By Mackenzie Myatt
After more than two years of contentious debate about a proposed Marine Protected Area (MPA) along the Eastern Shore, DFO Minister Jonathan Wilkinson told the Cooperator in an interview that the MPA process was “effectively suspended.” The only exception was the completion of the risk assessment of finfish farms that had been underway for some time and would be completed shortly.
Wilkinson talked with the Cooperator following his nearly two-hour long meeting with the Eastern Shore Fisherman's Protective Association in East Ship Harbour on August 15. This meeting was his 2nd appearance on the shore this summer, following a poorly advanced meeting with the MPA Advisory Committee earlier this summer.
Opponents of the MPA process had long argued that DFO had not done the right kind of consultation at the start, allowing people to argue that DFO intended to “cram the MPA down our throats” in order to meet a federal commitment under an international treaty to protect at least 10% of the country’s oceans.
In his opening remarks to the August 15 meeting, Wilkinson announced that he was appointing a "facilitator" who would basically start an entirely new round of consultations with the community. He said the focus of this new process would be on conservation, on determining what actions, if any, the community supported to conserve the region's fishing resources. He said repeatedly that he was no longer wedded to creating an MPA, and that he was prepared to accept doing nothing if that was what the community wanted.
Wilkinson said he expected the current risk assessment of fish farms will be completed by DFO shortly and a draft version will be published and available for comments. In response to a question, he also confirmed that any communities facing similar discussions about conservation strategies and/or the prospect of an MPA are welcome to an independent facilitator if requested.
In his opening remarks, Peter Connors, president of the Eastern Shore Fisherman's Protective Association said, “The DFO should have worked with the fishing industry from the beginning as a leader in conservation. Without buy-in from the fishermen, the risk assessments are inaccurate.”
In response, Wilkinson acknowledged there is a large information gap between the ‘fish harvesting science’ and the ‘DFO science’ and that it must be closed for conservation efforts to be productive.
Connors said the fishing community has always prioritized conservation. “I appreciate the offer of an independent facilitator to find common ground, the fishermen want to protect the environment too.”
There were many questions about who or where the independent facilitator would come from, but Wilkinson assured them that he would hire someone without bias, who would not be affiliated with DFO, perhaps from the community. “Ideally it would be somebody who has no skin in the game, an eminent figure and respected by everybody,” he said.
Reached in Norway where he is leading a delegation looking at Norwegian aquaculture, Fisheries and Aquaculture Minister Keith Colwell welcomed news of the suspension of the MPA process. The provincial government had opposed more MPAs in the province. “I think it’s positive at this point,” Colwell said. “I’ve talked to Minister Wilkinson several times about our concerns about an MPA of this magnitude, especially on the Eastern Shore.”
Colwell had some harsh criticism for how DFO had presented the Eastern Shore MPA proposal. “When the people DFO hired to present this stuff, they didn’t really tell fisherman the truth, they lied to them, out and out lied to them.”
Echoing claims from fishermen, Colwell said, “The Eastern Shore’s fishermen really looked after the water. It’s clean, it’s pristine, there’s not a pile of garbage around. I think DFO just randomly picked this site. There’s nothing there to protect from anything.”