Participants in the Cohen Commission are clashing openly this week as they deliver final submissions and attempt to bolster their own cases while undermining their opponents.
Throughout the nearly two years of hearings, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Bruce Cohen has heard the various groups (representing governments, commercial fishermen, the aquaculture industry, first nations and conservationists) advance their views through direct questioning and cross-examination of witnesses.
But with the formal hearings set to wrap up Thursday, except for a two-day session next month to hear late-breaking evidence on a newly discovered disease, the parties are now dropping the legal niceties and going for direct assaults on one another.
The B.C. Salmon Farmers Association, for example, has filed a final written argument that takes aim at its most fierce critic, the Aquaculture Coalition. The coalition represents two conservation organizations and Alexandra Morton, a controversial researcher who publicly attacks fish farming as a threat to wild salmon.
“The BCSFA says that the Aquaculture Coalition’s position that disease is the primary factor affecting Fraser River sockeye salmon and that ocean conditions may have played a role clearly illustrates their disregard for all evidence that does not accord, or in fact contradicts, their particular theory,” states the submission by Alan Blair, counsel for the B.C. Salmon Farmers.
He argued the group’s interpretation of evidence “is demonstrably unreliable,” and he described Ms. Morton as “misrepresenting the evidence before the Commission.”
Mr. Blair stated that “the evidence strongly supports the conclusion that salmon farming has not affected Fraser River sockeye salmon declines, and poses a minimal risk over all.”
In its final argument, however, the Aquaculture Coalition told Judge Cohen that the biggest threat to wild salmon is posed by fish farms.
The Cohen Commission was appointed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to investigate the decline of sockeye salmon in the Fraser River after stocks collapsed in 2009, when only about one million of an anticipated 10 million salmon returned.
“The submission of the Aquaculture Coalition is that the primary cause of the failure of the 2009 sockeye return was disease, and that salmon farms along the path of the migrating salmon played a significant role in the origin or amplification of that disease,” states the group.
“We should not be surprised. Wild salmon are in decline wherever there are salmon farms worldwide,” said the coalition’s submission.
The federal government argued that “biophysical changes in the marine environment” were the most likely cause of salmon declines, while the B.C. government urged Judge Cohen not to make recommendations regarding aboriginal rights and title with respect to fisheries, because the commission “is not the forum to rule on such issues.”
The Conservation Coalition, which represents several environmental groups, said the failure of science to answer “fundamental questions about the reasons for the decline of Fraser sockeye,” should not be a reason for inaction.
The coalition’s lawyers, Tim Leadem and Judah Harrison, told Judge Cohen that the conservation of the Fraser sockeye “must come first” in his recommendations.
They argued that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans wild-salmon policy, which has only partially been implemented, should be made fully operational as it provides the “blueprint for the conservation of wild salmon.”
The First Nations Coalition also endorsed the wild-salmon policy and called on Judge Cohen to push the federal government to shift more commercial fishing opportunities from offshore to rivers. Commercial fishing groups argued against such a move, however, questioning whether so-called “terminal” fisheries, which are mostly run by first nations, produce top value for salmon.