The uncertain future of sockeye

…there was no single cause or “smoking gun” to explain the poor (2009) Fraser River sockeye salmon run

On October 31, 2012, BC Supreme Court Justice Bruce Cohen’s long awaited, 1,191 page, $26 million report, The Uncertain Future of Fraser River Sockeye, was released after almost a year-and-a-half of public hearings, the collection of some 2,000 exhibits, the review of more than 500,000 documents and two time extensions.

While , it did cover a wide range of issues including the negative impacts of warming oceans, climate change and contamination and development along the river, as well as the non-implementation of the Department of Fisheries and Ocean’s wild salmon policy. The report also states that “much remains unknown and more scientific research is needed.”

At a press conference following the release of the report, Justice Cohen said that much more scientific research is needed and called on the government “to start that work now, and not put it off because of budget concerns.”

Of the 75 recommendations (to the federal government) contained within the report, 11 were focused primarily on the province’s salmon-farming industry, addressing issues like government management, the locations of open net-pen farms and the need for more research. The report says that Fraser River sockeye face a “likelihood of harm” from disease and pathogens on farms, especially in the Discovery Islands, located northeast of Campbell River, between Vancouver Island and the province’s mainland.

“Disease can cause significant population declines, and, in some situations – for example, if a disease were to wipe out a vulnerable stock of Fraser River sockeye – such effects could be irreversible,” wrote Cohen. “I therefore conclude that the potential harm posed by salmon farms to Fraser River sockeye salmon is serious or irreversible.”

The report states that “the federal government should prohibit net-pen farms in the Discovery Islands… unless the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans is satisfied those farms pose at most a minimal risk to migrating sockeye.”

Implicit in the report is the implication that the DFO is caught in a conflict of interest.

On one hand it has a duty to protect wild salmon stocks while, on the other hand, is expected to promote farmed salmon. The report recommends that DFO be released from its conflicted mandate and that the protection of wild salmon stocks and the promotion of aquaculture be moved to a different departments.

It also recommends the full funding and immediate implementation of the government’s 2005 Wild Salmon Policy.

Predictably, the BC Salmon Farmers Association put their own spin on the report.

In a statement made by B.C. Salmon Farmers Association board member Stewart Hawthorn, the association said: “We’re very happy with Justice Cohen’s praise of the quality and quantity of our data,” adding that, “he didn’t ask us to stop farming, just to do more research, which we’re happy to do.”

A number of other recommendations deal with the need for increased research and monitoring of fish and habitat.

The Cohen report is a compelling document that deals with one of the most complex environmental problems B.C. (and Ottawa, due to the fact that salmon stocks fall under federal jurisdiction) have ever faced. If the federal government truly wants to save B.C.’s wild sockeye salmon stocks, it is imperative they move quickly to implement the recommendations made by Justice Cohen in his report.


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