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COSEWIC: armpit-length committee
Dr. K.N.I. Bell, MSc(Dalhousie), PhD(Memorial)
BACK to cod&dfo&cosewic main page      chronology

COSEWIC = Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. (what's that?)
What's it for and how's it supposed to work?

Are rules made to be broken?

This issue is of proper concern to science and academia because it undermines their critical mission.
It's of concern to the public because it relates to the management of a public resource.
It's of further concern to the public because it relates to government conduct.

Selected bookmarks: Cosewic fudging reports ; Steele et al, "Managed Commercial Annihilation" ; Ted Ames's insight ; falling off the Road to Damascus ;

... this page set is supplementary to this entry in my publications list:


Bell, K. N. I. 1998. Status of Atlantic Cod, Gadus morhua, in Canada: report commissioned by COSEWIC*. ≈100 pp.+8 figs., 137 refs. (Initially supported by WWF; 3 independent peer-reviewers** and numerous bureaucratic reviewers***. Accepted by COSEWIC 1998; resulted in first Canadian at-risk designation of a commercial marine fish.) (*Cosewic = [Federal] C'ttee on Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada)
     Click for HTML of version as sent to COSEWIC 980204:  REPORT98 (text),   Figures.
**See also: Reviews by eminent scientists. ***See Addendum in REPORT98 (text).

Despite accepting it and making a (wrong) designation supposedly based on it, COSEWIC continues to refuse to release this Report (endless and shifting childish excuses). Why? Coverup. COSEWIC's own Procedures require it to make accepted Reports available on request, so it is breaking its own rules.
    Why would COSEWIC break its own rules? ... obviously, they made a political designation in 1998 and they want to hide that; and releasing the Report will let everybody see that they ignored important scientific evidence -- specifically, they ignored the evidence for complex population structure.
    That evidence, which COSEWIC had to ignore in order to make a mild designation, included DFO's own 1997 Cod Stock Components Workshop. That evidence was in turn supported by the strong insistence of the DFO Director-General for Science, W. Doubleday, that the assessment should be at the level of populations or management areas rather than one single unit. But DFO promptly changed its mind when they developed their strategy to avoid a Listing, so they then pretended that their evidence said the opposite of what it actually did. COSEWIC went along with it. Despite that DFO's assertions (that were contra DFO's own evidence, and contra that growing understanding of the structure of gadoid populations), a few bold individuals formed a core of orchestrated agreement and persuaded the committee to go for a single-area (i.e. lumping all populations together) basis of assessment. Not only was this counter to the evidence as said, it was also counter to COSEWIC's own very explicit Procedures on the matter which said that even if the populations were suspected and not known for sure, the precautionary approach required assessing them separately.
    Thus, COSEWIC's 1998 political decision was against the facts and against the rules. It was a political favour, to save DFO from embarrassment. (But that political decision now puts COSEWIC into the pot with DFO, because now COSEWIC also has something to hide. This political coverup of the facts has cost the taxpayer billions in TAGS programs etc., billions in lost revenue, millions in lost opportunity for recovery, and probably millions for the clever ways bureaucrats dream up for spin and damage control -- the recent 'consultations' that aren't even provided for by SARA are a case in point: what was the bill for those?)
    So COSEWIC [plan A] surreptitiously altered the report without permission, and [plan B] later even claimed, in writing, a right to make the Report fit their decision. (Naive to do it and put it in writing; but remarkably, there are some people who didn't see anything wrong with this, felt it was 'normal practise', never minding that the entire idea of a Report is to inform a decision, and not vice versa.) Not being allowed to fudge the Report, COSEWIC's last resort [Plan C] was to not release it -- even though that meant violating its own Procedures on both counts.
     So, why all the nonsense? Why not just leave the Report as was, make their decision, state their reasons for differing from it, etc.? ... because, obviously: their real reasons were political, not reasons they were willing to admit to.

