The third round of cutbacks to Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s resources has finally hit. DFO’s already-meager budget is shrinking and its libraries are closing. CBC News and The Tyee have both covered the story in recent weeks, but what effects do these cutbacks have on scientists and researchers? What does this loss of data actually mean to someone who uses these fisheries records?

I am just such a person. I work with DFO data on a daily basis and I am very familiar with the current difficulties in accessing fisheries data. I get most of my data from WAVES, DFO’s online library, and through data requests from the department. Data requests are the only option for detailed information on past harvests, but they’re cumbersome and can drag on for months. WAVES is a good source for management plans and other documents, but it generally lacks precise numerical data. More datasets are hidden in the back corners of DFO’s website, but they tend to be vague, inconsistent, and hard to find – I discovered most of them by accident.

And what about the Government of Canada’s Open Data initiative? The much-lauded effort has promised to release data like never before. As of this writing, the Open Data portal contains 189,106 datasets. Surely digitized fisheries records are in there, right?

Let’s look for data on BC’s commercial fisheries. A search for the word “fisheries” yields 30 results, but these include reports on locations of snow research stations, maps of vegetation in the Northwest Territories, and descriptions of petroleum reserves in the Beaufort Sea. Only 2 are anywhere close to what I’m looking for: West Coast Fisheries is a map of harvests from 1952, while Fisheries Resources is a Canada-wide map of fishing areas from 1995. Neither will be helpful in my work.

But I’m pretty lucky. My work tends to use harvest tallies going back to 1996, essentially the low-hanging fruit of fisheries data. I truly feel for scientists trying to study fisheries on longer time scales – a necessary task to determine long-term species population trends – as anything prior to 1996 would be found in the paper files in your local DFO library. Or DFO dumpster, as the case may be.

Digitizing and making these records available online – as the Government of Canada has promised to do – would be a welcome leap forward in the promotion of open data, but it is becoming apparent that this will not be delivered. In a statement to CBC News, Fisheries Minister Gail Shea promised that “Users will continue to have completely free access to every item in DFO’s collections.” Unfortunately, DFO’s current information systems are being dismantled and what is left is neither complete nor free: a far cry from what Canadians need.

Andrea Robertson is a Fisheries Project Analyst at Ecotrust Canada.