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Sockeye salmon in a river in the Bristol Bay, Alaska watershed in 2007. (Ben Knight/ The Associated Press/Ben Knight/ The Associated Press)
Sockeye salmon in a river in the Bristol Bay, Alaska watershed in 2007. (Ben Knight/ The Associated Press/Ben Knight/ The Associated Press)

At DFO, scientists turned to speechwriters in salmon crisis Add to ...

After Fraser River sockeye salmon stocks collapsed in 2009, scientists at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans were pressured to write parliamentary speeches for government MPs, a federal commission has been told.

“This is the only time that I have seen a request of this nature in my career,” Laura Richards, Pacific regional director of science for DFO, said Thursday in testifying at the Cohen commission, which is investigating the decline of sockeye populations in the Fraser.

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“Do you think it’s a role of DFO scientists to develop speeches for parliamentarians?” asked Brian Wallace, senior commission counsel.

“The role of science is really to provide factual information, and that’s what we do,” replied Dr. Richards.

But documents filed with the commission show that after only about one million sockeye returned in 2009 – when more than 10 million fish had been expected – scientists were under the gun to help government MPs explain the crisis.

In September of that year, Peter Julian, an NDP MP from British Columbia, called for an emergency debate on the state of Pacific salmon stocks. He got support from the Liberals, and behind the scenes the government started scrambling to arm its MPs with some answers.

On Oct. 2, 2009, Terry Davis, DFO’s regional director of communications, fired off an urgent e-mail to more than a dozen officials.

“The bottom line is that Parliamentary Affairs has asked for 80 minutes of speeches to be developed on a range of issues related to Pacific salmon, for use by members of the government, in the event that an emergency debate on Pacific salmon is called in the House of Commons,” he wrote.

“In most cases, these types of speeches are developed by program staff [in Ottawa]… However, in this instance, as the subject matter experts on Pacific salmon are based here, the Region has been asked to develop the speeches,” stated Mr. Davis.

The order to write speeches for MPs came even though objections had been raised only a few days earlier when science staff were asked to produce a speech for the minister.

A Sept. 29, 2009, e-mail from Paul Ryall, head of fisheries and aquaculture management, to DFO regional manager Sue Farlinger states: “We are being requested to draft speeches for the Minister. I don’t think this is our role. I can see that we can supply information and also address questions to a speech writer, but not be the lead on drafting a Minister’s speech.”

During cross-examination, Gregory McDade, a lawyer representing a coalition of conservation groups, questioned Dr. Richards on why the work of Kristi Miller, DFO’s head of molecular genetics, hasn’t been released publicly.

Dr. Miller has been credited with groundbreaking work that in 2008 found brain lesions in sockeye salmon, thought to have been caused by a virus.

Mr. McDade said several speeches were drafted for MPs by DFO officials, but in none of them is anything said about Dr. Miller’s work. And he said she has not been allowed to talk to the media about her research for over a year.

“It’s not that we were trying to hide something,” said Dr. Richards.

She said Dr. Miller’s hypothesis that a virus is killing Fraser salmon is still being studied, and DFO officials didn’t want the information released publicly, or discussed in Parliament, until it is confirmed.

The commission, headed by Mr. Justice Bruce Cohen of the B.C. Supreme Court, is adjourning until April 4, when it will examine habitat management and enforcement issues.

Editor's note: The senior Cohen Commission counsel is Brian Wallace. Incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of this story. This version has been corrected.

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