Why does this matter to science, academia and academic institutions, the public, and conservation biologists? ...
... because it involves misuse and misrepresentation of science, waste of public funds, deception of the public, violation of scientific principles, violation of the principles of fairness, transparency, good government, and a terrible loss of conservation opportunity. Not only did the Cod fishery, one of the world's great fisheries, vanish at a cost of $$billions due to obdurately bad management (despite much good science), but COSEWIC has helped try to cover up the problem by refusing to designate consistently with (or address or refute) key information in a Report that COSEWIC, itself, asked for; then in turn it tried to cover that up by fudging the Report, and then, when that didn't work, suppressing the Report.
    Trouble is, COSEWIC depends on the participation not only of bureaucrats, but also of academics. None of COSEWIC's members can be unaware of its practises, none has offered a proper justification of the practises, none has, to my knowledge, attempted to force reform. The question "why do they play along" is the most worrying question to come out of this.

Key Definitions:

  • *COSEWIC = Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. It is a federally-mandated committee with representation from federal and provincial departments. Since SARA it is under direction of the Minister of Environment which appoints its members. In this the Minister has guidance from CESCC.
  • Jurisdiction = COSEWIC's word for department responsible for the species in question.
  • SARA = Species-at-Risk-Act. SARA gives Ministers power to not only "direct" COSEWIC's activities, but also give or withold approval to "List" according to COSEWIC's designations -- despite the absurdity of supposing political approval of a scientific conclusion (wasn't that the problem with Stalinism?), SARA is only putting into law what was already in practise: the readiness, willingness, and ability of politicians to override or 'create' scientific advice on the fishery and their ability to influence COSEWIC.
  • CESCC = Canadian Endangered Species Conservation Council (sounds arm's-length but is only armpit length -- it's mainly the Minister of Environment and two Cabinet buddies) [specified in SARA-7.1]

What does COSEWIC do? Every year COSEWIC has a week-long meeting in Ottawa, and its designations are a key component in federal stewardship of biodiversity. COSEWIC uses federal office space and has a secretariat staffed by federal employees of DOE; but because it is technically 'not a department' so even if it breaks its own rules it's not, according to the Office of the Auditor-General, subject to scrutiny; so, yes, COSEWIC so far can get away with ignoring its very own published rules. Rules are made to be broken.

The essence of the problem in COSEWIC is that ...
... they do what they like and fake the evidence.
(Federal Cabinet, though responsible for COSEWIC, knows that and does nothing.)

COSEWIC refuses to honestly present the difference between [a] the recommendations in the Reports they commission and [b] the Designation they make (which they claim is based on those Reports).  Instead, they seek* to have the Report provide 100%, seamless, support for the Designation (called, under SARA, the Assessment).
    That is a serious charge -- but there's ample evidence: e.g. in a letter written to me by COSEWIC:

*  "I will ask Dr. Campbell to expedite his finalization of the report so that it ... reflects COSEWIC's designation of the species as of April, 1998. COSEWIC has this right. ... I will suggest that your name as author be deleted from the cover of the report so that you need not be thought responsible for its conclusions." (letter from David Green, Chair, 14 July 99; emphasis added)

What Cosewic wanted to do was: break its own rules.
    Was that the first time they'd tried it?  No: in 1998 they surreptitiously altered the Report before sending it out to the committee (see my cover letter sending the unexpurgated version to the members, 1998). What's amazing is that amongst the committee members, virtually all of whom know about this, only one voiced concern. In fact, some even responded that this was normal for COSEWIC. (That the Chair would be so naive as to sign a statement like this is itself of deficiency in the science education we provide at universities, where ethics is rarely if ever a component of a science education. That almost suggests we are teaching technologies instead of science.) Further troubling is that the Prime Minister, when given this information (see open letter to PM Chretien "Are rules made to be broken?"), passed it to the Environment Minister (David Anderson) who responded with an insubstantive message that (as I found) had come through COSEWIC itself (see Anderson's reply) -- that means at least one Cabinet member was protecting COSEWIC in its violation of its own rules.

And Green's admission above wasn't just one isolated fumble, it was effectively repeated by the present Chair, Dr. Marco Festa-Bianchet in 2004:

“Your report was used by COSEWIC to assess the status of cod - it was therefore accepted as a basis for the assessment. As I stated previously, COSEWIC asked for changes that you refused to make. You were asked* to produce a report that reflected COSEWIC's single assessment of cod as vulnerable” – M. Festa-Bianchet, Chair, Cosewic, May 17, 2004. [* No such thing was asked.   So it is wrong in the fact, but clearly revealing as to the intention. Clearly contrary to COSEWIC's own representations about how it works. Festa-Bianchet plainly admits a whitewash was at least intended.]

