The Day Fisheries and Oceans Lost Its Fish by Jane Gaffin

According to Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Canada Keith Ashfield and Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, the Stephen Harper Conservative government proposes to amend the Fisheries Act.

An article posted April 24 by Margo McDiarmid, CBC Environment Unit, quoted Gerry Ritz as telling reporters on a conference call that farmers and landowners have been pushing for changes to the Fisheries Act for years because it's too restrictive.

"We have heard from Canadians across the country that the current rules protecting fish and fish habitat go well beyond their intended conservation goals, bordering sometimes on the bizarre," Ritz was quoted as saying.

He explained there are lots of examples of the current Fisheries Act preventing activities like "farmers flushing out their irrigation canals... or cottagers prohibited from keeping up their properties."

He said that the proposed new law "will adopt a common sense approach to managing real and significant threats to fisheries and the habitat that supports them while minimizing the restrictions on everyday activities that have little to no impact."

As for waterways like small streams or wetlands that have no commercial fisheries, Ritz hinted the job of protecting them could be downloaded to provinces and territories, noted the CBC article.

It’s way past due for government to prescribe a “common sense approach”. And the first thing I recommend is that the Harper government makes provisions to rein in and rehabilitate the armed, jackboot, badge-bearing bullies who have too much dictatorial, discretionary power and rule by sheer force and threats.

Front-line enforcement officers should learn to make sensible decisions and exercise good manners and common decency when dealing with the public.

Otherwise, the government should fire the whole lot and start over.

One day, some years back, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) lost its fish and had to lay the blame on somebody--anybody.

My neighbour, who lived two blocks down 4th Avenue, called me, a freelance writer, to bring my tape recorder and attend a meeting he had arranged with the DFO Chief Enforcement Officer and Steve Smith (phonetic), a DFO Field Supervisor.

Nobody in his right mind would ever go into a closed-door government meeting alone, especially one that carried the potential to be confrontational.

Gary Pettifor and his wife, Diane, were busy owners of Wharf on Fourth, a little fish shop they had initiated in the converted garage attached to their downtown dwelling.

The paperwork was astounding, but Diane very competently kept on top of it; her husband, who made runs to Atlin, British Columbia for sockeye salmon and to Skagway, Alaska for halibut, was also a city fire fighter.

Both worked no less than 60 hours per week.

Pettifor, an honest and diplomatic person, was an aggressive businessman and became even more aggressive when he and his wife were treated shabbily by a bunch of ill-mannered bureaucrats.

Steve Smith had mailed him a form and a standardized letter composed by fisheries’ lawyers in Vancouver, British Columbia, the headquarters for Fisheries and Oceans’ Pacific Region.

Exercising threatening tactics, the letter stated that DFO had the right to demand certain information under Section 61 (Information Returns) of the Fisheries Act. The recipient would provide the information, or else. The “or else” part was Section 78 (Offences and Punishment) that provided the leverage for DFO to prosecute for non-compliance.

The letter’s tone was unfriendly and threatening. Smith hadn’t bothered to read his dispatch that expected the Pettifors to drop what they were doing and document the details about every species of seafood that came into the family-operated business and who was buying the fish products.

Without any supporting evidence, DFOers had made an unsubstantiated accusation that the Pettifors were buying black-market fish. DFOers had dreamed up a bozo theory that Wharf on Fourth must be buying half the fish they filleted, packaged and fast-froze for sports fishermen.

The paperwork task would add another six to eight hours a week to the husband-wife combo’s already incredibly heavy work schedule, without any extra compensation for the redundancy. The boom was coming down on them during their busiest season.

Diane Pettifor, an efficient businesswoman, kept immaculate records to satisfy a myriad of government agencies with annual, quarterly or monthly filings of taxes, Canada Pension Plan, unemployment insurance, workmen’s compensation, goods and services tax, and so forth.

Halibut imports from Alaska required Fish Import Notice to be filed with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency within 48 hours. Other forms went to Canadian Customs and American Customs. The paperwork was endless.

Fish Import Notice was once DFO’s responsibility. No longer. Yet DFO wanted them to file duplicate paperwork they were already sending to other government departments. And it sounded as though the ridiculous assignment was meant to extend into perpetuity.

About a week after receiving the letter, Pettifor bristled when Smith, accompanied by a female officer of native origin, barged into the fish shop in regulation battle garb.

They were clad in flak vests. The 25 pounds of artillery strapped to their waists included cans of pepper spray, knives, bullets and Billy clubs. Loaded 9mm handguns dangled obscenely from their holsters.

