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Sockeye salmon make their way up the Adams River at Roderick Haig-Brown Provincial Park north of Chase B.C. October 12, 2010. (John Lehmann/ The Globe and Mail/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. October 12, 2010. (John Lehmann/ The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/ The Globe and Mail)

No data means no answers, sockeye inquiry told Add to ...

The lack of hard data on the ocean environment has become on important issue to a federal commission investigating the collapse of sockeye salmon stocks in the Fraser River.

Repeatedly, scientists testifying at the Cohen Commission have said they don't really know what happens to salmon once they have left fresh water and headed out into the "black box" of the Pacific Ocean. They have complained about a shortage of data, or no data at all, and have said there are limited funds available for research.

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One of the papers filed with the commission identifies a "hotspot" in Queen Charlotte Sound, for example, where more than 10,000 sharks gather on a main salmon migration route - but nobody knows why the sharks are there, how long they are there, or what they are feeding on.

The knowledge gap caused Tim Leadem, a lawyer representing a coalition of conservation groups, to wonder out loud Thursday if the Cohen Commission will ever get a definitive answer on what caused the Fraser River sockeye population to collapse. The commission was appointed in 2009 after only one million salmon returned to spawn instead of the 10 million expected.

"What was the cause of the 2009 decline?" Mr. Leadem asked a panel of scientists testifying about the impact of predators on salmon. "I expect at the end of the day … [it will be an inconclusive]death by 1,000 cuts."

Mr. Leadem noted most of the science teams that have presented papers to the Cohen Commission have concluded by saying more research is needed.

"This is perplexing," he said. "If we are depending on science [for guidance] where are we going to find the funding? And who's going to be pulling the strings and saying what science goes forward?"

Mr. Leadem said it appears scientists "are in a world where you are scrambling for dollars" while facing a growing list of questions.

"Yeah, we are scrambling for research funding and it is going to be the nature of science that there are always more questions that need answering," said Andrew Trites, a professor and director at the University of British Columbia Fisheries Centre.

Mr. Justice Bruce Cohen, the B.C. Supreme Court judge who is heading the hearings, asked if there is an overall strategy for addressing the many unanswered questions about the ocean environment. "Within DFO and within the larger community of science … is there an overarching body that does a macro analysis of all the science that's taking place? Who's going to draw the agenda? Is this a scrambled situation … or is there actually a game plane here?" he asked.

"My perception as an academic . . . in terms of fisheries management … I don't feel there is a game plan," replied Dr. Trites, who appeared on a panel with John Ford, head of cetacean research in the Pacific for Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and Peter Olesiuk, DFO's head of pinniped research.

Lara Tessaro, junior commission counsel, later asked the witnesses to name the DFO managers who are directing scientific research in the Pacific, a line of questioning that suggested the issue may be revisited as the hearings continue.

Follow on Twitter: @markhumeglobe

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