DFO Libraries

Joyce Nelson

shelves of books

What was lost, and what was saved? Those are questions that remain now that seven Department of Fisheries & Oceans (DFO) libraries across the country have been closed, with their holdings “culled” and “consolidated” into two primary library sites on the west and east coasts – the Institute of Ocean Sciences in Sidney, BC and the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Dartmouth, NS – and two storage facilities in Sydney, NS and Ottawa to hold coast guard documents.

For many observers, any confidence in the process was lost in June 2013 when Radio-Canada images went viral showing thousands of DFO books and reports, from Quebec’s Maurice-Lamontagne Institute, tossed into a dumpster.

So, what was lost and what was saved, especially from “grey literature” – technical reports, ongoing studies, daily logs, diaries, newsletters, manuscripts, conference proceedings, etc?

“I don’t have any specifics that I can give you,” Dr. John Reynolds, biology professor at Simon Fraser University, told me by email. “The people who really know, work for DFO and they have been afraid to go public.” He added: “With the change of government and comments about lifting the muzzle [on federal scientists], perhaps you’ll have better luck.”

But I could find no currently employed DFO scientists willing to “go public” on this issue. Even the librarians’ union (part of Public Service Alliance Canada) did not respond to requests for information and interviews.

Number of items retained from 6 of 7 of the DFO libraries closed in 2012What we do know is that, pre-consolidation, the DFO had 660,000 printed documents (books and grey literature) in its 11 libraries as of autumn 2012. A January 27, 2014 House of Commons Order Paper (Q-110) shows the number of items retained from six of the seven closed libraries (see chart).

Chaotic Process

Jeffrey Irwin, national vice-president of the Union of Environment Workers, told me by email that New Bruswick’s St. Andrews Biological Station (SABS) library, which had recently undergone a $4 million refurbishment, now “sits virtually empty and is used for gatherings and as a boardroom with extreme vaulted ceilings.”

The SABS collection was “just boxed up and shipped off to the Bedford Institute of Oceanography [in Dartmouth] and subsequently placed in storage, as there does not exist the funds required to digitize the information and store it electronically,” he told me.

Dr. Michael Rennie (now a professor at Lakehead University) was a DFO scientist during the closure of Winnipeg’s Eric Marshall Aquatic Research Library – one of the world’s top libraries for freshwater aquatic research. In a phone interview, he called the process “chaotic.” There were “shelves and shelves of books and many boxes of materials and they basically said ‘take what you want.’ ” They hadn’t finished packing “the off-limits stuff,” so people were even taking that, he told me. “Even the stuff they thought they were retaining probably got taken.”

Rennie added, “There wasn’t even a librarian on site managing the process,” because her job had been cut.

News reports mentioned holdings thrown in a dumpster, while a private Manitoba company, North/South Consultants, loaded up a flat-bed truck with print materials.

“I’m not sure if they [DFO] know what they have lost or saved,” Dr. Rennie told me. “Everything was sort of rushed. Now there’s just a big empty space in the building.”

When asked why the process was rushed, Dr. Rennie said, “The timelines were consistent with the need to cut $100 million over three years from DFO. That certainly was not long enough for consolidating a library like the Eric Marshall,” which held at least 200,000 print items in its collection.

That collection was the research library for DFO’s world-renowned Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), saved by funding from Manitoba and Ontario. The ELA is now part of the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD).

Dr. Michael Paterson is one of only eight scientists who still work at the ELA. I asked him if the closure of the Eric Marshall Library has had any affects on ELA research.
Paterson responded by email that because ELA was transferred to the IISD, “we are now a not-for-profit charitable organization. As a result, I no longer have access to DFO’s online literature and can only access what is available to the general public,” adding that “A lot of literature that was produced from the ELA program (especially in the early years) was published in government Technical Reports. Only a fraction of these are available online and this material is effectively lost to the public … DFO has made claims that it is digitizing the entire collection of Technical Reports, but I personally don’t have a lot of confidence that this will happen.”


On February 18, 2014 the Canadian Library Association (CLA) expressed concerns about the DFO’s digitization process. Noting that digitization is “a long-term, labour-intensive process,” the CLA stated that it “has received no assurances” that such a process is in place; “on the contrary, CLA has seen official documentation    indicating there is no long-term digital strategy in place in many departments, including the DFO.”

Dr. Paterson told me, “Before I left DFO, I made every attempt to make copies of all of the ELA grey literature, but I was unable to obtain it all, especially the longer reports, which could constitute several hundred pages. (I simply lacked the time to sit at the copy machine for hours.)” He added, “These reports are important archival material and will become increasingly important as ELA’s corporate memory declines. Only a few of the original ELA scientists are still working at the facility and most are now retired.”
Dr. Paterson said, “I don’t know the fate of all of the [Eric Marshall] collection, but, at best, it is now dispersed across Canada.”

39 Per Cent

I contacted the Institute of Ocean Sciences (IOS) in Sidney, BC, to try to find out what happened to the pulp and paper mill effluent monitoring reports that had been conducted by DFO for decades, many of which had been submitted in written format as recently as 2012.

My email (containing a few preliminary questions and asking to do an interview) was apparently forwarded to Ottawa, where it was answered by Carole Saindon, DFO senior advisor for Media Relations.

Saindon explained that the “unique collections from the Nanaimo, Vancouver and Winnipeg branches” were sent to the IOS, thereby tripling its collection from “33,867 items” to “110,015 items.” Saindon stated that there had been “no culling of the IOS library collection to make way for material from other libraries” because an “additional 3,000 linear feet of space was made available,” but “not in a publicly accessible area of the Institute.”