Rules made to be broken:

“[COSEWIC] established its own procedures to use as guidelines, not laws.” – M. Festa-Bianchet, Chair, Cosewic, Mar 01, 2004.

Convicted out of their own mouths.
    Festa-Bianchet's retort paraphrases as "so what"; but these procedures are not merely a few rough paragraphs as you'd expect of guidelines, they were (90s) 32 pages, detailed and explicit, and clearly represent thousands of hours of careful work by people who surely expected them to be followed. When did COSEWIC go rotten?

    It is thus undeniable that COSEWIC has a willingness and habit of altering Reports to fit their decisions, to avoid revealing the political nature of its designations. "Report" as "alibi". Fudging Reports is dishonest and reflects an organisation that's rotten to the core. All paid for by your tax dollars.

No Report author expects COSEWIC to be bound by the Report's recommendations -- BUT neither should COSEWIC try to transfer responsibility for a politically-influenced designation onto an Author who recommended otherwise. COSEWIC should follow normal procedures for recording meetings, and should issue Reports untouched, along with a "Committee Statement" that indicates the reasons for COSEWIC's departures, if any, from the Report's recommendations. It is dishonest to try to make the Listing/designation entirely congruent with the Report when it is not.

An update has been done (April 2003, by COSEWIC insider Jeff Hutchings), but only became available October 25 2003. They were even later than that on the required submission* to the Minister, thus delaying any eventual conservation measures by nearly a year. But delays are an old trick at Cosewic.
       (*Interestingly, although SARA (Species-at-Risk-Act text) says in Sec. 25. (1):
"When COSEWIC completes an assessment of the status of a wildlife species, it must provide the Minister and the Canadian Endangered Species Conservation Council [CESCC**] with a copy of the assessment and the reasons for it." -- Cosewic sat on it until Jan 16 2004, nearly 9 months after the assessment. Is 9 months reasonable? Why not the next day, when the assessment was publicly announced? Why a further 3 months after placing the Report in the SARA-Registry online? - the delay gives the Minister until mid-April to respond to the assessment. Are we really expected to believe that the Minister did not have access to the SARAregistry, and got the assessment after the public did? Remember that under SARA, Cosewic is controlled by CESCC.
       **What is CESCC anyway? -- mainly 3 Federal Cabinet Ministers. "CESCC" sounds arms-length, but actually it's armpit length. SARA is allabout tight political control. Cosewic no longer (as pre-SARA) 'designates' and builds the Endangered-Species List; Cosewic now only 'classifies' or 'assesses' species into risk categories, and then the CESCC decides what to put on the List. It is a farce. Why don't the Cosewic members complain? -- most were appointed by the CESCC.

Minister Anderson (Environment) announced (040303) public consultations on the “on the costs and benefits of listing” (under SARA) some 90 species which have been listed by Cosewic. That many people were shocked by this indicates that the process was not represented in this way ab initio. Consultations on Listing really mean "shall we admit the science?", and it's as silly as having consultations on whether 2+2 should = 4.
    Those consultations are not provided for by SARA; they run apparently under cover of the Statutory Instruments Act, the requirements of which seem to be already met by the other consultations provided for under SARA. But the SARA consultation are not on Listing per se: consultations have place in Recovery Plans and Action Plans (SARA Sec.38 - 46 for Recovery Plans, esp. Sec. 39(3), and Sec. 47-55 for Action Plans, esp. 48(3)) .
    It's difficult to see how the 'Listing' consultations will not involve wasteful duplication of the Sec. 38 and Sec. 47 consultations.
   So why consult on Listing? With the harsh prohibitions in SARA (they are probably quite unworkable where there's a possibility of 'harming an individual' accidentally), it will be difficult to make Recovery/Action Plans that are sensible. Do they hope for comments that will furnish a reason to avoid Listing?
  Why was SARA built with those inflexible prohibitions? Could it, perhaps, have been purposely designed to fail?

2004-2005: bending the timeline rules of SARA (Minister of Environment breaking the law he is supposed to oversee).

