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Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)
Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)

Jeffrey Simpson

Sign of the fish: another judicial inquiry Add to ...

Here we go again. This time, it's a judicial inquiry into the disappearance of sockeye salmon from the Fraser River. Haven't we heard variations on this before?

In the early 1980s, we had a royal commission into the Pacific fishery. Then we had a battle with the Americans over renewing the Pacific Salmon Treaty, a battle that was finally settled. Then we had various reports on how to manage the salmon fishery, including one from eminent resource economist Peter Pearse of the University of British Columbia.

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There have been Supreme Court cases trying to define aboriginals' right to fish, including, of course, along the Fraser. And there have been endless disputes among the groups that want at the salmon: aboriginals, commercial fishermen, sports fishermen who pay big bucks at fishing lodges, and recreational fishermen.

Pity Mr. Justice Bruce Cohen of the B.C. Supreme Court, the man who'll head this latest inquiry. The science will be perplexing, the agendas of interest groups irreconcilable, the answers elusive. And no one will like the findings.

Canada knows all about disappearing stocks. In 1992, Ottawa imposed a moratorium on the northern cod fishery. It resulted in the largest layoff in Canadian history: 30,000 jobs. The latest science says that stock has barely recovered.

Even now, we are harvesting invertebrate and plant species on the Scotian shelf without knowing nearly enough about the science of such a harvest, according to fisheries scientists Sean Anderson, Heike Lotze and Nancy Shackell at Dalhousie University. Stocks are down, too, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. So are fish sizes.

The latest salmon crisis undoubtedly has local explanations, but it's part of a worldwide fishery crisis. Overfishing, for example, is endemic. Europeans, having depleted their own stocks, are signing deals with poor African countries to pillage theirs. Japanese, Russian and other countries' trawlers prowl the world to satisfy the home market.

Technology has improved immensely, so fishermen can find fish more easily and catch them more quickly, using gear that scours the seabed and takes everything in its path.

The biggest problem - hugely evident on both Canadian coasts - is relentless pressure on stocks from too many fishermen and fishing interests. Dozens of Canadian communities depend on catching fish or crustaceans or invertebrates. In some of them, fish catching and processing is what gives people enough work to qualify for unemployment insurance for the remainder of the year. The fishery becomes both an economy and a part of a social support program.

There's an increasing amount of research that climate change is adversely affecting the oceans. What The Economist magazine called the "curse of carbon" is making the seas more acidic, changing their temperatures and devastating coral.

The arrival of large-scale fish farms complicates the West Coast debate. These farms are controversial almost everywhere. Fisheries scientists worry about the ability of farmed salmon to cohabit with natural salmon. In 2008, for example, a virus swept through Chile's salmon farms. In B.C., one theory for the salmon shock is the sea lice they carried from farmed salmon.

International evidence, reported in the July issue of Science, suggests that stocks rebuild when the total catch is cut; the capacity and gear on boats are reduced; whole areas are closed to fishing to allow nature to do its work; and governments use catch shares in which individuals or communities "own" part of the resource rather than the common property regime.

The study in Science found that stocks were recovering in Alaska, New Zealand and part of Australia because governments and fishing interests there implemented these policies. Elsewhere, the situation was gloomy or grim.

One key change scientists recommend is altering the definition of a maximum exploitation rate from a management target to an upper limit of what should be caught for a given species. Fishing interests would flinch at the prospect, since they demand more, not less, access to the stocks.

Science says otherwise, but if there's one thing you can take to the bank in fisheries policy, it's that when groups don't like policy outcomes they'll contest the science, as Judge Cohen will discover. Truth to tell, there are lots of uncertainties in fisheries science.

What we do know suggests too many users are chasing too few fish. Doing something about that situation is damnably difficult.

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