Fisheries plan alleges confusion and bias

By Judith Lavoie, Times Colonist September 3, 2011

A Department of Fisheries and Oceans communications plan, filed as an exhibit at the Cohen Commission, portrays the B.C. public as confused, West Coast newspaper reporters as biased and environmental groups as self-serving.

The National Aquaculture Communications and Outreach Approach, prepared for DFO by a New Brunswick consultant, sets out a three-to five-year plan for convincing both DFO staff and the public of the merits of fish farming.

DFO spokesmen are not commenting on evidence given at the Cohen Commission, which is looking into the decline of Fraser River sockeye. But at the hearings, DFO witnesses said the communications strategy was not fully implemented as government is more focused on aquaculture sustainability than bolstering the industry.

The 2006 strategy, and follow-up document from 2008, concentrate on driving home key messages, such as “healthy seafood derived from the pristine Pacific Ocean” and developing “good news stories” around aquaculture.

They also reveal a split in opinion within DFO staff.

The report’s authors appears bemused by opposition to aquaculture in B.C., compared with lack of opposition on the east coast, and lay the blame partially on “a very well-organized professional environmental NGO group.”

Vocal salmon farm opponent Alexandra Morton and the David Suzuki Foundation are singled out for creating strong public opposition to the industry “to further their agenda and fundraising efforts.”

The public is largely uninformed and is described as “a confused and unaware public and consumer group that spends little time thinking behind the headlines of the pros and cons of aquaculture in Canada.”

Some media focus negaive attention on aquaculure, the report says.

“In particular Mark Hume (Globe and Mail), Stephen Hume (Vancouver Sun), Scott Simpson (Vancouver Sun) and Judy Lavoy (sic – Times Colonist) tend to focus on the negatives of aquaculture, present onesided opposition and don’t work towards presenting a balanced story,” it says.

David Black, associate professor in the School of Communication and Culture at Royal Roads University, said communication plans prepared for government ministries, with the public interest in mind, need to be held to a high standard and the DFO plan fails to meet that higher standard.

“To represent the citizenry as confused and unaware raises some concerns in my view as to the underlying attitude,” he said. “It is also a strange thing to identify journalists as not effectively doing their jobs.”

The report impugns the named journalists and shows a lack of respect for the practice of journalism, Black said.

“To assume bad faith and a lack of professionalism on the part of journalists is ethically and strategically dubious,” he said.

A third concern is the defensive tone of the document over science, Black said. “In this document, science is a problem to be managed, rather than a source of data to be used,” he said.

“The absence of a science-based message and the dismissal of the obligations science imposes on DFO scientists creates a significant tension.”

Stan Proboszcz, fisheries biologist with the Watershed Watch Salmon Society, said the strategy shows the sophisticated methods DFO uses to promote open net cage salmon farming.

“Through the inquiry we’ve seen that DFO’s mandate is to promote public confidence in the salmon aquaculture industry, despite science that shows it can be a huge risk to wild fish,” he said.


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