When the Canadian parliament proclaimed the 1997 Oceans Act, one of its most promising features was the direct mandate for the adoption of integrated management. This approach, which recognizes the multifaceted and often competing demands on ecosystems, serves not only to protect and preserve the natural resources in question but also acknowledges that similar consideration must be given towards the individuals and communities whose social, economic and cultural livelihoods are dependent on ocean ecosystems. The Eastern Scotia Shelf Integrated Management initiative or ESSIM* is one of five Canadian offshore large oceans management areas (LOMAs) designated by DFO for establishing ecosystem based integrated management.
Much attention has been given to the methodology used (i.e. workshops, stakeholder consultation and literature reviews) by the ESSIM Planning Group to identify 270 indicators of human use factors. Both methodology and indicators can be found in the March 2008 ESSIM Social, Economic and Cultural Overview and Assessment (SECOA) Report. However, the steps taken to identify and select indicator data sources are cause for concern. Before ESSIM’s SECOA is put forward as a template for further LOMA integrated management initiatives I would like to highlight four specific points for consideration.
Advances in communication and information technology (CIT) over the last 30 years leaves no debate about our abilities to access information in Western nations. CIT includes the almost limitless access of satellite radio, television, cellular phones and PDAs, and extends to online Internet search engines and databases providing instantaneous data at our fingertips. The ESSIM SECOA suggests that half of the 75% of indicator information needed is readily available, the majority in government sourced online format. My first concern is that data quantity does not equal quality. Although it may be accessible it is important to acknowledge that information collected on the subjects in question can only be provided by government sources. In a democratic state only those elected to govern have the right to ask, gather and compile much of the information that is needed for public debate. Due to limited resources and decreasing budgets, information collection is done selectively and on issues that are of political concern but not necessarily of concern to citizens. We cannot say information is neutral when the very questions that get asked have an agenda.
In recent years federal and provincial legislation has provided increased access to information but keep in mind that increases in data accessibility requires increased information management. The more information is managed the more it is manipulated through bureaucratic processes; as a result, information may be disjointed, incomplete, aggregated to protect privacy, collected in incompatible measurements, or simply unavailable. Many of these data compilation tactics are said to be done to protect the rights of the individual and avoid public misconception. However, having only half of the story leads to misunderstanding and uninformed decision-making.
This brings me to my third point, the inherent misleading nature of databases. Databases are fixed; they are not flexible or open to interpretation. Each data record in a database is made up of numerous fields. Each field represents a piece of information, whether a name, a street address or an income. Because computer technology operates on a binary level (i.e. 0 or 1; yes or no; on or off) fields can only hold specified bits of information. Since visibly, I have none of the four options of hair colour options on my driver’s license form, a field that must be completed, whatever I select is an inaccurate reflection of who I am. How does this limitation of CIT compound as we build larger and larger databases that we are to use for national level decision-making?
Finally, my greatest concern is our tendency to neglect information and knowledge sources beyond those provided by CIT. Although the ESSIM initiative identifies a gap in community information they have not selected local knowledge or traditional knowledge to be used either in place of, or in tandem with government online resources. How can we understand the “human use element” if we are not talking to the humans? As much as we want to duplicate the methodologies used for the measuring of ecological indicators, whether for simple ease use or for “justifying” social sciences practices, it cannot be done. Indicator data will only be relevant if local and traditional knowledge is gathered and used in decision-making.
When using any resource, living or non-living, we must take into consideration the attributes of the resource in questions if we are to ensure its sustainability and understand the implications of its use. We must consider information or data as we would any other resource. The ESSIM initiative provides the opportunity to set the framework for how social, economic and cultural indicators will be measured, compiled and considered for integrated Canadian oceans management. We cannot start with misinformation.
* For more ESSIM information www.mar.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/oceans/e/essim/essim-intro-e.html