After spending $26-million and hearing from 150 witnesses, a federal judicial inquiry into the collapse of sockeye salmon runs in the Fraser River is about to release its findings.
The report of the Cohen Commission – which was filed with the federal government on Monday and will be made public at a press conference in Vancouver on Wednesday – is supposed to provide British Columbia with a blueprint for managing its most important salmon stocks.
But B.C. Supreme Court Justice Bruce Cohen has kept his work under tight wraps, since public hearings were concluded last December, and there have been no indications of which way he might lean on key issues.
What should be done about the disease problems that are increasingly killing salmon in rivers?
What is causing fish to vanish on the high seas?
What impact do salmon farms have on wild stocks?
What science gaps need to be filled urgently?
And how important is it that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has never fully implemented its wild salmon policy ?
Those are some of the major issues the report is expected to deal with, but observers say it is hard to know just where Judge Cohen might go with his analysis, after gathering a mountain of evidence during 18-months of hearings.
One thing is certain: A lot of people will be watching to see what his recommendations are.
“I’m optimistic,” said Ernie Crey, an adviser to the Sto:lo Tribal Council, which represents numerous bands on the Fraser River. “I’m hoping he has a series of recommendation that help DFO better manage the fish stocks ... and that he provides a strategy to accomplish that end. It’s not enough to just say what might have gone wrong.”
Colleen Dane, a representative of the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association, said she is anticipating a detailed, complex report – and is hoping it absolves fish farming of blame in the collapse of wild stocks.
“I don’t want to guess at what Justice Cohen will recommend,” she stated in an e-mail, “but we certainly heard at the commission that wild salmon stocks are under pressure and that wild and farm-raised fish can and do co-exist.”
John Werring of the Suzuki Foundation said he is anticipating a detailed analysis of what went wrong on the Fraser River, but he wonders what action it will lead to.
“There have been lots of inquiries like this in the past and many have come forward with good recommendations,” he said in an e-mail. “The problem has been with implementation. That’s where I see things falling apart.”
Mr. Werring said his fear is that if the report calls on government to increase funding for salmon management, it will just be left to gather dust because the government appears to be going in a different direction.
“It would seem that the current federal government has an obsession with austerity and is reducing staff in order to save money,” he said.
Craig Orr, executive director of Watershed Watch Salmon Society, said he hopes Judge Cohen urges DFO to implement a wild salmon policy that was drafted in 2005, but never fully implemented.
Mr. Orr said that policy, which would make conserving wild salmon and protecting fish habitat DFO’s top priority, is “grossly underfunded” and needs $2.5-million annually, for three years, to start functioning properly.
Otto Langer, a former DFO manager who was part of a Conservation Coalition that participated in the hearings, said the most important thing Judge Cohen can do is to change the culture of “politically directed decision making ” within DFO.
“If we do not rehabilitate DFO we cannot rehabilitate the fishery,” he said.