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After a third extension, Justice Bruce Cohen is finally due to make his final report by October 29th, 2012, a report that could impact the fate of wild Pacific Sockeye salmon in B.C. 

Two years ago on October 25th, 2010, Justice Cohen stated to a courtroom full of lawyers and participants;

“I remain cautiously optimistic that while principled and reasonable people may disagree on the process or the path to achieving a result, that nevertheless with a collaborative effort, answers can be found and recommendations achieved to address the concerns of everyone involved in the process.”

That first day was followed by over 10 months in the 8th floor courtroom of 801 West Georgia St, going through reports and testimony from expert witnesses, DFO staff, Ministry of the Environment, First Nations and NGO’s. 

Now, two years and 14 000 pages of transcripts later, the question of what might emerge from the $26 million dollar inquiry has yet to be answered. With 21 participants in the inquiry, there will be no shortage of people interested in what Justice Cohen has to say in the final week of October 2012.

While some are cautiously optimistic, others, such as Aquaculture Coalition participant Alexandra Morton, don’t intend to wait around in hope that anything is going to change after Justice Cohen makes his report to an anti- environment Prime Minister who has already gutted the Fisheries Act and endorsed the very industry that is devastating wild salmon stocks globally.

In an article by the Canadian Press two year ago, Sto:lo First Nation fisheries adviser Ernie Crey stated; “What I’m looking for in the end is a final report that tells us the fate of last year’s sockeye salmon run. Why did it collapse so dramatically? Because if we fail to identify the cause or causes, chances are it’ll be repeated in a future year.”

Ernie Crey, Sto:lo First Nation Fishery Adviser

When the 2010 return brought a record run of sockeye it only led to more questions and confusion, with one DFO witness at the Cohen Commission claiming embarrassment not just at their inability to predict the returns 2 years running, but to be off by millions in their predictions.

The extreme numerical difference between the 2009 and 2010 run brings to mind a pendulum that is on the verge of swinging off it’s axis. The natural balance of the wild salmon cycle has been interfered with to such an extent that the very survival of the species is at stake.
Open-net salmon farms in the marine environment breaks every biological law of nature, putting wild salmon at risk. Yet while the Canadian government is willing to invest $26 million into an inquiry into the decline of sockeye salmon, it is not willing to do anything about the very things that are impacting the once abundant salmon runs. 

This year’s 2012 run was so low as to close the commercial and recreational fishery again, leaving only the Aboriginal Fishery for food open. 

Justice Cohen was originally expected to make his final report in January of 2011, but it was postponed first to June of 2012, then to September 30th after evidence showed the presence of infectious salmon anemia virus (ISAv) to be in wild salmon stocks, reopening the commission in December of 2011 for 3 additional days to examine potential impacts of ISAv on wild salmon. 

The additional 3 days only further exposed the extent to which the Canadian government has failed to protect wild salmon, right down to ignoring scientific evidence that the threat of viruses had been introduced into Pacific waters along with the CFIA treating it as a PR war rather than respond with the seriousness warranted. 

When the Harper government tabled Bill C-38 in March, 2012, amid much objection, a letter was sent to participants of the Cohen Commission. As the Vancouver Sun reported; “Senior Commission Counsel Brian Wallace sent a letter to all hearing participants — including governments, industry, First Nations, and environmentalists — late last week asking them to submit by May 14 their views on how Harper’s budget bill impacts their previous positions on the state of B.C.’s top fishery.”

To deal with the additional evidence that was brought forth during the ISAv hearings and the impacts of the Harper government making such drastic changes to the Fisheries Act, Justice Cohen was given until September 30, 2012 to submit the final report. 

Bill C-38 was passed amid much objection, leading to alterations of the Fisheries Act that will ultimately gut the protection of wild fish habitat, a move that makes a mockery of the efforts of the Cohen Commission to see wild salmon sustained for generations to come. 

In the same month, the Harper government gave over $4 million to the aquaculture industry to expand. Two months later saw the culling of well over half a million farmed salmon on the west coast as the spread of the deadly IHN virus took hold, in spite of the industry’s repeated claims of “best husbandry practices”. None of this was noted in the Cohen Commission.

A few days before the final report was due in September came news that it had been extended yet again.

The confirmed presence of lethal viruses ISAv and IHN in wild salmon stocks by independent labs, both of which are linked to salmon farming, combined with the devastating changes to the Fisheries Act and government promotion of an industry known for it’s disease and parasite amplification, leaves one wondering how Justice Cohen can fail to see the seriousness of government negligence. Will he even take it into consideration?

On the DFO website it is noted that the CFIA “may need to treat wild fish populations to control fish pathogens that may have been introduced into Canadian waters.” While both DFO Aquaculture Management and Policy Analyst for the CFIA have been asked to explain what the said introduced pathogens are, what they intend to “treat” wild fish stocks with, and to what extent First Nations have been consulted about such implications, both have yet to respond to the implications of such a statement other than to say “We are drafting a response.”

Sadly, corporate industries are so embedded into government that separating them for the survival of a species as valuable as wild sockeye salmon is not something we can afford to contemplate or wish upon. The situation has become dire enough that all who are concerned about wild salmon must get involved in protecting this sacred and life giving species.

If nothing else, the Cohen Commission succeeded in one thing; it has clearly shown that government has been compromising wild salmon to death and that the DFO is in place not to protect wild fish but to protect the economic proceeds derived from the fish and oceans. If wild salmon are to have a chance of surviving into the future they must be prioritized before open-net salmon farming, oil pipelines, and mass industrial practices that destroy salmon habitat. In short, wild salmon must come first.

If there is to be any justice for Fraser River Sockeye salmon, Justice Bruce Cohen’s report will need to include the recommendation that all open-net salmon farms be removed from the migratory paths of wild salmon immediately followed by the cessation of leasing out the sea floor to the industry. Beyond that, the protection of wild salmon and salmon habitat must be enforced first and foremost.

Whether Justice Cohen’s recommendations will have any sway on the Harper government’s current agenda is unlikely, but we can only hope that his report will not cater to the very things that put wild salmon at risk.

For more on the Cohen Commission Inquiry into the Decline of the Fraser River Sockeye salmon visit Wild Salmon First! Salmon Inquiry. Read additional blogs here, watch “Wild Salmon First!” submission to Justice Cohen here.