>Axe comes down as DFO scaled back
Comox office closed to the public due to government cuts
OCTOBER 15, 2013 BY DREW A. PENNER
When Larry Peterson went to the Comox Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) office Friday afternoon the door was locked. The past chair of the Courtenay and District Fish and Game Protective Association couldn’t see any posted notice explaining the reason for the mid-day closure.
“It’s closed tight as a drum,” Peterson said. “There was just nothing happening there.”
The Echo has learned the secretarial position has been eliminated as a result of cutbacks while other staff members will soon be packing their bags and headed to work out of Campbell River. Effective immediately residents will have to book an appointment in order to meet with fisheries staff.
As the Harper Conservatives aim to chop $100 million from the federal fisheries ministry over three years, targeting overhead and duplication in the department, Comox Valley DFO enforcement workers are preparing to start working out of Campbell River in April.
When asked about the changes Bryce Gilard, DFO’s Comox field supervisor, said the office will not be completely shuttered.
“As of April 1, 2014 there will be no fisheries officers or habitat staff based out of the Comox Valley,” he said. “The office will stay open for remaining staff.”
DFO has about 11,000 employees and an annual budget of just under $1.9 billion. When the most recent round of cuts were announced during the unveiling of the 2013 budget officials pledged the changes wouldn’t impact front line staff or services.
Peterson says he understands that the government wants to streamline fisheries operations but says moving enforcement staff out of the community while requiring them to cover more ground is inherently dangerous.
“They would be giving up public safety,” he said. “We told them we don’t want that office closed.”
DFO enforcement staff patrol the Georgia Straight, enforce aquaculture closures and investigate illegal sales of fish and shellfish, among other duties.
Critics of the government’s plan say closing offices to the public and relocating employees is just inviting trouble.
“What you’re doing is leaving the fox in charge of the henhouse,” said Bryan Allen, a former DFO community liaison officer who once worked out of the Comox office. “We need these guys here.”
He remembers how the government tried to shut the place down back in 1994, only to reopen the doors again just years later in 1997.
“It was a failed experiment when they did that back in the 90s and it’s a failed experiment in the waiting if they do not listen to the public,” he said. “It’s a lessening of environmental protection.”
Allen, Peterson and two other fish and game association members met with John Duncan to urge him to keep stem the tide of cuts and spare the local office.
They said Duncan agreed to speak with the federal fisheries minister about the matter.
“This is extremely important,” Allen said. “Where did that promise go?”
Nick Strussi, a member of the Puntledge River Restoration Committee thinks the local impact of the cuts shows the Harper government is out of touch with the needs of the fishery.
“You have to make an appointment with them,” he said. “The receptionist – she’s gone.”
As far as he’s concerned relocating enforcement officers will only make a bad situation worse.
“It’s really sad what’s going on,” he said. “There’s no officers out there patrolling. There’s no gas for their trucks half the time.”
Duncan was not available on Friday to speak on the issue, but Roberta Stevenson, executive director of the B.C. Shellfish Grower’s Association, which represents 160 shellfish firms in the province, says he’s been a great supporter of aquaculture.
“It would be great to save some money,” she said. “I think fisheries were overstaffed. They didn’t need to have 55 people in the region. As a taxpayer I always like to see less government and not more.”
While Environment Canada is responsible for analyzing water samples and recommending beach closures, DFO staff post notices, monitor closures and enforce regulations. Enforcement officers also watch for the illegal fish and aquaculture sales and the transportation of contaminated products.
The aquaculture industry isn’t facing the sort of cuts DFO has to deal with. In fact the federal government is extending a program meant to give “regulatory certainty” to growers at a cost of $57.5 million over five years.
Joe Tarnowski, owner of Baynes Sound Oyster Co., has had to deal with part of his underwater farming operation being shut down since July because of red tide counts and is part of a weekly water-monitoring program.
He agrees the government should consolidate fisheries staff so they’re not spread out.
“It’s not that much trouble to drive from Campbell River to Courtenay,” he said. “It won’t hurt our industry any.”