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Commissioner Bruce Cohen addresses the media regarding the findings of the Cohen Commission into declining salmon on the Fraser River during a news conference in Vancouver, B.C., on  Oct. 31, 2012. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)
Commissioner Bruce Cohen addresses the media regarding the findings of the Cohen Commission into declining salmon on the Fraser River during a news conference in Vancouver, B.C., on  Oct. 31, 2012. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

SALMON REPORT

Judge Cohen’s recipe for change Add to ...

In his extended narrative on the uncertain future of Fraser River sockeye, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Bruce Cohen lays out a plan to transform the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

It is unclear at this point whether the federal government will embrace the report and implement its 75 recommendations. So far, the response from Ottawa has been tepid, with Randy Kamp, the parliamentary secretary to the Fisheries Minister, saying only that the document is worth studying.

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If he does take the time to read it, Mr. Kamp will find that the Cohen report is an urgent, compelling document that analyzes one of the most complex and confounding environmental problems in Canada. And if Ottawa wants a blueprint for saving the wild salmon of B.C. – an iconic species as important to the West Coast as Atlantic cod once were to the East Coast – it has one now, laid out in 1,191 detailed pages.

The document sets out how the government can repurpose DFO, a dispirited, dysfunctional bureaucracy, which has been failing miserably in its mandate to protect wild salmon.

It must be remembered that before the Fraser River sockeye stocks fell to one million in 2009, triggering panic and leading to the formation of the Cohen Commission, the watershed historically supported annual returns of 100 million sockeye.

Runs declined for decades before hitting the nadir of 2009.

The Fraser did have an exceptional run in 2010, when 35 million sockeye returned, but that was an aberration, brought about, it is believed, by a volcanic explosion in Alaska that fertilized the ocean with clouds of mineralized dust.

If we want our salmon back, we could pray for another volcano, or we could adopt the key recommendations Judge Cohen made, after hearing from 150 witnesses, collecting more than 2,000 exhibits and reviewing more than 500,000 documents.

Whatever can be said about Judge Cohen’s report, and so far most of the reaction is good, one cannot accuse him of ducking the tough issues. He deals head on with problems that have troubled British Columbia for decades. Here are some of the things he not only got right, but that are so important political leaders cannot ignore them and have any hope of saving wild salmon.

On the question of salmon farms, an issue that has divided British Columbians bitterly, Judge Cohen proposes a moratorium on new developments in a key area, restrictions on where farms are located, and calls for eight years of research to determine the risks aquaculture poses. He underscores the importance of the precautionary principle, saying British Columbians won’t accept anything more than a minimal risk – and his recommendations are so balanced that even salmon farmers have endorsed his report.

Judge Cohen also tells the government to move the management of fish farms out of DFO to another department, stating that promoting fish farming and protecting wild salmon are conflicting goals.

He calls for Ottawa to fill the gaping holes in fisheries science and says that work should be done now, not put off to a distant, uncertain future because of budget concerns.

He recommends a risk assessment of the government’s own hatchery program and suggests an international effort, because Pacific Rim countries pump out five billion salmon fry annually without understanding the impact.

On the issue of fish health, Judge Cohen says DFO should stop pandering to the interests of specific “clients,” such as the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and instead should focus on research into novel diseases, some of which may be killing millions of salmon annually.

Most importantly, Judge Cohen advises the government to fully implement DFO’s wild-salmon policy, a visionary piece of planning that was drafted several years ago, but never put into practice. That policy would make the protection of wild stocks the department’s top priority.

If implemented, the Cohen recommendations would profoundly change the way Canada has been managing salmon in B.C. Given the alternative – a dazed and confused fisheries department overseeing continued decline – that sounds like a good idea.

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