The much-anticipated report on the dramatic decline of sockeye salmon in B.C.’s Fraser River has finally been released, with one of its 75 recommendations being that the federal government should no longer be responsible for promoting the salmon farming industry.
In his report, “The Uncertain Future of Fraser River Sockeye,” B.C. Supreme Court Justice Bruce Cohen said no single event or stressor can explain the decades-long decline in productivity of Fraser River sockeye.
Cohen also concluded salmon farms along the sockeye migration route in the Discovery Islands have the potential to introduce and spread ‘endemic diseases.’
“Some, I suspect, hoped that our work would find the ‘smoking gun’—a single cause that explained the two-decade decline in productivity—but finding that a single event or stressor is responsible is improbable,” Cohen said upon releasing the report in Vancouver Wednesday.
Cohen noted that the decline is likely due to a culmination of factors such as disease, predation, climate change, contaminants in the Fraser River, and development in the region, but stressed more research is needed.
However, the report called for major changes in salmon management.
Among his recommendations, Cohen emphasized adjusting the mandate of the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to address a potential conflict of interest between promoting salmon farms and regulating them.
“As long as DFO has a mandate to promote salmon farming, there is a risk that it will act in a manner that favours the interests of the salmon farming industry over the health of wild fish stocks” he said.
He added that the DFO should fund and implement the 2005 Wild Salmon Policy and 1986 Habitat Policy.
Cohen also concluded salmon farms along the sockeye migration route in the Discovery Islands have the potential to introduce and spread “endemic diseases,” and recommended a freeze on net pen salmon-farm production in the region, at least until 2020.
The route is key for the sockeye as they migrate to and from the Fraser River.
The commissioner urged the government to implement his recommendations immediately, despite “shrinking resources,” alluding to the recent amendments by the federal government to environmental assessment processes and the Fisheries Act.
“I find the thrust of some of these amendments to be troubling,” said Cohen.
“Many experts have emphasized the importance of protecting fish habitat, promoting biodiversity, and adopting ecosystem-based management practices. However, the recent amendments to the Fisheries Act appear to be taking DFO in a very different direction.”
B.C. sockeye numbers began to decline in the early 1990s but a dramatic shortage in 2009—just 1.4 million sockeye turned up instead of an expected 10 million—prompted the inquiry, which lasted 18 months and cost $26 million.
Cohen heard testimony from 179 witnesses and assessed 573,381 documents. The inquiry examined a wide variety of issues such as conservation, management of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, aboriginal fishing rights, disease, habitat management, and commercial fishing.
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