It's not often when any level of government takes steps to respond to the concerns of protesters. But Prime Minister Stephen Harper's move to hold a judicial inquiry into the loss of BC's sockeye salmon has garnered the approval of many Canadians.
In a move that sends a message to government leaders at all levels of government, Prime Minister Stephen Harper called a judicial inquiry into the collapse of B.C.'s sockeye salmon fishery on the Fraser River. With the inquiry announcement coinciding a little too closely with a by-election in New Westminster, a riding bounded by the Fraser River, Harper was criticized for trying to sway the vote to the side of the conservative candidate. But yesterday, Stockwell Day, the federal Minister of Trade announced the judge who will lead the inquiry and the terms of reference, quelling most criticism. The federal government selected Justice Bruce Cohen, who has a demonstrated interest in sustainable development. At a press conference called to make the announcement, Day said “There has been an alarming decline in the return of sockeye to the Fraser River. Many analysts were predicting the return rate would be something of the order of 10 million sockeye, but tests have shown it is less than 1 million, and that is very concerning, not just to the people of British Columbia, but to our Prime Minister. In fact, it has broad implications well beyond our province.”
Conservationists in the province are hoping that the inquiry, expected to get underway in early 2010, will ultimately mean changes in the operations of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) on the west coast. Since the collapse of the sockeye fishery, there have been charges that the DFO protects commercial fish farms, does not enforce salmon fishing rules, and ignores the concerns of those who rely on the wild salmon fisheries for their livelihoods. Others would also add that the DFO fails to protect species at risk as well as wild salmon. During the height of the sockeye run, the Minister of the DFO, Gail Shea, was in Norway, encouraging more Norwegian fish farms to set up business in British Columbia. BC's fish farms are widely seen as contributing to the collapse of the sockeye fishery by spreading sea lice. Preservationists have linked the disappearance of the sockeye to a potential decline in the population of B.C.'s bear population, as well the declining population of Orcas.
The DFO has not made any move to compensate BC fishermen after the collapse of the sockeye run this summer. The economic impact of the collapse has not yet been released, but is anticipated to be a big number, as the collapse affected tourism and sports-fishing, commercial fishers and First Nation fishing.
It is expected that Justice Cohen will submit a preliminary report from the Inquiry to the government in August 2010, with a final report in May 2011. The inquiry will look at why the Sockeye fishery collapsed this year, and it is expected that there will be recommendations made to protect the salmon. Those recommendations might affect DFO operations.
The inquiry has won approval from many Canadians, including east coast fishermen, who say that the swift response might have a positive outcome for the salmon. However, Peter Julian, an NDP member of parliament in for the riding of Burnaby-New Westminster said that the inquiry is not enough, calling for protective actions to be put into place as soon as possible. "Our salmon stocks in British Columbia have been neglected for far too long. We need increased funding; we need DFO to move its management here to British Columbia. We cannot have, I believe, salmon being managed from an office building in Ottawa."
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans had anticipated that this year would be the best run ever for Sockeye salmon, predicting over 10 million to return to spawn. Instead, around one million fish made it back and the fishery was shut down to protect those few fish.
Vancouver-born Supreme Court of British Columbia judge, Justice Cohen has co-chaired a conference on Sustainable Development and the Law. He also sits on the board of the Canadian Institute for the Administration of Justice, where he once sat as President.