25 Monkstown Rd., St. John's
Newfoundland, Canada a1c 3t2
April 28, 2000
OPEN LETTER to
The Prime Minister of Canada
The Rt. Hon. J. Chretien
Re: COSEWIC, RULES, COD
Dear Mr. Prime Minister,
Are rules made to be broken? I am sure we agree they are not.
COSEWIC (Committee on Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada) meets soon. COSEWIC was created to assess conservation status of species in natural systems we depend on. (Dependence shown by the 40,000 people thrown out of work, or the cost in (that's a B) billions to taxpayers, when the cod fishery collapsed).
COSEWIC, funded from tax dollars, claims to operate scientifically and non-politically.
On the contrary, COSEWIC:
a. operates behind closed doorsb. doesn't minute discussions or how each designation is reachedc. tolerates unexplained changes of position by the department responsible for the species being consideredd. has no forum to resolve factual or scientific differencese. might deny key evidencef. might ignore its own rulesg. might modify a Report without notificationh. even claims* the right to retroactively change the conclusions of a Report to make it fit a decision.
Laundering Reports is dishonest. COSEWIC's ways facilitate interference and influence. It is not accountable.
These deficiencies showed (Appendix 1) in connection with the Report on cod that COSEWIC asked me for. Manipulations delayed and influenced the designation.
Therefore: (a) COSEWIC needs to observe scientifically and ecologically sound rules and to operate ethically, transparently and accountably, or to be replaced by something that will; (b) the Auditor-General's Act needs to be amended to bring COSEWIC within the terms of reference of the Commissioner for the Environment and other oversight bodies.
Dr. K.N.I. Bell
What is COSEWIC supposed to produce? Objective and scientific decisions to use in subsequent processes aimed at conservation of biodiversity and ecosystem functioning. (Anybody who doubts we require functioning ecosystems should go ask 40,000 people who were put out of work when the cod fishery collapsed, or the taxpayers to whom the cost of this collapse is measured in (that's a B) billions.)
COSEWIC (http://www.cosewic.gc.ca/COSEWIC/Default.cfm) says:
COSEWIC claims its decisions are scientific, yet has no forum for debate, rebuttal, or for reconciling a scientific disagreement. Instead, the Jurisdiction's (department responsible for the species in question) participant at the meeting has pretty much the last word.
COSEWIC has a published set of Procedures, but does not always follow them (e.g., it ignores the Procedural requirement to tape the meetings). The Procedures can abruptly change: as they did between March 18 1998 and the meeting mere weeks later. Rules made to be broken.
COSEWIC operates behind closed doors. Its meetings are open to neither the public, nor the press. Even authors, donating their time to write COSEWIC's reports, have no automatic right of attendance. COSEWIC's case for this is that secret meetings allow members to "leave their bureaucratic hats at the door". But secrecy and science are mutually exclusive.
COSEWIC doesn't produce minutes to document how a decision was reached, why certain evidence was accepted, or disregarded.
COSEWIC claims its decisions are not political, yet it has failed to exclude political pressure.
COSEWIC can contain such problems only because there is no accountability, no transparency. Not even the Commissioner for the Environment can take an interest, because, although it is substantially funded by, and housed in offices provided by, the federal government is it not a department as such and therefore outside the Commissioner's terms of reference.
In 1994 I was approached by COSEWIC (not vice versa) to write a Status Report on Atlantic cod. Reluctantly, I took it on purely out of a sense of professional obligation. If COSEWIC wanted a whitewash, it didn't declare so.
I was also puzzled that I, having worked on tropical gobies, should be asked to write about cod. So I first declined, and recommended other authors instead; but the request came back to me, finally on the basis that COSEWIC wanted somebody not currently publishing on cod. Later the Ottawa Citizen reported I had been DFO's (federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans) choice for this report. Considering the later hostility from DFO, this was puzzling except in strategic terms, banking that I would be sympathetic or never get to more than a superficial analysis, yet with the option of ridiculing my findings on the basis that I was new to the field of cod, as indeed DFO later did.
But independent reviewers who were selected by COSEWIC strongly endorsed the Report: "This is a very thoughtful report and again superbly done. It gives a thorough analysis and gives much diversity of ideas ..." -- JS Nelson, March 1998. "This status report is extremely thorough and one of the most comprehensive status reports that I have had to review ..." -- AE Peden, Mar. 1998. These echoed the 1996 comments: "an unusually well rounded account of a very complex and controversial calamity ... section 'Political input to management decisions (Canada)' is an important contribution ... Tell Bell I was very impressed" -- WB Scott Sep. 1996, and "This is a very valuable paper that should be published as soon as possible" -- JS Nelson Sep. 1996. (Emphasis added.)
