A successful meeting with federal Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, Geoff Regan,
in which he promises to pry open the door at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography...
(and the promise was kept)

May 10, 2004


Canadian Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, Geoff Regan, and Debbie MacKenzie, April 30, 2004

The Honorable Geoff Regan, M.P.                
Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, Canada
200 Kent Street
Ottawa, ON K1A 0E6

Dear Mr. Regan,

I enjoyed meeting with you in Halifax on April 30th. Thank you for your time. I hope you were able to appreciate the seriousness of my concerns. My intention is to offer you ocean science advice from the perspective of an impartial independent reviewer.

I explained to you the details of some specific concerns that I have with recent scientific assessments made by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). Errors made in assessing the smaller details of something like ocean science, can unfortunately lead to disastrous results, and this seems to be an important theme underlying our failure to clearly understand problems with marine life today. I suggested some changes that might usefully be made to DFO’s programs that aim to monitor and safeguard ocean health, and I tried to show you where important gaps lie: in basic plankton ecology, and in the ability of DFO scientists to objectively question the assumptions underlying fisheries science, when the evidence at hand warrants this.

Major points that I hoped to convey at our meeting were these:

I am greatly concerned by the recent dramatic decline in zooplankton abundance in Atlantic Canadian waters, and puzzled by the lack of focused scientific attention to this problem. The plankton shift that has occurred on the Eastern Scotian shelf between the 1960’s and the 1990’s (phytoplankton rising three-fold and large copepods (zooplankton) falling by half) represents a major departure from the conventional expectations of marine scientists. (Table below copied from DFO: ESR 2003/004) Copepod success (“secondary production”) has been long expected to follow phytoplankton success (“primary production”), but the two appear lately to have become unhinged. For the record, this is not a “pollution” or “global warming” story. However, as I told you, no explanation for this unanticipated plankton shift has been offered by DFO beyond the speculation that zooplankton are being consumed in greater numbers today by vastly increased numbers of small pelagic fish (herring, etc.).

However, the accuracy of DFO’s recent estimate of a “500-fold” increase in small pelagic fish abundance on the Eastern Scotian Shelf seems to be thrown into serious doubt by other recent changes in this region. This includes a rising inshore concentration of the natural predators of small pelagic fish (whales, seals, seabirds) while inshore fishermen are finding far fewer herring in their traditional fishing spots. In some places, where spawning herring appeared reliably for generations, they now seem to have vanished altogether. Also, small pelagic fish (capelin) on the offshore Newfoundland shelf have unexpectedly abandoned the upper water column and now exist only in small numbers concentrated in a “carpet-like layer” at the bottom, according to DFO. This bizarre shift coincided with a huge loss of groundfish in Newfoundland. Many other elements of the stories of failing fish stocks in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia are similar…so, one wonders, is a physical downshift of small pelagic stocks another common feature? Might a similar fish behaviour change have occurred in Nova Scotian waters? In the face of these various lines of evidence, which seem possibly to contradict DFO’s finding of a massive increase in pelagic fish biomass on the Eastern Scotian shelf (which was based only on extrapolations made from a bottom trawl survey), I cannot understand why DFO did not seek direct evidence of the current abundance of herring to confirm their calculated estimate.

As an elected official, the Minister responsible for DFO Science, however, it does seem ridiculous to suggest that you personally might need to intervene at a level like this – that you might need to direct DFO scientists to seek confirmation of the current small pelagic fish biomass on the offshore Eastern Scotian Shelf by conducting a systematic sonar survey (as was done in Newfoundland). Perhaps you need an impartial ocean science watchdog to draw attention to inconsistencies like this…?

