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

Mark Hume

Tory MP smells something fishy about commission into sockeye collapse Add to ...

A federal judicial inquiry appointed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to investigate the staggering decline of sockeye salmon in the Fraser River hasn't yet started its hearings, but already it is under attack.

In a series of press releases last week, Conservative MP John Cummins challenged the credibility of a panel of scientists that is providing advice to the commission headed by British Columbia Supreme Court Justice Bruce Cohen.

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He says four of the six scientists are in conflicts of interest because of past ties to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which will come under scrutiny because it manages the sockeye fishery.

Mr. Cummins is a former commercial fisherman and was party critic of Fisheries and Oceans from 1999 to 2004 (and vice-chair of the Commons committee for about the same period).

In an interview, Mr. Cummins said he has already written off the Cohen Commission - even though its first public hearing isn't until Tuesday and it is still nearly a year away from issuing its report.

"Right now I don't think there's a hope in hell for the Fraser fishery because I don't see anything good coming out of the Cohen Commission," he said.

If nothing else, Mr. Cummins's early assault on the commission illustrates the emotional tension that exists on the West Coast over the issue of salmon and it is a signal to Mr. Cohen that he is entering troubled waters.

While Alaska continues to enjoy record catches, B.C. has experienced catastrophic declines, particularly on the Fraser, where only one million sockeye returned last year, nearly 10 million less than predicted.

Mr. Cummins praises Mr. Harper for ordering an inquiry - but in the next breath rips into the commissioner he appointed.

"I give the Prime Minister credit. He said, 'We'll do an inquiry out of my office not the [Fisheries]minister's office, to ensure its independence' … but Cohen has been very weak … it's a mess from the start," complained Mr. Cummins.

The flaw, as he sees it, is that some on the science panel have past associations with DFO. He said Carl Walters, a fisheries professor at the University of British Columbia, has provided advice to DFO and is a member of the Pacific Fisheries Resources Council, which is appointed by the Minister of Fisheries. Thomas Quinn, a fisheries professor at the University of Washington, was a post-doctorate fellow at DFO's Pacific Biological Station. Paul LeBlond, an ocean scientist, served on the Fisheries Resource Conservation Council after the northern cod collapse on the East Coast and Brian Riddell, president of the Pacific Salmon Foundation, is the former head of science for DFO on the West Coast.

Brian Wallace, senior legal counsel for the Cohen Commission, acknowledges some of the panel have past links to DFO, but rejects the assertion of a conflict of interest.

"We were looking for people with extensive scientific backgrounds, with experience in this field and you simply can't get that kind of experience without working for the various players - including DFO," he said. "Do I see any conflict in that? No."

He said the science panel's job is to provide advice on areas of research and the Cohen Commission has acted on that advice so far by contracting 13 scientists to do papers for the inquiry. The science panel will review those reports and provide comment.

But ultimately it will be up to Mr. Cohen and his legal team to assess the importance of the science reports. That information will be considered along with what is expected to be an enormous amount of other evidence gathered over the next several months.

It's hard to see how science panel members could shield DFO from any criticism, or misdirect the Cohen inquiry, even if they wanted to.

Dr. Riddell says he and his panel colleagues are interested only in one thing - giving the best, independent scientific advice they can.

In a paper released last week, the Cohen Commission provided details of the areas it will be examining and it is clear an exhaustive review of all the factors affecting sockeye salmon in the Fraser is planned - including an examination of DFO's management role.

The commission's public hearings start this week, an interim report is expected over the summer, and the evidentiary hearings begin September 7. That means the Cohen Commission has a long way to go before it issues a final report, due by next May.

Only then can its success or failure be judged.

Follow on Twitter: @markhumeglobe

 

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