I initially had not thought of cod as in danger. Nor had I accepted the concept of complex population structure on which new evidence was about to appear. But on both (crucial) points I was convinced otherwise by the scientific literature, most of which was DFO's own. As this synthesis developed, the criticism coming from DFO became more intense. But COSEWIC has no avenue for rebuttal of Jurisdictions' criticisms. The absence of such a Procedure seemed to trouble nobody. So I filed key rebuttals in the Report itself.
The Jurisdiction can reverse its position without explanation or penalty. COSEWIC does not require consistency of a Jurisdiction's position with its previous positions or its published materials, so the Jurisdiction can adopt a series of contradictory positions which make sense only strategically. There is no accountability.
The Procedures, or their interpretation, can change abruptly. A Report may be subjected to surreptitious alterations before the meeting, with meanings reversed or softened. Because COSEWIC meetings are not recorded (contrary to Procedures). After the dust settles, there is no way of knowing what stirred. COSEWIC (now explicitly) claims the right to, after the meeting, make a Report "reflect" the decision taken. Again, there is no accountability.
Procedural delays are easily invoked in the COSEWIC process. It is a matter of record that a strategic delay created by DFO's delay (by months) of its own comments in 1996. This remarkable example of manipulation required both DFO and COSEWIC. COSEWIC could have applied its Procedures, declared the comments 'too late', and stayed on schedule, but didn't. Instead it insisted on a new revision; so the on-time version already submitted had to be replaced by another, which DFO then could call late. To his credit the Chair at the time, Dr. Haber, insisted that the Report nevertheless be brought to the 1997 meeting. But prior to the meeting there had been lobbying behind the scenes, including a letter April 7, 1997 (from W. Rowat, the DFO DM), by the federal government (not only DFO: one member named a federal minister) to provincial members' departments. He complained "The criteria used in this status report are similar to those used by the World Conservation Union (IUCN)". This was disingenuous though technically true: meaningless because these and COSEWIC's and IUCN's criteria were in fact ALL very similar. Parallel with all this was DFO's attack on the listing of cod by the IUCN. One member confided at a chance encounter on the way to the meeting that he was going to support a deferral, apparently on instruction from his superiors who had been contacted. Ironically, after all that, DFO (letter April 10 1997 from K. Bruce) cried to COSEWIC that normal procedures had "not been followed":
Such things would not likely have been attempted had COSEWIC enforced accountability and operated openly and scrupulously.
Leading up to this delay (still in 1996) we (I and WWF) had noted the non-appearance of the DFO comments. We had anticipated a problem and our concerns were written to COSEWIC well in advance. The Chair reassured us. But DFO's strategically late comments were indeed able to cause deferral at the 1997 meeting. A procedural delay of one year.
The official minutes of COSEWIC's 1998 AGM include the report of the Fish and Marine Mammals subcommittee, which documents the use DFO made of the lateness it created:
A copy of the Procedures was sent to me by COSEWIC March 18,1998. Appendix IX indicated that COSEWIC should consider for designation any populations considered "distinct based on genetic, taxonomic, or other compelling evidence ... [or] geographically distinct...". It was a key rule that permitted biological reality to be taken into account. It was also concordant with DFO's earlier (1996) position that COSEWIC must consider cod populations separately (DFO changed its mind in 1997). But, mere weeks later, at the meeting there was a new Procedures manual in which Appendix IX was re-labelled "Appendix XIII - to be deleted???".
The 1998 official COSEWIC AGM minutes document the importance of the cod issue:
and that the cod question prompted a move for a different Chair to be used:
Who voiced this concern? What was the offensive quote? With whom was he supposed to check before answering a media question? The minutes do not say. In my dealings with him, Dr. Haber showed neither bias nor favour. Could that "concern" have been strategic? The minutes continue:
The 1998 official minutes also document:
... had COSEWIC been doing it wrong for years? The minutes continue:
The idea of the Chair helping members "appreciate" the biology of the species cannot be reconciled with the Chair's own actions. He supported DFO's (new) position that cod was just one unit, and refused to allow discussion of the issue (I subsequently sent the Chair an extract of those parts of the meeting, but he declined to comment). In this the Chair, who is not a fish biologist, over-ruled the acting Fish and Marine Mammals Subcommittee Chair who had said (consistent with DFO's prior position and with DFO's literature and other scientific literature) that there were populations and commented that in his opinion designation should, and could if the members so voted, proceed on the basis of populations.