I showed you evidence of a long-term decline in barnacle growth on the rocky coast of Nova Scotia. This change seems to verify a sustained lowering of plankton production, and this has occurred in near-shore waters, that are plainly NOT herring-dominated at present (or dominated by any other fish, for that matter). So, where has the plankton gone? The loss of barnacles suggests a lowering of their zooplankton-food, and small shoreline animal life in general has declined along with them, strengthening the case. Worse, evidence found widely in the seaweed today, as in the example of extremely bleached Irish moss that I showed to you, points toward a slowing of marine plant growth rates, which suggests a generalized lowering of seawater fertility. This signal in the larger marine plants suggests that the rising standing stock of tiny marine plants (phytoplankton) offers only an illusion of rising fertility…when, in fact, fertility may be falling instead, as is suggested by the seaweeds (and by developments such as the broad disappearance of marine animal life, large and small, the recent shift towards crustaceans, and the failed rebuilding of the groundfish stocks).

DFO’s ecosystem assessment skills seem to be inadequate, as revealed in the recent “ecosystem status report” for the Eastern Scotian Shelf, which I discussed with you. DFO has failed to highlight the falling zooplankton abundance as a critical issue to be investigated, although zooplankton is a gateway to virtually all fish food. DFO seems to have considered only one hypothesis for the large copepod (and krill) decline: that greater numbers of zooplankton are being consumed by small pelagic fish. However, as mentioned, DFO has failed to convincingly demonstrate the presence of unusually large numbers of small pelagic fish on the Eastern Scotian shelf. With the explanation for the zooplankton decline riding on an unusually high abundance of small pelagic fish, to an outsider it seems rather slip-shod not to have used other available methods to double-check their conclusion. The possibility must be considered that the zooplankton decline reflects a lowering of zooplankton production rather than an increase in zooplankton consumption. Both hypotheses should reasonably be considered, and it is important to note that the ramifications are very different between the two possibilities.

If over-consumption by herring has actually induced the drop in zooplankton counts, then there seems to be some credibility to the idea that a resurgence of herring-eating codfish might restore the old balance. This line of reasoning, frequently taken today, often reaches the conclusion that reducing seal numbers is a necessary intervention to allow cod to rebuild, since human cod fishing has been restrained for the past decade. If only it were so simple. As I have pointed out repeatedly, this whole hypothetical scenario is badly confounded by the starved appearance of adult cod

On the other hand, if the small pelagic fish have not “overeaten” the zooplankton, but the rate of zooplankton production has slowed instead, then this development has very serious implications for marine science. If the production of zooplankton has declined without them grazing down what is believed to be their major food supply (phytoplankton) to at least the usual level, then the basic model of marine production that has long been accepted in fisheries science is thrown into question.

Here is the bottom line of what I think is wrong with the existing model:

The fertility of the ocean depends upon the amount of plant fertilizer that is physically deposited in the upper, sunlit layer of seawater. Physical forces, such as wind, currents, and seasonal temperature gradients, can cause mixing of the water column that raises sunken fertilizer to the surface, where it stimulates plant growth. This dynamic is well known; it is called “physical forcing” of new marine production, and this is the basis of the accepted model used in fisheries science.

What is missing from the standard model, however, is the fact that living marine animals also actively lift plant fertilizers up towards the sun, and that they thereby also contribute to stimulating plant growth at the surface, and energizing the ocean ecosystem as a whole. Living systems make clever use of stored energy and materials to increase the speed of inflow of additional energy. Therefore, a sea containing a large assemblage of living marine animals will be more fertile than one lacking these, even if “physical forces” are identical. This ecological pattern has not been captured by the accepted marine production model. This “biological forcing of new marine production” is a dynamic that can be seen in everything from the billions of excess eggs of scallops, groundfish, etc. that normally float towards the sea surface, to animals large and small that actively swim up and down through the water column, transporting important materials and releasing them in patterns that enhance plant fertility. Everything from the sperm whale, that dives thousands of feet to consume deep dwelling squid, and then rises to excrete a great plume of bodily wastes at the surface…to the tiny copepods that migrate daily hundreds of meters up and down, discharging their buoyant liquid wastes…where…perhaps at the surface too?  Animal wastes = plant fertilizers…and animals drive nutrient cycling more quickly than do bacteria. This is an important point.

