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Lets See the Facts in Newfoundland

THE TELEGRAM
May 28, 2013

Facts are important — so let’s see them

Russell Wangersky

Last week, former fisheries minister Trevor Taylor used his column space in this paper to tear a strip off the Liberals’ Jim Bennett for asking questions about the aquaculture industry in this province.

Taylor was at pains to point out that he’s not a particular expert: “Admittedly, I am no fisheries scientist, but in the 20-odd years I have been associated with the fishery I have seen a good many scientific papers.” He didn’t mention that, of course, he was at one point acting minister of fisheries and aquaculture, directly responsible for the conduct of the regulated aquaculture industry, at a time when the provincial government was a crucial equity investment partner in the industry.

One of the cornerstones of Taylor’s argument seems to be that anyone questioning the effects of aquaculture should have the facts.

“It is appropriate to demand high standards of our aquaculture industry. In spite of being one of the best run in North America, our industry undoubtedly can do better. It is also important to deal with facts when demanding accountability,” he wrote.

That’s a good point. Let’s deal with facts and accountability: for one, Taylor suggests that things like sea lice are naturally occurring; that’s true enough.

Are they a problem for aquaculture programs here? Let’s see.

Ask the provincial department of fisheries under the province’s access to information law, as someone recently did, for the province’s sea lice monitoring records for the years 2008 to 2012 and you’ll get this answer: “The department has identified aquatic animal health information as highly confidential and has implemented policies and security protocols in order to protect this information. As stated under Section 9(4) of the Aquaculture Act, information prescribed as confidential shall not be released to the public.”

The short answer? The information was not released, in part because the commercial interests of the aquaculture industry would be affected. (These are not my access to information requests: they are requests made to the department by an unnamed third party and posted on the province’s public engagement website.)

How about a request for details of bacterial kidney disease in farmed finfish in the province?

 “The department has identified aquatic animal health information as highly confidential and has implemented policies and security protocols in order to protect this information. …”

How about a request for details on mortality rates for farmed salmon for the years 2011 and 2012, and the causes of death for those fish?

 “The department has identified aquatic animal health information as highly confidential and has implemented policies and security protocols in order to protect this information. …”

Taylor says in his column that he’s read about mortality rates in wild fish: “There is one thing they all have in common: they have an estimate of natural mortality. The estimate varies but is generally around the 20 per cent mark. Approximately 20 per cent of fish in the wild die of natural causes every year.” He makes no mention of the fact that the corresponding mortality rates in farmed salmon are a state secret in this province.

The bottom line? The department has flatly refused to release information, even under access law.

So, if you actually want the facts while demanding accountability, something former-minister-of-the-Crown Taylor finds so vital, you might have a hard time finding them.

He’s of the opinion the information is all right there. Talking about infectious salmon anemia, for example, he says “Salmon that become infected and die in a farm are documented and declared; it is public knowledge.”

Really? Finding information on aquaculture problems in this province is like pulling teeth. My bet is that even a former fisheries minister couldn’t get the answers.

But first, you know, he’d actually have to ask a question or two.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s

editorial page editor. Email: rwanger@thetelegram.com

http://www.thetelegram.com/Opinion/Columnists/2013-05-28/article-3262045/Facts-are-important-%26mdash-so-let%26rsquos-see-them/1