Cod & COSEWIC*, take-home lesson ...

        The lesson from this shameful saga is that conservation easily gets mired and derailed in political interests and backroom dealing, then comes rule-breaking and creative foot-dragging.  "Missing the point" becomes an art form.

        To prevent that, we sorely need two things: [A] a sound ethical framework for scientists in agencies like DFO and COSEWIC so to support and clarify their obligation to make their work and opinions available to the public, and to defend their work against distortion, cherry-picking, etc. by bureaucrats and politicians, and [B] transparency so as to permit scrutiny by the public.    (These points do not say that politicians and bureaucrats or committees like COSEWIC must exactly follow what scientists recommend; it simply means that the entire process must be transparent so scientists take responsibility for what they say, and bureaucrats must take responsibility for what they do with that.)
         COSEWIC was deficient in both of these (A&B). It's a government committee that did not even follow its own published rules. Its happy breach of its own rules was of no interest to the Commissioner on the Environment and Sustainable Development (Office of the Auditor General) because it "was not a government department" -- no matter that its office staff are salaried from the Department of the Environment (another contradiction), that many of its members are on government time (provincial and federal), that it meets in government buildings, that it provides designations that are part of the federal environmental regulatory structure.   Nobody cared.

  We can trace the problem back to where it might be remedied. That is: how we as biologists and conservationists teach students, both biology majors (who require an ethical grounding to enable them to contribute to keeping such committees on the straight and narrow) and non-majors (who require in addition a grounding in ecological literacy to help them understand basic ecological issues, to make them independent of political sound-bites).
In contrast to the needs, ethics is largely absent from the undergraduate curriculum, and many professional educators consider non-majors a waste of time; all that has to be re-thought.
  Ethical frameworks do exist (for example that of the Ecological Society of America), but government scientists tend to be told to consider themselves to be principally obliged to their immediate supervisors, and many comply although there are some happy exceptions. The strict 'employee' model is a primitive if not feudal social model, not suitable for a publicly funded scientific and advisory role intended to promote good management. There is some literature on it, if you want to search it you can begin with the phrase "duty to loyalty" which takes you into the process of deciding how much public interest there has to be in order to justify an employee in making comments about the employer's conduct, or in publicly criticising or even differing with the employer -- in other words blowing the whistle.

tricks of the trade?

    Smoke and mirrors: when one sees behind them, the magic becomes just a trick. The supposed content is reduced to illusion.
    Spin-doctoring only works when nobody sees how it works.
    The tobacco industry floated supposedly 'independent scientific' outfits that issued statements downplaying health risks. Other industries have independent-sounding names on 'councils' or 'institutes' they control, that make a great show of loftily weighing the issues but always know what conclusion they are heading for, because they're just fronts. But governments too are in the 'marketing' business.
    It is, maybe, a new twist that a government committee drifts toward being a 'front' for bad management and bad science.
    Or a new twist that government creates 'councils' with names that sound arm's length but are more like armpit length; like "Canadian Endangered Species Conservation Council - CESCC"   --  why not call it what it is?? ... it's only a cabinet committee.
    The public has caught on to the tobacco industry etc., and it's only a matter of time until that happy day when enough people see through such 'fronts' , which then become useless as tools of political illusionists.

Documents / Topics

Article by Dene Moore (AP) from CTV web site May 2, 2003. New cod listing about to be announced, speculation [was] it would include at least some "endangered" if COSEWIC lists by population or geographic region.

2003 newsbites:

Reviews of the Report (1996 and 1998 versions) by eminent scientists chosen by COSEWIC.

PARADI conference talk (html): Ethics and science, and graphic summary of the history of Northern Cod fishery and nearly 3 decades of ignored warnings.
      The loss of this great fishery had many proximate causes, but one ultimately facilitating cause: government scientists who knew or suspected that there were problems were constrained in what they were allowed to disclose.
      Scientists therefore need to be guided by ethical principles that recognise the responsibilities to [a] the resource, [b] to the public that is affected by that resource, [c] to the public that pays for the research on that resource, and ultimately [d] to science, which cannot function in an environment of information control* and requires that scientists be able to share and discuss their understanding. Without that, only the illusion of science is left.