It does not appear as an earth-shaking revelation to an outside observer that this dynamic, the “biological forcing” of plant fertilizers toward the ocean surface that is routinely accomplished by live marine animals in general, should be included in comprehensive scientific models of factors that regulate ocean productivity. But, strangely, this has not been done. Why not? If this fertilizing pathway was overlooked by the early ocean modellers (as it seems to have been) then why not integrate biological forcing into the marine production models now?

The reason why not (and the reason, I suspect, that I have been unable to engage DFO scientists in discussion of these points) is because it will force fisheries scientists to “go back to the drawing board” and to rethink many things that they have routinely assumed. Also, if the biological forcing dynamic is acknowledged to be an important marine production pathway, then there is reason to suspect that ocean fertility could potentially be (or, has already been) diminished by fishing. This is disastrous from a “sustainable fisheries management” point of view, but worse, it has the potential to alter the scientific models used in global carbon cycling, which assume that ocean fertility has remained stable since pre-industrial times. Ocean fertility is a crucial factor in determining the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed from the atmosphere by the ocean. Therefore, this one has the potential to be a very “hot” topic…

Mr. Regan, I was very pleased with your response, because, as your eyes were starting to glaze over from trying to take in the many biological details I was giving you (just kidding)…you offered me exactly what I was going to ask for: You asked if I would like to be invited to the Bedford Institute of Oceanography to present a seminar on my theory. Yes, indeed! That is what needs to happen now, and I will be very pleased if this can be arranged through your office. Please send the appropriate directive to BIO without delay.

A sound understanding of plankton ecology is critical to making sense of ocean science, but this is a weak area in DFO. A renewed emphasis on basic ecological studies is needed in the Science branch. Today, “ecology” studies done by DFO seem to be mainly inspired by concerns about the effects of contaminants, climate change, or aquaculture. This is fine, but it never gets around to re-evaluating the basics. The recent phytoplankton-zooplankton divergence on the Scotian shelf has not been clearly identified as a problem. Shoreline monitoring seems to have been completely neglected, and, as I indicated to you, important information appears to have been missed on this account. I would like to see a change such as a re-opening the “Marine Ecology Laboratory” that was once part of BIO (and I recommend consulting with Dr. Kenneth Mann, emeritus scientist at BIO, about this). Some very basic knowledge gaps need to be filled, and filled rather urgently.

Doubtless you are aware that DFO Science is now involved in various oceanographic research initiatives, including major international collaborative ventures (…AZMP, CDEENA, MEQ, GLOBEC, JGOFS, etc.). You might assume, on this basis, that DFO already has “all the bases covered” for assessing ocean productivity. But they do not, nor do scientists in other countries, and an important reason why not is that all of their existing programs have been designed, and interpretations are made, based on the “physical forcing” model of marine production alone (hence, I suppose, the extensive efforts to monitor physical oceanographic variables. This is not wrong; it is just incomplete.)

I strongly urge you to find some new money for biological oceanographic research, specifically for new zooplankton and ecosystem studies. A year ago, then Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, Robert Thibault, announced $6 million in new funding for “new seal research.” A few days ago, we heard your announcement of $8 million to improve infrastructure in various “fishing harbours” in Atlantic Canada. However, if zooplankton productivity bottoms out, we will ultimately have neither fishing nor seals.

You might have difficulty convincing the powers that be that more money should be spent on oceanography in Canada. But please ask them to consider this:

Instability in marine environments is a rapidly rising global concern, and people are only beginning to grasp its significance. Many broad negative trends relate to ocean plankton instability, and these do not result entirely from “pollution” and “global warming.” “Dead zones” and “toxic algae blooms,” for instance, can both be aggravated by a co-occurring loss of zooplankton. (Might these two rising problems also be aggravated by fishing? This awkward question needs to be asked.)

