A Fish Cop's Zero Tolerance with Bad Press

The "Real Life" article written by Scott Haskins appearing in the July 17 issue of the Edmonton Sun seems to have garnered a good deal of attention and polarized opinion in condemnation and in support of a particular conservation officer's response to a fisheries violation. If Haskins' intent was to create controversy, he succeeded. Unfortunately, as is usually the case with this type of journalism, it was accomplished at the expense of responsible reporting. Since he is fortunate enough to have a newspaper to provide the vehicle for his opinions, I feel it only fair that I use my association's magazine to provide the vehicle for our position on this issue. For the record, the opinions appearing below are those of the writer and not necessarily those of any government department.

For the benefit of those fortunate enough to have missed the original article appearing in the Edmonton Sun, entitled "Fish cops' zero tolerance rates a big zero", I will attempt to cover the main points as laid out by Haskins. His version of the facts, apparently obtained exclusively from the accused and liberally spiced with personal bias, would have you believe Conservation Officer Dave Crooks of High Prairie threw discretion to the winds when issuing a violation ticket to an angler following the Canada Day long weekend. To be fair, some of what appears in the article does follow the chain of events as they occurred. The story begins with Mel and Al Robson of Hinton becoming involved in a compliance check stop set up by fisheries officers intercepting anglers on a road leading from Hilliard's Bay Provincial Park on Lesser Slave Lake. According to the Robsons, they are "typical parents" because they had chosen the weekend to spend some quality time fishing with their teenage children. This may be news to Haskins, but I do know of a number of "typical" parents, including myself, who have taken their teenage children fishing and while we were at it, we used the opportunity to teach them the rules of the game. But I digress.

When asked by Officer Crooks if they had been successful, the Robsons were honest in their response stating that they had caught a number of fish and had kept two. One was a northern pike, the second a walleye, which by the way was erroneously refered to as a "pickerel" in the article. Unfortunately neither of the fish was being transported in the condition required by law. That is to say they were filleted and could not be properly identified or measured, fundamental criteria required for fisheries management particularly when angling is permitted only conditionally, upon size and species. For failing to comply with the requirement, Al Robson, one of the responsible adults of the party, was issued a $172 violation ticket and the fish were confiscated. This was the same fate met by each and every angler leaving the lake with fish in that condition that day, 13 in all. The Sun article goes on to quote Robson and how he felt the treatment unnecessarily harsh for an honest mistake, how he felt victimized when a simple warning would have sufficed and how the officer apparently had nothing better to do. These feelings are normal for most persons who find themselves being held accountable for violations of the law and we as enforcement officers deal with them on a daily basis. Unfortunately it does not end here. In a final paragraph, which I will give Haskins the benefit of having recording accurately, the following appeared: "The hero did a great job", says Robson. "He took the dreaded headless pickerel off the street and he taught two teenagers that honesty is not always the best policy. He may even have stopped a potential career poacher, a thirteen year-old girl who wanted to take a fish home to grandpa."

I'm confident that the reference to Officer Crooks as a "hero" was not intended as a compliment, however that title may be more fitting than was intended. Those not involved in law enforcement may not appreciate the dedication and focus necessary for persons in uniform and in the position of authority to be the identifiable body representing the will of government. On occasion this requires that an individual personally absorb the abuse directed toward authority in general. It takes a special kind of person to accept this without taking it personally and retaliating in kind. Society allows those appointed to look after its best interests to use force against physical assault. However when it comes to verbal abuse it ties the hands of its representatives. It's the arrangement that has proven to be most acceptable in a non-police state. In speaking with Officer Crooks, I am lead to believe a good deal of abuse was absorbed that day, and despite this he persevered and did what he believed was expected of him. He was there to do the job because, as Trina Kennedy, a South Peace News Reporter who covered the story in support of Officer Crooks so aptly put it, "We asked him to."

Experience has led me to believe that in reaction to the anger and in some cases, the embarrassment wildlife legislation either first hand or by investigation that officer was just "lucky" and should be out catching the "real" criminals anyway. If the officer didn't discover previous or additional violations he or she is "ignorant." Either way the officer is a "loser." For the benefit of those like Robson and Scott Haskins, who may not be as familiar with the actual situations affecting resource management in this province, I would like to take this opportunity to provided some real "Real Life" facts.

First of all, Alberta is blessed with abundance in a number of natural resources. Fresh water lakes however are not at the top of the list. We do have people in abundance and more are coming every day. In fact at last count there are more people living in and around the city of Calgary than reside in the entire province of Saskatchewan. In addition to this, Alberta residents are for the most part reasonably affluent and mobile. In other words, as in the case of Mr. Robson, they can travel all over the province to take advantage of our recreational fishery. The fact is, in comparison to other provinces, Alberta's fisheries resources are taxed to the limit. This province places 200 times more pressure on our limited resource than Saskatchewan anglers put on their's.

To sustain a fishery for recreational and commercial users and to ensure residents like Robson and his family are provided future opportunity, it is necessary that the government body responsible (Sustainable Resource Development) intensively manage that resource. Every fish does count, especially those that have survived to reach a reproductive age. As the apparent infinite human population growth continues in this province, and more and more individuals compete for access to our all too finite fisheries resources, we can expect to see ever more restrictive access to that resource.

Lesser Slave Lake, for example, is just now recovering from the most recent depletion of fish stock due primarily to over-fishing. The lake's recovery is due to a strong enforcement presence. Unfortunately there are times where it is necessary to prosecute individuals to get across the message of the seriousness of our situation. Alberta Conservation Officers take their responsibility to current and future anglers very seriously and depend on accurate and responsible distribution of information necessary to enable all Albertans to make appropriate choices and to help manage the resource. Articles like the one appearing in The Edmonton Sun do nothing to help meet that standard.

Fortunately there are a number of concerned and responsible sportsman, and media personalities like Trina Kennedy, who do appreciate the fine line separating the basic right of people to enjoy the fish that still inhabit our lakes and streams, and the threat of largely empty water bodies. Ultimately a number of factors will determine whether or not we succeed in maintaining viable fish populations in this province. They include pollution, industrial competition for water and wetlands, climate change and angling and commercial fishing pressures. In the end, individual efforts of conservation officers may not have much impact on these greater challenges. However, one promise we can make is that Albertans will continue to find "heroes" like Officer Crooks on the back roads of this province doing what they can to make a difference. Mr. Robson can take that one to the bank.

S.W.H. Webb is a member of the Conservation Officers Association of Alberta in Calgary.