Well, of course, fish cops need their guns in town as well as on the creeks to back up their mandate to harass people.

Pettifor helped Smith understand what he had dispatched but hadn’t read.

Smith allowed Pettifor to refine the form and report only the halibut and salmon. That cut the extra eight hours of work down to about 90 minutes. When the first submission was ready, Pettifor phoned Smith, who was in the field. Pettifor left a message, which Smith later admitted receiving but didn’t have the social graces to return.

Pettifor was really exasperated by Smith’s rudeness for not returning phone calls after demanding that the fish shop owner comply with the field supervisor’s whims.

More time was wasted while Pettifor tried to set up a meeting with the chief of DFO Enforcement Section.

Pettifor dug in his heels tenaciously. He quit preparing forms until he was able to schedule an audience in their offices with Gerry Coukell, Chief Enforcement Officer, and Field Supervisor Smith. The unidentified female officer was not part of the picture.

“Do they know I’m coming with you?” I asked Pettifor over the phone.

“No,” he answered.

“What if they don’t want me in the meeting?”

“Then there won’t be a meeting,” declared Pettifor. More than a scribe to write an article for the Yukon News, he was taking me along as a witness.

Otherwise, the bureaucrats could turn vicious, make unfounded accusations, corroborated by a colleague, which would leave the accused without effective defense. My presence would make a significant difference as to the meeting’s outcome.

“Let’s go,” I directed.

I was always eager to jump into the fray to blow the whistle on overbearing bureaucrats who delighted in battering decent, hard-working citizens as a hobby and making their lives miserable. DFO employees were long overdue for an upbraiding.

Pettifor drove us up the hill above Whitehorse to the federal government building at 200 Range Road. Coukell and Smith were sucking air from the time we walked in. They catered to us.

Coutell had sandy-reddish hair and was of average height and build. He was not in uniform, otherwise he would have to sit at a desk all day encumbered by his hardware and sweating in a flak vest. He went to great lengths to match his demeanor with his casual attire.

He gave no indication that he remembered me from an earlier salmon symposium when he first moved to Whitehorse from British Columbia, but accepted me without comment, except to say he wasn’t expecting me and asked the battle-dressed Smith to go fetch another chair from the boardroom.

Smith was tall, lean, dark-haired, perhaps in his mid to late thirties. He waddled off with his 25 pounds of hip gear. His flak vest and sidearm were contentious items for the agenda.

Pettifor and I were armed with two effective cassette tape recorders. But the silent pact between us was not to protest Smith’s wearing of a gun during the meeting if they didn’t protest our tape recorders. Pettifor’s thoughts about gun etiquette would be brought up in the normal flow of conversation.

Pettifor was sternly serious but capped his sentences with a booming, ironic laugh that tended to soften the barbed nuances. Me? I was not diplomatic so tended to be more prickly when questioning their overstepping of boundaries under the Fisheries Act to invade people’s private and competitive business affairs.

I was suspicious that the paperwork they requested would be given to others who might want to see what he was buying, where he was buying, how much mark-up on fish products and how much profit, so that another person or group could open another fish shop to compete with his business.

If that was a surreptitious ploy, Pettifor could have made it easy for them and sold them the Wharf on Fourth.

Pettifor led off. He opened the meeting with, “I’m a hundred percent behind you with the (concept) of black market in fish and finding out who people are who do not obey the law. But I’m upset with how far you went here and what you want from me and my wife. I have some questions to confirm what it is you do want.” He paused, shuffling through some notes.

“First, we received a letter saying we had to document every species of seafood that came into our shop, and if it went out commercially, where it went. You talked with my wife, Steve.”

“That’s right,” agreed Smith, slouching in his chair. The hardware caught on the chair’s arms and prevented him from sitting up straight.

“Have you had a chance to look at this form?” asked Pettifor. “Is this what you even wanted?”

“Yes, it’s the information I’m looking for,” said Smith. “You were talking about fine-tuning it to meet you guys’ needs a little better. I don’t have a problem with that at all.”

Pettifor responded with, “I have some questions. I’d like to see Section 61. Every form we have, we’ve been threatened with possible prosecution under Section 78.”

Coukell confidently pulled Sections 61 and 78 of the Fisheries Act from a file drawer, glad to show us he wasn’t making this up. He distributed photocopies to Pettifor and me. The men resumed their discussion.