FAO's Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries (follow links to Code and Text of Code). Note especially the section on Fisheries Management and Precautionary Approach. The FAO Code is a decent document.
      ... but for some farcical abuse of the idea of the FAO Code, look at the Award given to "The Canadian Responsible Fisheries Board and its Secretariat" in 2001 for its "unprecedented grassroot approach to the development of a national Code of Conduct based on the FAO Code ..."; but the CRFB's 'code' is a vacuous document with little apparent relationship to the FAO Code. CRFB has practically dropped out of sight (Aug 2004: its web sites don't seem to exist anymore) and its Secretariat was, guess who, DFO. Yet more empty money-wasting flim-flam.

April 28, 2000 open letter to Prime Minister Chretien (one correction made: repeated word "are"). I was told this appeared in the Globe and Mail but I have not myself seen it.
    There was no direct response from the Prime Minister. A response from Minister Anderson was no more than a brush-off that had been either seen or drafted by COSEWIC (how did I find that out?). COSEWIC has every right to make its own reply, but it should sign its own letters, and the Minister should write his own reply and it should be substantive; COSEWIC and the Minister collaborating on a brush-off shows the relationship is closer than it should be. Effectively DFO and COSEWIC acted like parts of the same political machine. The only thing that can be taken as a response was measures in SARA -- the Species-At-Risk Act that increases Ministerial (political) control over designations (politics has been the problem all along); SARA is ironically named if it does put species at greater risk.
     The detailed Appendix is the important part of the communication. It elaborates on the issues given in the short letter and gives the (shameful) history of COSEWIC's handling of this Report.

The May 01 2000 press release following the above open letter.

Known PRESS coverage, with brief summary.

SARA -- more

... a few excellent papers:

*[1] Hutchings, J.A.., Walters, C., & Haedrich, R. L., 1997. Is scientific inquiry incompatible with government information control? Can. J. Fish. Aquat. Sci., 54, 1198-1210.

An attack on government's control of information (government influencing or twisting science to support political decisions).   

    This excellent paper created a stir, not to say panic, amongst a few senior bureaucrats as they worked behind the scenes to stifle this article and browbeat the journal editor into silence. Their tactics served only to prove the point of the paper.
    In 1999, Dr. Hutchings (like many others) signed an excellent petition that attacked the 1999 draft of SARA as "unacceptable" because of its political controls on COSEWIC and its List. 642 scientists signed the petition, but, unfortunately, those political controls were not removed.
    Puzzlingly, Dr. Hutchings (like one co-author of his paper and a few others) has since joined the SARA-style COSEWIC despite having previously signed that petition (if unacceptable then, how acceptable now?).
    Dr.Hutchings, now a COSEWIC insider, did the 5-year Update on my 1998 report. COSEWIC took months to make the update available, despite that their own rules say reports must be made available on request. It was finally received Oct 24 2003, 6 months after the designation was announced. Even after releasing the Report, it took 3 months longer for it to be sent to the Minister, and only then did the clock begin ticking on his SARA duties with respect to it. The delay, a loophole, gave the Minister altogether about 9 months extra time, beyond that mandated by SARA -- that's 9 more months of non-protection, of inaction, for Cod.
    The Update has moved COSEWIC in the direction of my recommendations of 1998: they have designated something endangered; and have acknowledged more than one population for designation (an improvement over their politically-forced one-area designation in 1998 against the recommendations of the 1998 Report), but they still addressed population structures at a much coarser scale than the 1998 report recommended, and according to the best information available and as said in the 1998 report, population structure exists at much finer scales even than even that.
     Interestingly, the Update fails to cite or mention the 1997/8 Report, even though every other Update I looked at did cite the prior Report(s), and obviously it's relevant because without a citation the reader has to wonder "update of what?"
(yes, it does say "Update", but don't be surprised if they alter that too, because they now say Reports are "living documents", i.e. not assured of remaining as they were initially presented.   "Living documents" are COSEWIC's attempt to legitimise its habit of fudging Reports and hiding political inputs to decisions.  To make it work for them, COSEWIC is demanding that Report authors surrender not only 'intellectual property rights' but also surrender 'moral rights').
     When asked why he omitted to cite a Report he knew of, a stark ommission considering he was in touch with me and could have had a copy any time just as his colleague down the hall did, Dr. Hutchings said "... COSEWIC ...did not provide me with a copy of your report." (Of course, they didn't provide him with all the other literature either, but he found and cited that.) This is, at least, obvious cooperation with COSEWIC's suppression of the 98 Report, to cover up their own rule-breaking.

