, steelhead live a life cycle more often associated with Pacific salmon. They spend several years of their early life in rivers, migrate out to sea and then return thousands of kilometres upriver to spawn. Living up to 13 years old, the species has been found to spawn multiple times throughout their lifetime.

Despite the worrying signs the two species were disappearing, by July 2019, then-minister of Fisheries and Oceans Jonathan Wilkinson announced DFO would not list the species as endangered under the Species at Risk Act.

Internal documents now reveal concerns that a key scientific report meant to inform that decision was watered down following edits by the Assistant Deputy Minister’s Office at DFO.

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Copies of the internal documents obtained by the BC Wildlife Federation are available online in three parts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

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In an Oct. 31, 2018 email from Sean MacConnachie, head of DFO’s aquatic ecosystem and marine mammal science section, the biologist expressed concerns that scientific evidence was being undermined.

“The ongoing involvement by people who were not part of the process, who have not been involved in the development of the material or the advice, continues to compromise on our ability to meet the deadline as well as the scientific integrity of the process,” he wrote.

Scientific advice at DFO comes from the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat through a peer-reviewed process that’s meant to lead to evidence-based, objective and impartial conclusions. 

But when a summary of a DFO critical science review was shared with staff at the B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, a senior manager said her team didn’t get a chance to review the document. More worrying still, she flagged a “significant concern” that the federal report didn’t line up with conclusions of B.C.’s scientific community.

“There are significant concerns that the content does not reflect the work of the science team’s agreement, and specifically removes key points from the B.C. perspective,” wrote Jennifer Davis, B.C.’s director of fish and aquatic habitat, in an email included in the internal documents.

Or as B.C.’s director of conservation science Manjit Kerr-Upal put it in a November 2018 follow-up email: “It appears that this document’s summary findings were altered such that the report, as published, downplays the threats associated with salmon fisheries by-catch mortality.”

The report, she added, “now concludes that commercial salmon fishing closures will not likely reverse the future declines of steelhead stocks.” 

In another email contained in the revealed documents, fish expert Josh Korman points out that an earlier draft of the species at risk report indicated lowering exploitation rates through changes to salmon fisheries “is the only option currently available” to pull them back from the brink.

But in the final version of the report, the document appears to green-light the status quo in fisheries practices. Instead of recommending a reduction in fishing activity, it states “allowable harm should not be permitted to exceed current levels…”

“This added phrase gives an impression that current levels of harm is an option…” wrote Kerr-Upal in an email.

She added: the species at risk report is “not scientifically defensible.”

In a statement from a B.C. ministry, a spokesperson acknowledged the "scientific debate" in 2018. Since then, the ministry said some progress has been made in implementing longer salmon fisheries closures but "with continued declines, more conservation action is needed."

Glacier Media reached out to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, but a ministry spokesperson said it could not provide a comment by the time of publication.

‘FRASER RIVER IS DYING’

The decimation of the two rivers’ steelhead populations was found to stem from a combination of factors, according to the Recovery Potential Assessment.

Those included:

  • Altered ocean conditions brought on by El Niño, climate change and the “Warm Blob” — all found to have serious effects on ocean food supply
  • Agriculture water drawdowns reduce flows and raise river water temperatures, a lethal combination in the summer months
  • Forestry practices and urban development lead to increased erosion, damaging water quality by dumping silt into the rivers and destroying fish habitat

Harbour seals and sea lions were found to feed on up to 40 per cent of out-migrating salmon smolts. It’s unclear how steelhead are directly impacted and some scientists have argued the prey species are merely restoring a natural balance. 

But it’s the threat of commercial and sport fishing by-catch — where nets and lines inadvertently pull in another species — that have scientists and conservation groups scratching their heads. 

On average, by-catch has been found to impact 18 per cent of steelhead returns in the last 10 years.

“The Fraser River is dying. We have multiple species and populations that have experienced 90-plus per cent declines,” said Jesse Zeman, the BC Wildlife Federation’s director of fish and wildlife restoration. “One thing is that we can control right out of the gates is non-selective fishing. We can do something about that and it will have an immediate effect.” 

“And we’re choosing not to.”

The muddying of scientific consensus leads Zeman to one conclusion: DFO “needs to be torn down to its foundation and rebuilt with scientists, not managers.”

Otherwise, he said, “We have no hope.”