Everyone who fishes for salmon should read Randy Nelson’s new book about being a Fisheries Officer for Fisheries and Oceans Canada (commonly known as DFO). He started with DFO in Saskatchewan in 1976, then moved to BC and rose over the years to become Regional Director of Conservation and Protection, before retiring in 2013.
Typically, we only run into enforcement officers when they zoom up in a DFO vessel checking for fish, fishing licences and, more recently, boat licences. Alternatively, we may be asked on a river for a freshwater licence and have hooks checked for crushed barbs. Pretty benign stuff, but these are not the average enforcement situations that officers face.
They work long hours, frequently all night, and standoffs with poachers and, in the past, with aboriginals, did and does present extreme danger. Nelson was hit with an oar so hard in Gill Bay, early in his career, that it broke his shoulder. He was shot at, almost run down, stabbed and frequently in conflict with staff above him in the bureaucracy. The reality is whether a family man wants to do such a job – and his wife has to agree – when it is so dangerous. He says that North American stats show a fish or wildlife officer is eight times more likely to be killed on the job than a police officer. Often, DFO enforcement staff are also auxiliary RCMP.
In being led across an ice river to a meeting in Grenville on the Nass, by a snowmobile, he and a fellow officer were deliberately led to a spot of thin ice with the intention of them going through. He found this out at the meeting when a local aboriginal, someone he knew, took him outside to tell him that the spot always had thin ice, but a snowmobile never went through because it spread the weight out, unlike a human foot. When he addressed the meeting he told them he knew someone tried to kill them, the meeting was over and he would not come back.
That blunt, straight forward, balls approach lead to higher compliance, and, in the long run, better relations with the chiefs and aboriginals. Nelson seemed to have a gift for honesty, and also was a competitive runner with size 13 feet, who won dozens of races over the years. On many, many occasions, working in the dark, officers surrounded poachers and anyone who ran got run down. His approach was to run them until they dropped from exhaustion and couldn’t argue.
In the Lillooet area, Nelson watched a poacher through binoculars dipping into the river in a canyon, catching more than a dozen sockeye. He then crept down and tapped the ‘angler’ on the shoulder, handed him a ticket and asked him to help carry the confiscated fish up the 200 vertical foot rise. When the poacher refused, Nelson cut some tree branches to string the fish through the gills, and ran up the hill with the tackle box and rod under his arm as well. The poacher dragged his carcass up after him and keeled over at the truck. Nelson learned from this not to tell the poacher about the tickets until the fish were up the hill.
At one spot on the Nass, Nelson found a hollow cottonwood tree that he drilled a hole in on the river-side and ran the three miles from his office every day – so he would not have a truck sitting there – and watched boats coming and going, off-loading fish and etc. Then he sauntered onto the local reservation and struck up conversations with individuals he had kept stats on, asking them how the fishing was. They were, of course, shocked that he would know they had been out and gave him lowball estimates of their catch. He would then correct them and tell them how many fish they really had, the species, size and so on to the surprised person. He did this for several weeks and locals began to think he had psychic powers because he was always correct. Consequently, compliance improved dramatically, and no one ever discovered the ruse.
Later in his career, Nelson took part in healing circles and became a supporter of restorative justice as a process for all parties to tell how an offence struck them and affected them. This led to much better relations between DFO and Fraser aboriginals, particularly in years where commercial and sport fisheries took place in saltwater but aboriginal fisheries were curtailed. It is understandable they would be upset, and in one such face to face, while conservation needs ultimately were agreed to by both sides, the give in the situation was for elders to fish for a set number of fish in a reduced year. Enlightened.
Toward the end of his career, Nelson had a large canoe named after him, and his name inscribed in the Shuswap language. He sites there has not been a major confrontation in the last seven years and that new officers undergo sweats and talks with elders. And enforcement undertakes a First Nation’s Youth Conference annually, as in, things are better than they used to be.
Over the years, Nelson met a lot of DFO people of whom most readers will know: Terry Tebbs, the irascible, no-bull Bill Otway even into his last days with cancer, Paul Sproat who actually went out on a soaking, night mission and ministers Brian Tobin and John Fraser. Tobin cut through the layers of bosses between him and Nelson, telling him to phone him directly. Nelson did this on occasion, and results came quickly. Fraser was seen as an honest, ‘let’s do what the salmon need most’ minister, and he is praised even into his retirement years when he made submissions to the Cohen Commission on behalf of wild salmon.
Nelson, too, made a submission to Cohen (1), the most difficult problem being that various bosses of his took notes on the proceedings (which were of course, transcribed, from voice tape, anyway) and having to work with the on-going intimidation of losing his job.
In earlier years, Fraser headed up the Fraser River Sockeye Public Review Board, receiving testimony from all areas of DFO. If you have seen the video tape of Dr. Kristi Miller, during Cohen, saying that fish farm diseases may be the smoking gun, you will have seen the same squirm Nelson may have had to endure.
Fraser was shocked at the reduced levels of enforcement staff, and recommended the Director of Conservation and Protection post that Nelson subsequently filled. The same recommendations had been made in the 1982 Pearse Commission report, something that DFO staff above enforcement were against. Fraser said the lack of funding amounted to an abdication of the government’s constitutional responsibilities.
And, of course, most readers will recall the Fisheries Act being gutted of its sections on deleterious substances, S35 and 36, in the omnibus ‘budget’ bill of 2013. Nelson points out that such recommendations seldom were implemented as DFO would work around them until they were forgotten and then get back to their agenda.
At a meeting in Ottawa, senior DFO managers sought to eliminate the upstart enforcement branch notion, telling Nelson they did not want him at the meeting largely because his counter parts across the country did not want him there. Taking the direct approach – he does this several times in recounting his career – Nelson went out, phoned all his counterparts and they all said they strongly wanted him at the meeting. So he told the assembled managers and all looked away, having been caught lying. If you have ever worked for government, imagining having to work through such a situation is excruciating, and career threatening.
This is a book to pick up and read. You will know many of the situations over the years that he reconstructs. He points out near the end that aquaculture is the only method of farming that he is aware of that is allowed to discharge raw, untreated effluent and chemicals into fish-bearing waters. I have calculated an estimate and it is about $10 billion dollars of effluent that passes into the pristine waters of BC. There are many stories in this book that are worth knowing, and you will witness growing respect for DFO enforcement staff that you may not have had in the past.
1. Okay, I can’t help but throw in some of his Cohen notes: BC/Yukon handle half of all violations in Canada with one third the enforcement staff; of 600 First Nations in Canada, 200 are in BC; we have 400,000 fishers and the largest freshwater fishery in North America, bigger than the entire eastern regions; the landed-value of fish is greater than any eastern region; habitat work is greater than in any eastern region; we have the largest number of species listed under the Species at Risk Act; BC has 27,000 miles of coastline, more than most of the eastern regions, and the same as Newfoundland; BC is 14.3% of the country; the Maritimes only 5.8%; the miles of salmon streams are greater than all the Maritime provinces combined; BC has one Fishery Officer for every 24,000 residents; NL has 1:4,600; Gulf, 1:8000; and Maritimes, 1:6000.