The axeman cometh for DFO and Coast Guard?

Jamie Baker writes that ongoing cutting of budgets and services at DFO and the Coast Guard are, he thinks, beginning to defy logic.

Federal cuts raise serious questions about fish management and offshore enforcement

Cuts may be coming to the Canadian Coast Guard and DFO, writes Jamie Baker. (CCG)

Some things are hard to explain even by the most verbose of politically astute minds. 

The ongoing gutting/changing of budgets and services at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and the Canadian Coast Guard are beginning to defy logic.

A recent article in Postmedia News by Mike De Souza outlined the depth and breadth of the situation and in doing so sent a shock-wave through the fishing and marine communities. 

The story said that there will be $100 million in cuts and upwards of 500 jobs lost at DFO in many high profile areas in the very near future. 

The bulk of the cuts are expected to come within the Canadian Coast Guard, where the story said $20 million will be shaved off and as many as 300 people could be shown the door.

Many insiders knew the axe was going to fall, but I would hazard to say few people expected it to be quite this dramatic.

Less offshore fishing surveillance

One of the more stunning elements could come in the form of what looks like a major reduction - a $4.2 million budget cut and 23 job losses - in Canada's offshore surveillance of foreign fishing vessels. That would mean less monitoring of foreign vessels fishing outside Canada's 200-mile limit. 

What's more perplexing than the decision is the rationale for it.

The powers-that-be suggest they've done such a good job of reducing "serious" (a word DFO has worked very hard to cut out of its list of fishing citation reports in recent years) foreign overfishing infractions in the last while that we just don't need as much monitoring any more.

I won't ramble on about the rationale, only to say it's comparable to firing the cops because you haven't had a serious crime in a while.

The piece also noted that environmental monitoring regulations could be changed around industrial development, and that there will be cuts to department science including a program that looks at the biological impact of oil and gas - work that will now apparently be out-sourced. 

Of course, De Souza's excellent story also touched on the cuts to the Marine Traffic and Communications Services (96 jobs and a spending cut of about $6 million) as well as the closing down of DFO satellite offices in different communities as part of that conversion over to the online fish licencing system.

Moves contradict advice

What is particularly interesting about this investigative piece is that it noted top bureaucrats in the department - including the deputy minister - have advised against making the cuts and have recommended spending be increased - not slashed.

If that has been the case, it has highlighted a question that was asked on The Fisheries Broadcast on Dec. 30 by Bonavista-Gander-Grand Falls-Windsor Liberal MP Scott Simms: If the federal government is making these cuts in spite of what their own top people are telling them, then why are they doing it, and where is that information coming from?

While all this has been happening, we are looking at DFO libraries being trashed, questions are being raised about the future of fish science programs in the region (there hasn't been a capelin survey here in a dog's age, for example). 

Serious concerns have been growing about search and rescue capability - concerns that will not be reduced with word that Coast Guard could lose upwards of 300 bodies and $20 million. 

Spending and slashing

Look, I get that government goes through spending and slashing phases. 

But the vigour and consistency with which the cuts have been coming for DFO and Coast Guard in recent years (fees for fishing licences, vessel inspections, observers, logbooks, etc. have not been going down either, I might add) have many people wondering what the end game is.

In the face of all these changes and cuts, I have been repeatedly told that the services are improved and more efficient, search and rescue services are super-great and safety is not compromised, our offshore is being awesomely policed, and that fish science could not be better. 

But then, one minute a bottle of champagne is being broken against a new Coast Guard ship or a brand new station is slated for construction.

The next minute, people who work on those ships or in those stations are getting their Records of Employment (ROE) and being shown the door. 

Government logic. Certainly an oxymoron. Methinks 2014 won't be dull.


Jamie Baker

Former journalist

Jamie Baker is a former journalist, and former host of CBC Radio's The Broadcast.