Ecotrust Canada - The challenges of adaptive management.

On Tuesday, September 30th our group met with Satnam Manhas of Ecotrust Canada. Its mission is to promote what they call the "conservation economy". What exactly this means is up for interpretation.

 Ecotrust Canada's Tofino operations are based in this former fish processing plant.
This also happened to be the view from our hostel. Not too shabby!

Ecotrust engages in a mind-boggling array of projects. The Thisfish campaign, for example, involves tracing salmon "from boat to plate" using an electronic tag placed on each fish. This adds value to the product by allowing consumers to trace the origin of their food and discover its path to the dinner table. Other projects include purchasing Cougar Annie's Garden as a potential education and conference destination, and operating a small seafood outlet in Tofiino. Many of these endeavours are unsuccessful. However, Ecotrust strives to apply an adaptive management approach. This involves undertaking risky projects in the spirit of experimentation. Failures are documented (as well as successes) and the resulting lessons are then applied to future projects. This, at least, is how they operate in theory. In practice the feedback loop is not always completed. Even on the Ecotrust website, there is no discussion of the lessons derived from unsuccessful endeavours. I see this as something of a missed opportunity. However, Satnam explained that they are at the mercy of funding agencies' expectations. Granting agencies don't often allocate money to analyze failure. Instead they expect a string of successes, and Ecotrust must comply with this expectation.

One of the more interesting Ecotrust projects is their campaign to release information from Department of Fisheries and Oceans about catch rates of wild fish. Ecotrust argues that it is in the public interest to know whom is harvesting this public resource and to what degree. DFO uses this information to manage fisheries. But the information is classified on the grounds that it is a trade secret, the disclosure of which would harm fishermen's livelihood.

If this claim is correct, one can understand DFO's position. By disclosing information they would lose the trust and therefore the cooperation of fishermen. This in turn would undermine their ability to manage this resource.

On the other hand, DFO does not exactly have a strong track record when it comes to fisheries management (I am thinking of the East coast cod fishery). One hopes that the lesson has been learned, and that DFO adheres to conservative management practices. Yet skepticism is understandable.

Ecotrust argues that on legal grounds this information cannot be withheld. According to the Access to Information Act, the disclosure of personal or sensitive information is is required, "if that disclosure would be in the public interest as it relates to public health, public safety, or protection of the environment and if the public disclosure clearly outweighs the importance of any financial loss or gain"  (see previous link for sources). So legally the issue is whether the release of this information is in the interest or public or environmental health. I can see a potential case for the latter. However, this assumes that DFO is not adequately managing this resource, or, that they need to be externally monitored. It also find it interesting that the Act, as it is stated here, includes no provision for the future access to information. As I suggested, publicizing fishermen's catch rates might lead them to withhold or modify this information.

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