Hearings for the inquiry looking into the collapse of the Fraser River Sockeye salmon fishery in 2009 got underway this week in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Vancouver, B.C. - Last year the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) predicted 2009 would be a stellar year for Sockeye salmon, saying it expected 10 million sockeye to return. Barely one million returned, prompting calls for an inquiry into the collapse of the important fishery. After the DFO refused to take action over the collapse, the Harper government announced the Cohen Commission to investigate the collapse. A first report is expected sometime in August. Headed by Bruce Cohen, the inquiry is hearing from environmental groups, Aboriginals, fishermen and members of the public.
Salmon farmers have also applied for a chance to present to the inquiry. Head of the BC Salmon Farmers' Association (BCSFA), Mary Ellen Walling told press "Perhaps more than any other industry, the salmon farmers understand the importance of a healthy, productive ocean. Wild salmon stocks are of critical importance to both BC’s environment and way of life. It’s important that this commission look at all the issues that are affecting the wild populations.”
The inquiry began hearing testimony from people with standing on March 23, and depositions may continue until March 26th. The hearings are open to the public, and members of the public may make submissions this month.
It is anticipated that a large part of the testimony presented during the inquiry will involve the issue of farmed salmon. Many people have linked the onset of salmon farming, which occured around 20 years ago in BC, to the apparently concurrent decline of wild salmon. Salmon farmers attribute the decline of pacific salmon to climate change, freshwater habitat destruction and overfishing.
Earlier this month, the DFO issued an outlook for British Columbia's 2010 salmon runs, including Sockeye salmon, and the forecast is not good. The DFO has predicted most of BC's salmon are in trouble, with only 29 stock groups out of 88 being okay. It is not known if that forecast took into account this winter's low precipitation levels, which are expected to have a very strong negative impact on this year's salmon run.
Some people allege last year's Sockeye collapse has created hunger for some First Nation communities who rely on the fish for food and income. Many BC First Nation communities have their access to salmon fisheries protected by treaty rights, where treaties have been successfully negotiated, but the collapse of the Sockeye fishery meant restrictions on catch were imposed.
Treaty negotiations between BC First Nations and the federal government that involve salmon have been put on hold pending the conclusion of the Cohen Commission.
During the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, several First Nation Chiefs fasted to draw attention to the impact of Norwegian salmon farms on wild salmon.
Some First Nations people believe the Cohen Commission is a waste of time, pointing to four previous inquiries into dwindling salmon stocks in British Columbia over the past 20 year. Some say an existing Pacific salmon conservation policy, drafted by the DFO in 2005, would protect salmon stocks -- if only the federal government would fund allow the DFO to act on the policy.
Others, however, are critical of the DFO, saying the government agency is not upholding already existing laws. One activist who has lobbied long and hard for a fair application of the legislation has been biologist Alexandra Morton. Dr. Morton called for the resignation of DFO's Minister Gail Shea last year in an open letter. Morton concluded her letter saying "Minster Shea, you have failed us in your response to the collapse of earth's largest sockeye salmon run and this is not all right with British Columbia." The biologist has been a staunch advocate on behalf of wild Pacific salmon for years, and has been one of several scientists who have linked sea lice from farmed salmon to the decline of wild salmon stocks. Morton has alleged that the DFO does not enforce the Fisheries Act when salmon farmers violate the Act.
The province gathers information on the prevalence of sea lice and fish diseases from the aquaculture industry, but it has refused to release that information. Earlier this month, the Office of the Information & Privacy Commissioner of BC ruled that the government of BC has no reason to withhold data collected from salmon farms about the prevalence of sea lice.
Morton has planned a 500 km walk she calls the Get Out Migration, to ask for federal and provincial protection of wild salmon.
Dr. Morton will be awarded an honorary Doctoral Degree in Science from Simon Fraser University this year.