Those who complain I’m not even-handed don’t get my purpose.
I read comments to this column regularly and both enjoy them and profit from them. In my last article on Federal Fisheries Minister Gail Shea there were concerns expressed that I was not giving equal time to both sides of the issue so I thought I might set out what my mandate is (self-made of course).
To start with, I’m not a journalist in the ordinary narrow construction of that word. The late Denny Boyd once said I was a cross examiner — a misplaced barrister, so to speak. I agree. I’m not an ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ broadcaster and writer; instead, I am an editorialist. I don’t report news; I give my take on it and invite response.
Last week’s subject was the West Coast fishery and the role of the Fisheries minister. That anyone would argue that it’s her job to promote aquaculture generally and fish farms in particular astonishes me. I quoted former DFO scientist Otto Langer who set out the minister’s duties in stark terms, namely “to conserve and protect fish habitat”. Surely anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of English would understand that statutory mandate clearly excludes shilling for any industry.
If Minister Shea goes to aquaculture conferences surely it should be to admonish the industry and urge them to clean up their act not gush over how important their industry was to Canada.
But back to my mandate. As an editorialist I see it my duty to hold the establishment’s feet to the fire. I say “prove it” when government or industry make promises. I’m a lifelong contrarian. When a government, industry or trade union tells a story my inclination is to say (to myself, of course) “barnyard droppings” or its more earthy equivalent.
Opinion informed by facts
It’s astonishing how often the establishment can’t deal with questions put to them. In that regard, let’s look at the fish farm business, which, for me, started in 2000 when caged Atlantic salmon were escaping and getting into B.C. rivers and streams. My listeners of the day will remember that Dr. John Volpe, a noted fish biologist, and his crew were diving some rivers on Vancouver Island and were finding hundreds of escaped Atlantics. In the meantime, one cabinet minister named John Van Dongen stoutly maintained that only three Atlantic salmon had been found in our rivers — only to be contradicted by his colleague, the late Stan Hagen, who said there were only two!
Then marine biology researcher Alexandra Morton started her examination of the relationship between huge swarms of sea lice attracted to the huge number of hosts in the fish farms with migrating pink and chum salmon. The provincial minister of Agriculture, Food and Fish and the federal minster of Fisheries and Oceans, one would have thought, would have been there alongside Morton getting the truth by scientific tests — but this was from the truth. In fact, the DFO threatened her with jail for illegal sampling!
As fishery experts from Norway, Scotland, Ireland and of course Canada came into the debate supporting Morton’s findings and certifying her methodology, the ministries mounted a stirring defence of the industry and — without a single solitary independent fisheries biologist to support them — said that the science was on their side! I traveled to Galway, Ireland, and met Dr. Patrick Gargan, head of the fish lice program on the west coast of that nation. He and his staff were utterly astonished at the Canadian and B.C. governments. One of his colleagues looked at me and asked, “Can’t you people read out there? Have you not seen the documented evidence of sea lice devastating wild salmon (salmo salar) and sea trout (salmo trutta)– both of which are much bigger when they migrate past the fish cages than are pink salmon and chum smolts?”
As the independent science firmed up, the governments still raised ridiculous explanations for diminishing wild salmon.
In praise of the ‘precautionary principle’
Let me pause here to observe that both governments placed the onus of proof on the wrong shoulders. A firm, but totally ignored, rule for doing things that might hurt the environment is the ‘precautionary principle’ and here is how it’s generally stated: The ‘precautionary principle’ is a moral and political principle which states that if an action or policy might cause severe or irreversible harm to the environment — in the absence of a scientific consensus that harm would not ensue — the burden of proof falls on those who would advocate taking the action.
This means, of course, that the onus of proof that sea lice damage migrating fish rests upon the farmers — not Alexandra Morton and aging columnists.
I’ve strayed a bit from my point so let’s return to it. My job as an editorialist or, if you prefer, a ‘common scold’ is to apply the ‘precautionary principle’ and hold those who would use the environment to demonstrate that they will do no harm. In doing that I must, of course, examine all the evidence including that presented by the government. If, however, the only government evidence comes from public servants, I must weigh evidence against that which is not tainted by government money. I must also compare government ‘evidence’ to that of independent scientists — which I have often done.
So, gentle readers, if you’re looking for an evenhanded journalist to whom everything is ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ I advise you to listen to broadcasters and read ‘journalists’ who use that standard — a standard where the evil is on the same footing as the good.