Canada has a responsibility to share what it knows with the global community. If we realize that the old model of marine production is seriously flawed, that things simply do not add up as they are “supposed” to, then we had better openly admit it. Atlantic Canada has a unique potential for advancing global understanding of marine ecology for several reasons. Relatively advanced and affluent, we possess longer oceanographic data sets than most other parts of the world. Zooplankton and phytoplankton counts spanning many decades, for instance, have only ever been generated in the North Atlantic Ocean. Without this, we might not yet have been led to suspect that the standard model has failed. The waters of Atlantic Canada represent a relatively well-studied ocean laboratory that has not been affected by substantial impacts from pollution or global warming. The biggest human impact on marine life here has been fishing. Ours is therefore the part of the world ocean where the ecological effects of fishing alone are most likely to come into clear focus.

DFO Science should not “sit on” the information they have about the dramatic unexplained plankton shift in our now fish-poor coastal zone, hoping perhaps that a seal cull will induce a reversal of the trend (ridiculous), and persistently trying to carry on business as usual. Canada is now judged harshly in international circles for the “mismanagement” of our cod fisheries. The mismanagement of globally significant information on ocean plankton ecology will be a much more serious charge. BIO needs to promptly double-check their small pelagic fish assessment on the Eastern Scotian Shelf. If it cannot be demonstrated that these fish now really do exist in unusually high numbers, then scientific attention needs to be turned immediately to other hypotheses that explain the low zooplankton counts. One hypothesis that deserves consideration is that zooplankton production has slowed in association with declining ocean fertility. It seems evident from recent changes that our knowledge of basic zooplankton physiology deserves a thorough review - and some new thinking.

If the ‘unhinged’ plankton picture that has emerged in Atlantic Canada typifies a wider trend that also affects other parts of the global ocean, then it becomes extremely important to understand what has happened. This is new information that may reveal something very significant about the nature of the net impact that humans have had on the ocean. Has a similar divergence between phytoplankton and zooplankton counts occurred in the tropics, for instance? This question cannot be answered, because the necessary long-term data simply do not exist. However, coral reefs ecosystems are rapidly degrading, coral health problems are unexpectedly snowballing, and scientists are struggling to understand why.

Our “zooplankton hole” might represent something akin to the “ozone hole” – a change not easily detectable everywhere, but nevertheless an indicator of a significant environmental shift on a global scale. Also, the “zooplankton hole” might have the potential to widen dangerously.

At our meeting, we also discussed the lack of a formal mechanism to provide your office with advice on “oceans” in a manner that is independent of fisheries. While the Fisheries Resource Conservation Council (FRCC) is heard from regularly, it seems that the Minister’s Advisory Council on Oceans (MACO) remains silent. Thank you for your offer to check on the current status of MACO and to have their reports, if you find them, copied to me. Also, please take into serious consideration my advice that you not authorize an accelerated grey seal cull in Nova Scotia, at the very least not until after a new seal population estimate has been completed.

The material that I would like to present in a seminar at BIO will include (1) lines of evidence that suggest a long-term decline in primary marine productivity, and (2) routes by which biological forcing enhances and moderates new marine primary production. Please have your office notify BIO of this without delay. Thank you.

I appreciate your interest in these matters.


Debbie MacKenzie

p.s. In a letter two months ago, I tried to alert you to the declining physical condition of Nova Scotian lobster catches. Did you catch the news last week about the upcoming implementation of lobster diet studies by DFO, which will be undertaken at the request of the industry? Lobsters are increasingly malnourished...or at least that is the belief of many working in the lobster industry. DFO may see this eventually. Spring lobster catches are unusually slow this year, and the anxiety level is rising in Nova Scotian lobster fishermen of my aquaintance. A more realistic marine production model would be invaluable if it eliminated some of the overwhelming "uncertainty" that now dominates DFO's forecasts...


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