*[2] Steele, D. H., Andersen, R., & Green, J. M., 1992. The managed commercial annihilation of Northern Cod. Newfoundland Studies, 8(1), 34-68.

    A crisp, incisive look at the management history of northern cod. Well worth reading, but regrettably difficult to locate. Ask your interlibrary loans department to contact the QE II Library at Memorial.

[3] Ted Ames: Ted combines being a fisherman and a scientist (M.S. in biochemistry). He showed enormous intiative, leading the way to a practical recognition of stock structures and a key set of reasons for fishery declines. As testament to this leadership, he is a winner in the very prestigious 2005 MacArthur Awards ($500,000 unrestricted).
       Ames, E. P. 2004. Atlantic Cod Stock Structure in the Gulf of Maine. Fisheries 29: 10-28.

Ames, E. P., 1997. Cod and haddock spawning grounds in the Gulf of Maine. 33 pp. Rockland, ME, USA: Island Institute.

This is a remarkable study using historical data spanning many decades to retrospectively reconstruct the population structures of the Gulf of Maine. Its findings are highly consistent with Iles/Sinclair's hypothesis of population origins. The first printing sold out quickly, but regrettably few people are aware of it.
       The picture that is emerging, or the hypothesis that is gaining evidential support, is that cod and other gadids have population structures on a scale comparable to those of salmon, which may home not only to a region or river, but a particular part of a tributary of a river; likewise, cod home to a bank where they spawn.

SELECTED QUOTES: "Until the recent past, coastal waters of the Gulf of Maine ... supported robust fisheries for cod and haddock. This study was able to document the location, character and extent of present and former spawning areas for these species between Cape Ann and Bay of Fundy. Because a number of spawning areas were relatively isolated, the sequence and nature of their collapse also provided an insight into how those cod and haddock populations functioned. ...
"Anecdotal evidence from fishermen indicates that Maine's coastal stocks of cod and haddock are composed of many discrete stocks that mix freely with other stocks during parts of the year; but, as spawning season approaches, return by specific routes totheir own spawning locations. Such observations are supported by the results of recent tagging studies of cod in coastal Maine and new discoveries about the Gulf of Maine's circulation pattern. ...
"These observations and discoveries challenge the prevailing assumption that cod and haddock are Gulf-wide populations with few distinct subgroups, and suggests why some current management strategies may have failed."

          ...and from the Island Institute site 05June2003:
"In 1997, Ted Ames wrote Cod and Haddock Spawning Grounds in the Gulf of Maine , which was published by the Institute. Ames' work demonstrated that over half of historic cod and haddock spawning grounds were located in inside Maine state waters. These findings helped influence the Maine Legislature to vote for the first time in its history to close 2900 square miles of coastal waters to all commercial groundfishing for three months each year, for five years."

The bottom line on COSEWIC and any public/scientific agency

The bottom line is: without transparency and accountability, COSEWIC has no business existing.
To argue against that, COSEWIC first needs to admit and put right what it has put wrong.

Some say COSEWIC is "better than nothing", but is it really?

Is mediocrity really better than nothing (blatant incompetence)? Doesn't mediocrity just hide the problem a little longer, and just prolong the opportunity for damage to occur? (Is that, maybe, the entire idea?)

Something that ignores its own rules is worse than mediocre, it's fraudulent.

What do others say about COSEWIC? See the Canadian Marine Environment Protection Society (CMEPS) site.
Read their 2001 report: "CANADA's WAR ON WHALES":, see especially pages 13-14: "DFO's Political Science", and "Science for Hire at Cosewic?".
    Note the comments about Cosewic's aggressive stance in controlling the information in reports:  longstanding practise recently made explicit in Cosewic's new (post-2002) Procedures by insisting authors surrender "moral rights" to reports (what are "moral rights"? ... how is it moral to ask authors to surrender "moral rights"?).