To support the DFO position, firstly COSEWIC's rules were interpreted to only allow one, or possibly two, sub-units of Atlantic cod (forgetting biological reality). Secondly, the Chair, who is not a fish scientist, dismissed on his own say-so a large mass of important scientific evidence which supported the existence of independent populations (forgetting science).
The evidence dismissed by the Chair supported the prudent view that multiple populations were a more likely bet than a single homogeneous stock. Much of the evidence, with a consistent interpretation, came from DFO itself, though DFO had downplayed it, and virtually denied it in the meeting the previous year. When the Author challenged the Chair's arbitrary dismissal of up-to-date science published in a major scientific journal (Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences) and pointed out the consistency of all available up-to-date evidence with DFO information, the FRCC opinion, and the claim in DFO's own comments fourteen months earlier, ... the Chair simply ruled the Author "out of order" and cut off debate.
The declaration of "out of order" makes sense only strategically. The situation was that fourteen months earlier DFO itself (letter from W. Doubleday, 23 Dec 1996) had said:
I agreed with this point, so I had re-formatted the recommendations in accordance with DFO's comment. DFO then abruptly changed its mind.
Why did DFO change its mind? Was it because of new evidence? or changed strategy? DFO never explained its change of mind. New evidence from DFO itself was a 1997 workshop on cod stock components to which DFO had alluded, at the 1997 meeting, in support of a single-population view. It took repeated requests over several months to get a copy of that workshop's proceedings. The surprise was that it supported the multiple-populations position, not the single-population one. Its conclusion was summarised: "the Workshop concurred that a precautionary approach to assessment would have to recognise the complex stock component structure explicitly". Furthermore, the conservation risk of being wrong is much less if the multiple-population view is adopted; i.e. recognising differences that aren't really there is less risky than ignoring differences that are (as also pointed out by the DFO workshop).
So the new evidencecould not possibly have caused DFO to change its mind. A strategic explanation is that DFO sought to avoid a series of designations, one per management area, which would entail the risk that the worst-off one(s) would be designated Endangered. That (or worse) would readily apply to 2GH, the area off Labrador. So DFO wanted cod considered as one homogeneous unit.
Thus, a designation was reached which ignored key items in the knowledge available. It was likely to be tough for COSEWIC to explain how the decision could both (a) be scientific and (b) ignore key scientific information. So, COSEWIC now had a decision that was fundamentally inconsistent with the Report on which the decision was supposed to be based. COSEWIC's Procedures make this an untenable situation:
COSEWIC's Procedures required it to release a Report with which its decision was clearly at odds, while COSEWIC's habit has never been to document its thinking such that the relationship or discrepancy between the decision and the Report (the supposed basis for it) can become clear. COSEWIC's action was: none. It simply sat on the Report. After much back-and-forth and excuse-seeking (blaming the author for refusing to edit, yet declining to answer what edits were required), the Chair finally wrote of his plan to remedy this by making the Report fit the decision. Here is how he stated it in his letter of July 14 1999:
Oblivious to the impropriety this involved, he confirmed that this meant altering the conclusions of the Report:
This is decision-laundering: Falsification of the origin of a decision. It seeks to hide from scrutiny the discrepancy between the Report and the decision. The carelessness involved in stating the intention is also remarkable. If this is how things are done, there is no point in having Reports, or having COSEWIC at all.
To be clear: no agency need be obliged to do what a Report says, but that agency must document and take responsibility for its divergences from the Report. Not try to put the blame for a faulty decision back on the Report by altering it after the fact.
The Plan had to be explicitly rejected, which I did. With that rejection, the Chair was asked also to either reconcile his actions with ethics and COSEWIC's Procedures, or resign. After seven months, no reply.
And there it stands. A report on a major species experiences interminable delays and wrangling, and remains unreleased two years after its acceptance for a decision.
In summary, COSEWIC asked repeatedly that I undertake this Report, but the process soon became hostile, even though COSEWIC's own chosen reviewers praised the Report highly. In my dealings with the COSEWIC Chair from April 22 1998, I made many attempts (as previously regarding their unauthorised alteration of the Report prior to the 1998 meeting) to amicably and logically persuade COSEWIC to persuade it to observe basic ethics and its own rules, but my attempts were rejected and the responses have been frequently lacking or incomplete.
So, are rules made to be broken?