In a nutshell, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans had lost its fish and didn’t know where to find them. The downtrend in fish stocks had been blamed on everything from the earth rotating backwards to El Nino’s capricious cousin changing the weather patterns.

It never occurred to DFOers that they were too incompetent to manage fish stocks. So, Smith took the initiative, no doubt on somebody else’s behalf, to solve the mystery of the missing fish by blaming sports anglers for overfishing and Pettifor for buying their black-market products.

Next on DFO’s list would be the placer miners.

“DFO has a fiduciary responsibility to ensure that the First Nations people have fish,” explained Coukell. “Tough questions are going to be asked one day about the state of the resource. And I want to have the answers ready.”

DFO suspicioned that the culprits were people overfishing and selling surplus on the black market to recoup costs for their holidays. As absurd as the notion sounded, DFO could make unsubstantiated allegations without an iota of evidence or proof.

Innocent people were being charged and brought to trial simply because DFOers had the discretionary power to do it. Defense costs were breaking the placer miners and would likely bankrupt most small business operators, too.

There is something dreadfully wrong when a government can enact laws that can put people out of business--and that is precisely the intention of environmental laws.

“The people we’re primarily concerned with are the opportunists who’re turning a fast buck for low overhead in the fresh market,” said Coukell.

Yet without any prior communication or investigation, DFO singled out the Wharf on Fourth which bought fish from commercial suppliers for resale.

Pettifor’s request to be financially compensated for the burden of filing redundant paperwork met with a negative response. Coukell said the best he could offer for payment was to buy Pettifor the occasional cup of coffee.

Before the meeting convened, Pettifor’s workload had been adjusted to reporting halibut and salmon only--not all species he bought for resale.

A few minutes into the meeting, Smith decided the halibut documentation could go on the back burner. He wanted to focus strictly on salmon. The further adjustment reduced Pettifor’s extra workload to 30 minutes, or less, per week. Pettifor could just fax invoices which provided the pertinent information which Smith could “sift through”.

Then it became apparent the research project would not extend into perpetuity. Smith could collect the necessary baseline information in a season--two seasons at most.

Why didn’t Smith just communicate that fact at the beginning of the process? Because aristocratic government agents can afford to be selfish in their thinking; their stifling, iron-fisted methods call for dictating to peons, who had better learn to cower and be obedient little servants--or else.

But who was giving these jack-booted rulers permission to interpret the act as though it was written in disappearing ink?

When jerked up short on his choke chain, like a Doberman attack dog enforcement officers wanted as companions to round out their cache of people-control implements, Smith conceded, “Oh, gee, I admit my introduction to the whole thing may not have been the best tact.”

His words met with the sound of Pettifor’s long sigh of annoyance.

Coukell interjected with an apology. “It may be a bit of a knee-jerk reaction from ourselves. A lot of this stems from an incident where something takes place, and we have to get a better handle on it. We probably should have started a little bit slower. Or started next year.

“But because something takes place and we say ‘if we had some information here, we’d be able to respond to this in a reasonable manner. So let’s go get that information--not realizing the hardship we put you into, thinking it’s just another form. You’ve got books and you just give us a copy of this. In our narrow-minded ways, we don’t see all these (extra) hours of work. We didn’t want the work to be so overwhelming that you can’t provide it.”

He would not provide specific details because he didn’t have any specifics to provide. The DFO officers had assumed too damned much and could not justify their fantasies when their tails were pinned to the wall.

Why didn’t these good little eco-Nazis just admit they were conditioned to believe that the entrepreneurial spirit was viewed as inherently evil, and peaceful people like the ambitious Pettifors needed crushing and stripping of their personal wealth and property?

Coukell would only admit that the process could have been more polished or upfront. “We don’t want to harass anybody. If we’re out of line, it’s good to bring us back in line. We’re paid with your tax dollars. Maybe the approach hasn’t been the best. For that, I apologize on my behalf and on Steve’s.”

Nevertheless, still going down the fictitious trail in an effort to save face, Coukell said they were still interested if anybody tried to sell Pettifor fish other than through a commercial market.

The three men agreed to start afresh the next May in 2000 with salmon only; then perhaps focus on halibut later. “The illegal sales start when the salmon start to run and stop when the salmon quit running,” noted Coukell.

Pettifor depended on the fishery and wanted to cooperate. In his preamble, he had stated, “I’m a hundred percent behind you for the proper management of the natural resources of wild salmon and am willing to comply with documentation of all purchases of salmon which we only purchase from commercial seafood suppliers.”

