Learning the hard way: Take away funding for conservation and see what happens

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By Julie Gardner, Dovetail Consulting, jgardner [at] exchange.ubc.ca

I was on a long-awaited hiking trip to the national parks in southern Utah last month – the exact week they were closed. Utah’s not traditionally a national park-loving state, but after a few days of furor resulting from the federal government shutdown, the governor anted up enough funds to pay for re-opening the parks. That was quite the unintentional experiment: it revealed the true economic value of protected areas, as income to businesses and communities in the vicinity of the parks had plummeted.

Here in Canada the Harper Government (thus branded by the Prime Minister) has been steadily axing the budget of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), as if to see how far he can go before impacts are so obvious that funding has to be restored. This follows on a history of diminishing federal support for delivering programs critical to marine resources.

I co-authored a study of DFO Pacific Region’s capacity to deliver on its conservation mandate eight years ago. Our report, commissioned by the David Suzuki Foundation, explained that the Region could not fulfil its mandate largely because the level of funding for conservation programs had been shrinking for at least a decade. Budget cuts had compromised basic conservation activities, even as backing continued for select priorities such as aquaculture.

Has anything improved since then? Quite the opposite. The federal budget in 2012 included major cuts and a reorganization that significantly reduced DFO’s capacity. There was a one-third drop in habitat management staff (cartoonists caught the irony of endangered biologists).

The initial quarter-billion cut – a big bite from a $2 billion purse – was followed with a plan for further reductions. The most recent federal budget calls for chopping roughly $100 million over three years starting in 2015-16. These cuts are deeper than for most other federal departments, while they continue to spare the still lucrative, if controversial, aquaculture sector.

So what results might be in store from this risky experiment in “death by a thousand cuts”?

Our research in 2005 concluded that decreased budgets had forced operational staff to make conservation decisions that effectively left many stocks and habitats with no protection, no monitoring and a questionable future. The Department also lost capacity to address complex ecosystem, fisheries and habitat management issues.

Just last year the Cohen Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River called for renewed conservation efforts, such as “response teams” focused on salmon stocks in trouble. Instead, the Department is again being asked to do more with less – that’s got to be hard on morale, as well as salmon habitat.

Consequences of the continual belt-tightening also include less data (thus poorer forecasting and more cautious catch limits, leading to less fishing and even less data), less enforcement, more resentment among harvesting groups competing for limited catch, less collaboration and less opportunity for partnering in delivery of the government mandate (e.g. DFO’s withdrawal from the Marine Planning Partnership).

A Financial Report from DFO last summer reflected on the impacts of budget cuts as follows:  “The most significant cost to the Department is personnel expenditures for the delivery of knowledge-based scientific, conservation, and maritime programs and services across the country.” And the Department’s own performance review recently identified the risk that it “may not be able to adequately maintain public trust and confidence, and subsequently its reputation.” The action plan to address this risk has focused on improving communication to stakeholders (e.g. media training for staff and creation of a departmental Twitter strategy).

If keeping trust is important to the government, I’m not sure a “trust us” campaign is going to do the trick. Trust is earned by doing what you say you will do, and in this case that means delivering on a mandate. The many staff and managers whom I have worked with in DFO are thoroughly trustworthy, but they can’t deliver what’s needed to sustain the natural resources for which they are responsible without sufficient fiscal resources.

Let’s not see this unintentional experiment to its logical conclusion – a fate far worse than a federal department with a spoiled reputation. My fear is that by the time the results are clear enough for the Harper Government to grasp it will be too late for the fish and for the economy that depends on them.

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