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Sockeye salmon make their way up the Adams River at Roderick Haig-Brown Provincial Park north of Chase, B.C. (JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail)
Sockeye salmon make their way up the Adams River at Roderick Haig-Brown Provincial Park north of Chase, B.C. (JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail)

After fisheries officers cut, complaints plummeted, commission hears Add to ...

Reported violations of laws protecting fish habitat fell dramatically on the West Coast - by 1,000 per cent one year - after the government cut fisheries officers, reduced patrols, and adopted a new policy that favoured voluntary compliance by industry, over enforcement.

A report by the Cohen Commission, filed as an exhibit Thursday, shows that "habitat occurrences" (which are defined as reports of potential violations of environmental laws) began to fall in 2005, after the Department of Fisheries and Oceans "announced it would be cutting 24 fishery officers from the Pacific Region . . . [and]shifting habitat protection away from traditional enforcement activities."

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The report, prepared by commission staff to summarize evidence, says that under the new policy, DFO staff in the Compliance and Protection Program [C&P]"would spend less time on habitat, only responding to high risk incidents, budgets allowing."

The document goes on to say a government e-mail chain from 2005 describes how a tight budget in the British Columbia Interior restricted DFO staff to responding to only one to three habitat incidents that year, "despite there being 20-30 incidents warranting C&P review."

It says in 2004-05 the number of patrols, patrol hours and sites checked by fisheries officers in the Interior "was seriously impacted with reductions of 75 per cent each and [reported]violations down by 1,000 per cent."

A table shows that in 2004 there were 1,641 'habitat occurrences' in the Pacific Region - but by 2010 that number had fallen to 367.

The report also states that in 2004, fisheries officers spent about 22 per cent of their time on habitat issues - but in 2005 they only spent 13 per cent of their time on habitat work.

The report makes no comment on the findings, but a 2007 report by the David Suzuki Foundation, which was also tabled as an exhibit by Cohen Commission counsel, blames DFO's shift to voluntary compliance for increased damage to salmon habitat.

"The biggest problem is that over the past few decades government support for economic development has, more often than not, trumped fish-habitat protection, and instead of things getting better, it appears that things may get a lot worse," said the Suzuki report.

It said the policy shift meant DFO was "placing the responsibility for habitat assessment and protection in the hands of the very people who are, most often, the reason for its destruction: land developers and resource-extraction industries."

A DFO memo for the Deputy Minister, filed as evidence, dismissed the Suzuki report, saying the analysis "is often incomplete and contains significant misunderstandings regarding case facts, DFO follow-up actions, program direction and discussions with DFO staff."

But the critical Suzuki report appears to be born out by the data in the Cohen Commission document.

And the Cohen report indicates the situation could get worse, stating "C&P has a salary shortfall problem and is likely facing further budget reductions and uncertainty from the 2010-2011 departmental strategic review."

The Cohen Commission, which was appointed last year to investigate the decline of sockeye salmon stocks in the Fraser River, is hearing evidence on habitat management and enforcement this week. Next week it will examine a technical report that looks at sockeye harvesting by First Nations, commercial and recreational sectors.

Follow on Twitter: @markhumeglobe

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