A Canadian fish biologist may have discovered why the Fraser River’s sockeye salmon are in decline.
But she is not allowed to talk about it.
Kristina Miller works for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. In January, Science, one of the world’s top research journals, published her report that begins to draw a line between warmer temperatures, higher death rates and a virus, similar to leukemia, that is contracted by the salmon before they enter the river.
The people at Science promoted the report before it was even printed and directed journalists to contact media officers in the department.
Ottawa told the publication Miller would be available to discuss her findings, said seasoned science reporter Margaret Munro.
But five days after media requests were put in, the department told journalists Miller wouldn’t be available to talk after all.
The fish biologist has been asked to testify at the costly Cohen Commission, which the federal government established to look into the decline of the sockeye. If she spoke to the media now, before her hearing in August, she could jeopardize the commission’s work, Munro was told.
With nearly 30 years of science reporting under her belt, Munro has become increasingly fed up.
So she put in an Access to Information Act request.
She found that the Privy Council Office, which works for the Prime Minister’s Office, muzzled the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, saying the study was no good because it focused on salmon dying.
When Munro first started reporting on science, scientists were free, she said, remembering going out into the field with them, discussing their projects and findings.
Over the last couple years, she’s been redirected through Ottawa.
“The people who used to help reporters and help scientists get their stories out, they’re frustrated,” said Munro. “It used to be open and now it’s a very closed sort of controlled system. They muzzle them.”
One of the most notable gag orders occurred last year when a study, co-authored by scientist Scott Dallimore, was published in Nature. It was about a giant flood in Northern Canada 13,000 years ago when the last ice age started to break up.
Munro had worked with Dallimore quite a bit over the years, so she called him up, she said.
He told her he was told he couldn’t say anything about it until she talked to Ottawa.
“They changed the rules,” she said. “The rules apply to us but we don’t get any input in any of this?”
Munro put in an Access to Information Act request with Dallimore’s study as well.
But most journalists can’t spend that time and money. Instead, they just move on.
“I don’t think that the public really knows that federal scientists have been told that they can’t talk to the media,” said local climate change scientist turned politician John Streicker. “So we don’t know what we’re missing.”
The crackdown on scientists’ freedom to share their work goes as far back as 2008, when Canada’s science advisor, Arthur Carty, was “pushed into retirement … within months of Harper taking office,” said Streicker, who is the chair of the federal Green Party.
But this trend runs deeper than just the Harper government’s political agenda, he said, noting how highly politicized climate change has become.
If scientists can’t speak freely and engage the public, democracy itself is challenged, said Streicker.
“We’re the taxpayers that pay for that science,” he said. “We should have access to the information of the findings. And I don’t picture that the media people are the professionals that understand that science. I’d rather hear it from the scientists.
“I don’t understand why science needs to be a state secret.”
As for Miller’s fish findings, the Yukon branch of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ biologists were told they could not speak about the report.
When asked, they couldn’t even say whether Miller’s findings will affect the Yukon River salmon – which come from the same ocean as the Fraser River’s sockeye.
Scientists in Alaska have more freedom. The principle pathologist with the State of Alaska had no issues talking to the media about Miller’s report.
“There’s still a lot more to figure out,” said Ted Meyers.
“It’s all very interesting, but it’s all indirect evidence,” he said. “There’s no real smoking gun here. You need a lot more study before any conclusions could be drawn.”
On Thursday, The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada – the union which represents federal scientists – issued a press release condemning the Privy Council’s “muzzling” of Canada’s top federal scientists.
The Privy Council did not respond to requests for comment before press time, but its communications officer laughed into the phone when asked to explain why Miller was censored.
Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at