But he stressed he was not impressed with the arrogant intimidation tactics used by Smith to achieve his goal.

Smith admitted to learning a lesson. He promised never again to start information-gathering in mid-season when everybody was busy. He further promised that henceforth his efforts would be conducted in a smoother manner than the way he approached Pettifor.

“Do you have any suggestions?” he asked, leaving himself wide open.

“Sure do,” responded Pettifor, who suggested that cooperation from fish retailers would be contingent on leaving the flak vest and pistol behind when he entered a fish shop in downtown Whitehorse or wanted to talk to the top person in a restaurant, hotel or grocery store.

The gun was bad enough, warned Pettifor. “If you’d come in with a balaclava over your face, I would have thrown you both out.” Pettifor coated his warning with a booming laugh to sound less confrontational. But Smith knew he was not jesting.

Smith claimed to hate the hot, cumbersome flak vest and wished he could comply with Pettifor’s request to lock the guns in the truck. He predicted eventually ending up with permanent physical back and hip problems because he walked and sat unnaturally from packing the heavy hardware around his waist.

Another lesson he had learned the hard way was that 25-pound utility belts don’t float when one falls out of boats into the river. He blamed enforcement officer’s dress code on a Pacific Region policy that flows from Ottawa.

This was another fable.

During the next annual Dawson City Gold Show in May, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, as usual, rented booth space at the trade show to hand out literature and give public-relation spiels to eco-sinning placer miners and their supporters. Two babes manning the booth were in uniforms but not wearing guns, which would not have been a good public-relations gesture.

So, to say officers have to wear guns when strutting along downtown streets and sitting in family-oriented coffee shops simply because guns are a part of their uniforms was another bare-faced lie perpetuated by DFO minions. They pack guns indiscriminately to look tough and play the militaristic role of “big shots”.

They have been seen wearing guns, but none of their other paraphernalia, when not dressed in full regulation uniform. The gun stance simply provides a psychological edge over disarmed individuals who are perceived as a threat because they have the powers to create and build things for themselves and are painful reminders of the bureaucrats’ own ineptitudes.

Coukell and Smith said officers must travel in pairs for safety reasons. It may be true to a certain extent, i.e., if one becomes incapacitated for whatever reason in their travels, the other is supposed to be capable of taking over the driving or deliver the trail mate to medical facilities.

Truthfully, the partner is another voice to verify an unsubstantiated criminal accusation launched by an officer against a witness-less individual who can easily be deemed an “assailant” and find himself steeped in a stinking cesspool of a so-called justice system. The two-to-one ratio is a clincher for a blood-sucking government whose main objective is to bleed the strong white and destroy the middle-class.

Pettifor was smart. He took a witness to a meeting to level the playing field, otherwise he could have been devoured. The mandate under the Fisheries Act may be to protect fish and fish habitat, but brutish DFO employees are brainwashed to believe their duties are to be carried out without compromise.

The upshot of the meeting was that fisheries never bothered the Pettifors again. He was never required to submit any invoices to comply with DFO’s mythical black-market investigation.

From then on, whenever fish cops came into the Wharf on Fourth, they were presumably customers. They wore civilian clothes and left their guns behind.

(‘Don’t Bring Those Guns into My Fish Shop' is an excerpt from Justice Served Up Yukonslavia Style: The Shameful Conspiracy Behind the Allen Carlos Trilogy, available for $10 (plus tax and mailing) on CD in PDF version from Mac’s Fireweed Books, Whitehorse, Yukon, toll-free order desk 1-800-661-0508.)

May 1, 2012

2 thoughts on “The Day Fisheries and Oceans Lost Its Fish by Jane Gaffin

  1. Definitely one of your best entries, Chris.

    We should be letting the Harper Conservative government know we support them on this policy. The Liberal war on rural Canada has to be soundly defeated.

    I agree, the wearing of a sidearm in urban areas is sole for the purposes of intimidation and unjustifiable. In the bush a 9mm pistol is only going to make a bear angry.

    1. Thanks Larry, but all the credit for this article goes to its author, Jane Gaffin. All I did was hit the “publish” button. :)

      I’m working on an article about current cases of abuse of the Fisheries Act in the Fraser Valley where DFO is telling farmers they can’t clean the drainage ditches they created to stop their fields from flooding because some little critter moved into the man-made water channels. The DFO is, as always, operating under Bureaucrat’s Rule #1: the Rules are More Important than People.

      We definitely need to be letting Harper and company know we support their efforts to strip DFO of the power it so loves to abuse.

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