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CAUT Bulletin Archives

November 1997

If Only Fish Could Talk

M.H. Sadar
The article entitled "Battle Over Fisheries Policy" by Matthew Kerby (Bulletin, September) and recent coverage of the issue by the Canadian media, call for a more analytical and objective discussion of this complex subject.

It is amusing to note that during extensive coverage of the subject, the use or abuse of science by so called bureaucrats, especially in the federal Department of Fisheries, has been the principal focal point of discussion. I firmly believe that for a meaningful dialogue on this very important issue, one must expand this discussion to include the following points:

The employment conditions of all civil servants are clearly defined and governed by a well-established system. A vast majority of the senior managers receive their promotions based on meritorious service. The rest, and at present an increasing number, are being parachuted directly at upper levels through political appointments.

A large majority of public servants holding management ranks cannot be considered as ignorant and nasty folks. These are responsible and university-educated people with good professional backgrounds and practical experience in various fields such as engineering, law, social, and natural sciences etc.

There is a significant percentage of senior managers in the federal government who started their careers as research scientists or in purely scientific areas but later joined the management ranks to become 'bureaucrats'.

In many cases scientific staff and research scientists working for governments have argued that their specialized knowledge and input in support of the departmental mandate justifies their promotion to the management ranks. The recent well-publicized and controversial complaints and subsequent rulings of the Human Rights Commission involving the National Research Council and Health Canada are two good examples.

Consequently, it seems unreasonable to put the entire blame on the so-called 'bureaucrats' for the mismanagement of fisheries and other natural resources.

To start with, one cannot determine the health and well-being of an isolated part of the ecosystem, such as the fish, birds or trees, without analyzing and understanding the natural interdependence and interplays of various components of the total ecosystem. One cannot ensure sustainability in fisheries resource without rational and comprehensive discussion of all laws, policies and programs pertaining to natural resource protection and management. In other words, one must adopt an 'ecosystem' approach for ensuring sustainable fisheries.

Public concern about deterioration of the environment surfaced in the early sixties. The governments, especially in industrialized countries like Canada, responded by upgrading existing rules and regulations, passing new environmental protection laws and by formulating and enforcing appropriate regulatory mechanisms. Naturally this led to reorganization of old management structures and the creation of new departments and agencies for enforcing such laws and regulations.

In creating organizational structures for protecting and managing Canada's natural resources, the governments generally adopted a fragmented and compartmentalized approach for distributing enforcement responsibilities. Considering that at the time such initiatives were taken there were no other models and/or alternative approaches for protecting the natural environment, this seemed a very reasonable way to proceed. Besides, the academic and research institutions have always operated on similar lines.

Past experience has now provided ample proof that institutions designed to deal with issues on a specialty specific basis are ill-equipped to develop and implement multidisciplinary and integrated approaches which are essential for effective natural resource management.

The current organizational structures of the federal and provincial governments for dealing with natural resource protection and management are politically motivated for exclusive benefit to the ruling political party(ies). The main purpose is to create a number of cabinet portfolios to accommodate influential politicians and reward various regions by appointing their representatives to such posts. Naturally, these ministers need and demand adequate human and financial resources in support of their mandate. Hence the presence of such a bureaucracy, consisting of both scientists and others, is a direct result of the political decision to have a multi-ministerial approach for dealing with resource management. The current system neither has the needed capacity nor the structure to adopt an ecosystem approach for natural resource protection.

It seems highly ironic that after having dissected 'environment' into various compartments such as fisheries, forestry, agriculture, parks etc., the federal structure also contains entities such as Natural Resources Canada and of course Environment Canada. Who, we may ask, is really safeguarding the interests of the fish and their habitat located in the vast oceans, rivers and fresh water streams flowing through thick forests and remote mountains?

Considering the political life cycle of an elected government is four to five years, and that of the politician holding a cabinet post is normally even less than that, the ministerial support system remains under constant pressure to deliver the necessary goods and services. The senior managers are expected to steer the ship in the desired direction and make speedy deliveries at the right time. Obviously, the government managers look for the necessary input and support from their subordinates, including scientific staff and others in their respective departments. Promotions in the management category depend upon the delivery of goods in support of the departmental mandate and specifically those items which make the Minister more popular among his/her colleagues and constituency. Serving long term interests of the national and/or global environment cannot remain a top priority item on the political agenda.

Undoubtedly, the alarm and concern raised by the scientific community and many others are valid and must be addressed to ensure our economic prosperity and health and the well-being of future generations of Canadians. I do believe, however, that a more comprehensive and holistic approach for resolving such issues should include detailed discussions on:

A thorough evaluation of federal roles and responsibilities in natural resources management and protection within the framework of constitutional restraints and the on-going evolution of federal-provincial relations.

A critical analysis and evaluation of the (confusing, conflicting and contradictory) roles various departments and agencies of the federal government are playing in dealing with natural resource management issues. Can this fragmented and piecemeal approach be justified on scientific, economic and ecological grounds?

The levels of cooperation and coordination among various levels of governments in Canada and more specifically within numerous federal departments, agencies and institutions. Are they conducive to a 'management-through-ecosystems' approach?

The programs and activities of the governments, especially those initiated and managed by the provincial and local governments which are putting the land, water and atmospheric resources under increasing stress. Are adequate mechanisms in place to assess long- and short-term impacts of such actions and for ensuring adequate remedial measures?

The relatively short life -- about thirty years or so -- of organized knowledge base in support of natural resource management. Are there appropriate research and development strategies for bringing it up to the desired level?

The world community has witnessed unprecedented and profound political and socio-economic changes during the past two decades. The past ideological differences and rivalries are quickly being replaced by new trade blocks and political alliances. The environmental security and natural resource controls and conflicts are already on the international center stage. There are growing concerns that Canada no longer enjoys its previous reputation as a key player in facilitating international cooperation for addressing global environmental issues. Canadians and their elected leaders must assume their responsibility and work harder to reverse this trend.

The federal government has recently appointed a Commissioner for Sustainable Development. Hopefully, the Commissioner can play a pivotal role in guiding Canadians and their governments towards the goals of sustainability.

Dr. M.H. Sadar is a professor of environmental studies with the faculty of public affairs and management of Carleton University.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of CAUT.