Ecotrust Canada’s Prince Rupert team, from left to right: Devlin Fernandes, Gerry Riley, Amanda Barney, and Chelsey Ellis.
Good fisheries planning and equitable community development hinges on accurate and accessible numbers. Will a recent federal move to expand public access to fisheries data move the needle?
Last week, Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) announced it would open up public access to currently-hidden stats on the state of the nation’s larger fish stocks and fisheries.
Since information democracy is one of the cornerstones of our work at Ecotrust Canada, we wanted to find out what Ottawa’s move will mean for harvesters, resource managers, communities, and those who support them. We spoke with Devlin Fernandes, senior manager of programs in our four-person Prince Rupert office, to learn about why healthy fisheries and resilient communities rest on a sea of data.
Is the government’s move to open up fisheries data going to make your work easier?
Yes. Information democracy is one of Ecotrust Canada’s key principles—we believe people need good information to make informed decisions. We welcome increased transparency and the greater availability of data, because data underpins many of the decisions that communities have to make when they think about the future of their fisheries. So on that front, I am very hopeful. This is a good step in the right direction, and we do see this announcement as exciting and very welcome.
What part of this announcement makes you go “hmmm?”
Well, we don’t yet know what exact information is going to be made available, and how useful it will be. For example, there will be a survey once a year and there will be 17 questions across fish stocks. It’s not clear if we can see the data behind those questions, and if we will be able to really dig into the data.
In the Skeena region, Skeena and Nass sockeye are rolled up as one piece of DFO data. In reality, there are more than 30 different conservation units of genetically distinct sockeye populations that are all managed differently in the Skeena. So while we are looking forward to more information on the data, it’s unclear how detailed it will be.
Why is data important for fisheries?
Data is essential for fisheries—in understanding historical trends, managing current stocks, and making decisions about the future. What does the future fishery look like? How can the community best support its fishermen? What are the potential impacts of climate change, markets, and stock fluctuations, and how can we best mitigate those impacts? Fishermen, fisheries managers, and community members all want to be part of this discussion, and accessible and accurate data is key.
There are many types of data—collected by DFO, academia, the fishing industry, monitoring programs, stock assessment programs, socio-economic data, traditional knowledge, and harvester collected data—all is important to understanding the complexity of fisheries.
Why is data democracy important to your work?
The importance of sustainable resource management is unquestioned; so, too, is the need to involve diverse interests in policy making and decision making. However, in order to have open, transparent, and inclusive management, there needs to be access to the data upon which decisions are made. Data needs to be accessible & shared to understand what factors are at play in decisions that impact livelihoods, resources, and the health of communities.
Why is your approach working?
Across our programs, we work hard to build relationships and the trust of our partners. In the Skeena region, we entered this space at the invitation of the community—municipalities, First Nations, regional districts, and fishing industry associations. We supported the Sustainable Marine Fisheries & Communities Alliance (SMFCA) to develop a vision and a strategic plan, and we have been supporting elements of that plan and moving it towards implementation. We also used the Fisheries Diversification Model to make commercial fisheries data accessible.
What sets your team apart from others who work on fisheries issues?
We have technical expertise and deep fisheries knowledge, and experience working with harvesters, regulators, and community monitoring programs developing data-collection systems. Anyone can have technology, but to really make it work and make it useful to decision makers, we need to make sure it is accurate and trusted by a wide range of parties.
How does ready access to historical data help you support coastal communities?
We created the Fisheries Diversification Model, which is a decision support tool that allows a community to plan for resilient fisheries, and explore historical and current fisheries data to build and compare scenarios. The tool combines local information with typically hard-to-find federal data. To build it, we tracked down and compiled 15 years of federal catch records along with cost data, licence information, and ex-vessel prices. Users can explore changes in harvested weights and earnings in each fishery over time to inform their understanding of what’s going on out there today. It was really challenging to access that historical fisheries data.
Are you seeing other governments embracing transparency and open government?
The British Columbia government has made big efforts to increase the amount of data it has released publically. Governments are also really trying to balance access to data with very valid privacy and security concerns, using the Party of Three rule. B.C. has created a Marine Conservation Analysis. There is a limited ability to download and play with the data, but it does allow people to better understand what is happening with our land and resources. It is a step in the right direction.
What’s the biggest barrier?
Really, its capacity—both on the human and resources front. Provincial and federal departments across Canada have been really strapped vis-a-vis what they can do. For instance, there is a long tradition of stream walking—a patrolman will go out and walk a stream to count how many spawning salmon, and of what species. That helps them understand the timing of the run, what particular fish are coming back, and also in what abundance. If you had a great return and high abundance, you could predict what will be happening down the road. When dollars get cut, that’s the kind of thing we lose. Whether governments continue to to do this, or it transitions to community monitoring programs, people and resources are needed for good data collection.
What should the federal government do next?
I look forward to more details on the announcement, and seeing exactly what data – and in what forms – become accessible. I hope that this announcement doesn’t supercede the existing data requests that are already in the queue, as people and organizations continue to make requests for datasets to support their planning discussions. It’s encouraging that more data is becoming directly accessible, but people should not have to wait years to get the info that they need to make better planning decisions today.
“Will new open data portal help information democracy?” Ecotrust Canada, July 2013
“Fishing forFacts: Barriers toAccessing FederalFisheries Data inBritish Columbia,” Ecotrust Canada, 2008.