Saindon did not answer my subsequent question about whether those added “items” included grey literature. Nor was my request to interview someone at the IOS granted.
Professor Tom Duck of Dalhousie University has been assessing the overall damage done to libraries closed in more than 16 federal departments. His October 7, 2015 blog posting stated that for the DFO libraries, “The numbers suggest that about 39 per cent of DFO materials from the closed libraries are lost.”

That figure is higher than the estimate provided by former DFO Minister Gail Shea in a 2014 letter to NDP MPs Robert Chisholm and Kennedy Stewart, where she stated that the “estimated percentage of withdrawn items at this time is 30 per cent, or 200,000 items.” (Duck explains that “withdrawn” is “Harper government newspeak for ‘thrown in the trash.’ ”)

So if 39 per cent of materials from the closed DFO libraries was thrown out, on what basis was the culling made?


In early 2014, Quebec MP Stephane Dion attempted to find out what criteria were used to determine materials retained for digitization. In answer to his Order Paper Question (Q-238), then DFO Minister Shea stated quite clearly: “Documents that are not required to support the mandate of the Department are no longer available in the DFO libraries.”

Her statement implies that the culling of the libraries’ holdings was done on the basis of the DFO mandate – which most scientists agree was changed in June 2012 under omnibus budget Bill C-38. That bill gutted and re-wrote the Fisheries Act (along with many other pieces of environmental legislation).

More than 600 aquatic scientists opposed the changes to the Fisheries Act.

In an article for Marine Pollution Bulletin (June 15, 2014), scientist Peter G. Wells noted: “Internal government documents and the recent letter from the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans [to NDP MPs Chisolm and Stewart] indicate that one-third of the [DFO] collections (200,000 items) have been ‘culled’ or recycled in a ‘green’ fashion (Shea, 2014a), including many duplicates and some materials on subjects considered outside the new departmental mandate, e.g., toxic chemicals, environmental chemistry and toxicology, and aquatic habitat management.”

Those are the scientific areas crucial to pulp mill and oil/gas industry pollution. As Reach for Unbleached’s 2002 Pulp Pollution Primer noted: “In laboratory tests, mill effluent causes reproductive impairment in zooplankton, invertebrates (both these are food for fish) and shellfish, and genetic damage and immune system reactions in fish.”

In his 2015 book, Kill the Messenger, Mark Bourrie wrote: “Once the Harper government had scientists under its control” through muzzling and firing, “it went after their research libraries.” But in the case of the DFO, it seems there was another important step, which has largely gone unnoticed in press coverage about the library closures.

The HADD Section

When we look at the timeline, it becomes clear.

In 2012, the Harper government axed hundreds of DFO scientists’ jobs and discontinued important programs including Habitat Management, and Ocean Contaminants & Marine Toxicology. In that same year – and before closing the DFO libraries in 2013 – the Harper government passed Bill C-38, which gutted the Fisheries Act and amended what’s known as “the HADD section” of the Act that prohibited the “harmful alteration or disruption or the destruction of fish habitat.”

Those HADD regulations govern a wide range of industrial activities. In the 2012 rewrite of the Fisheries Act, the HADD section was changed to prohibit only “serious harm to fish that are part of a commercial, recreational or aboriginal fishery, or to fish that support such a fishery.”

This raises the question of sublethal toxicity.

I asked Dr. Jules Blais, a biology professor in the Program for Chemical & Environmental Toxicology at the University of Ottawa about this. In 2012, Dr. Blais was President of the Society of Canadian Limnologists, representing aquatic scientists across Canada. He was one of the leaders in the scientists’ opposition to Harper’s war on science.

Dr. Blais answered by email: “When ‘serious harm’ is defined as ‘death of fish,’ then only bodies washing up on shore are considered as evidence of harm. Sublethal effects such as reduced growth, development or reproduction, which can have disastrous impacts on fish populations, are no longer considered under the [Fisheries] Act.”

No wonder more than 600 aquatic scientists protested the 2012 changes.

As Dr. Wells wrote in his Marine Pollution Bulletin article, “A new government might one day restore these [DFO] responsibilities” for aquatic toxicology and habitat protection, but because of the culling and consolidation of the libraries, “this information would be gone or be widely distributed, limiting access.”

Environment Canada, which was also affected by Bill C-38, lost six of its libraries in 2010-2011, before the bill was passed.

Top Priorities

Not all scientists agree that the DFO mandate was significantly altered, or that the library culling could have been done on the basis of a changed mandate.

For instance, Dr. Dick Beamish, a retired DFO scientist who still has an office at the Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo (where only the library was closed), disagreed strongly during a phone interview in which I mentioned those points. “I doubt that very much,” he stated, adding, “protecting wild fish is still part of their [DFO] mandate.”

So I asked Dr. Jules Blais the following question: If you change the Fisheries Act, does that, by definition, change the DFO mandate? He answered that Bill C-38 “reduced the core mandate to a very significant extent. They really gutted habitat protection so their mandate has been greatly diminished.”

He added, “They had just dramatically rewritten their mandate” in 2012, “so the question of what they threw away [from the libraries] is a good one.”

Many DFO scientists, librarians, and at least 200,000 library “items” are gone, but one thing can immediately be reinstated.

PM Justin Trudeau’s “Mandate Letter” to former Fisheries Minister Hunter Tootoo listed “top priorities,” including: “Work with the Minister of Transport to review the previous government’s changes to the Fisheries and Navigable Waters Protection Acts, restore lost protections, and incorporate modern safeguards.” Others want the government to go even further.

Otherwise, the Fisheries Act won’t be fully protecting wild fish.


Joyce Nelson is an award-winning freelance writer/researcher and the author of five books.

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