British Columbia

Fisheries official denies coverup allegations over research into endangered B.C. steelhead

A senior official of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) has denied allegations that the federal government covered up scientific findings on a unique kind of rainbow trout in B.C. in an attempt to justify continuing commercial fishing that endangers the species.

DFO didn't publish assessment into recovery potential and edited advisory report, wildlife advocate says

Two steelhead trout in water.
The B.C. government says Interior Fraser steelhead is in a state of extreme conservation concern, with estimates of 104 spawning steelhead fish in the Thompson River and just 19 in the Chilcotin River. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

A senior official of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) has denied allegations that the federal government covered up scientific findings on a unique kind of rainbow trout in B.C. in an attempt to justify continuing commercial fishing that endangers the species.

The allegations come in part from B.C. Wildlife Federation executive director Jesse Zeman, who said the federal government still won't make public peer-reviewed scientific research that concludes that fisheries should be restricted in order to save steelhead in the Thompson River and Chilcotin River from extinction.

The species, a member of the salmon family, migrates to the ocean for much of its life but hatches and spawns in the two rivers.

Zoologists and conservation groups in B.C. have been warning of its perilous state for years, and an annual update on the species last month by B.C.'s Ministry of Forests warned that its numbers are now at historic lows, with preliminary estimates that only 104 Thompson River steelhead and 19 Chilcotin River steelhead are spawning this year.

Speaking on CBC's Daybreak Kamloops on Friday, Andrew Thomson, the DFO's Vancouver-based regional director for the Pacific, refuted claims that an assessment on the recovery potential of the species has yet to be published, and that a science advisory report was edited by DFO officials without scientists' knowledge.

"Certainly, the [DFO] is very committed to sharing information as part of our scientific process," Thomson said.

Recovery potential assessment 

Zeman argues the primary threat to the steelhead comes from bycatch and salmon net fishing in the Johnstone Strait and Salish Sea off B.C.'s South Coast, and the Lower Fraser River, and therefore the DFO should ban these practices by designating them as endangered under the federal Species at Risk Act.

In January 2018, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), a group of independent advisers to the federal government, called for the Interior Fraser steelhead as to be listed as endangered. 

A red-tinged fish peeks out of a net on the ocean.
B.C. conservation groups say the primary threat to Interior Fraser steelhead comes from bycatch and salmon net fishing in Johnstone Strait, the Salish Sea and the Lower Fraser River. (Chris Furlong/Getty Images)

This triggered the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat (CSAS) to invite scientists to conduct a peer-reviewed recovery potential assessment on the species, and to publish a science advisory report based on the assessment in the same year for DFO to reference in its policy-making.

Thomson said the assessment can be found on the DFO's website. But Zeman said that document is in fact the science advisory report, and the actual assessment has never been published.

Claim of DFO interference in report

Based on the communications between DFO, CSAS and the B.C. government accessed via freedom of information requests — which have been seen by CBC News — Zeman says the federal agency has been hiding the peer-reviewed assessment from the public because it doctored the science advisory report and made its policy recommendation very different from the one in the assessment.

In an email dated December 2018, DFO scientist Scott Decker said the B.C. government had complained about the federal agency's unilateral change in wordings of the science advisory report.

The assessment said lowering frequencies of salmon exploitation is the only way to save steelhead from extinction, but the final draft of the report said "allowable harm should not be permitted to exceed current levels" — language that Zeman says could be interpreted as meaning there's no urgency to list steelhead under the Species at Risk Act.

Zeman says this led to federal fisheries minister Jonathan Wilkinson's decision in July 2019 to ban recreational fisheries in Thompson and Chilcotin rivers, but not to ban commercial fisheries by placing the species under the act.

In an email dated October 2018, CSAS chair Sean MacConnachie said DFO's associate deputy minister office edited the language of the science advisory report multiple times without his knowledge.

Two months later, in an email to DFO, B.C. fisheries director Jennifer Davis said conclusions in the report were inconsistent with the consensus of scientists who conducted the recovery potential assessment.

'Real concern around transparency'

Zeman says early this year, the DFO rejected his freedom of information request to publish the recovery potential assessment, meaning he will have to sue the federal government in order to access the document.

"We know that DFO can do good science, but we also know that DFO science is not being shown to the public," he said on CBC's Daybreak South.

"There is a real concern around transparency."

University of British Columbia (UBC) zoology professor Eric Taylor has studied the steelhead populations across the province for three decades and chaired COSEWIC from 2014 to 2018. He agrees there's very little transparency in how DFO handles steelhead research.

"Technically that is really scientific fraud," Taylor said. "If that report is not completely clean and completely honest and above board, it degrades the credibility of the entire process."

Taylor says the DFO has conflicting mandates to promote commercial fisheries and to conserve fish populations, and argues that the conservation mandate should be given to Environment Canada instead.

With files from Daybreak South and The Canadian Press