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Cohen inquiry panel debates aboriginal fishing practices

Tyrone McNeil of the Sto:lo Tribal Council checks the sockeye salmon that was cut into strips and hung on a dry rack to cure for up to ten days on the banks of the Fraser river near Hope, B.C., July 29, 2009.

Lyle Stafford/Globe and Mail/Lyle Stafford/Globe and Mail

Aboriginal fisheries were under the Cohen Commission's microscope on Tuesday, with parties at the public inquiry debating just how much fish first nations need.

The commission, which is investigating the decline of sockeye salmon in B.C.'s Fraser River, is in its last week of evidentiary hearings before its summer break. Four witnesses took the stand for the day of testimony, including Ernie Crey, fisheries adviser for the Sto:lo Tribal Council.

During the morning session, Mr. Crey was cross-examined by Phil Eidsvik of the B.C. Fisheries Survival Coalition, which represents the interests of commercial fishermen. Mr. Eidsvik asked multiple times whether the illegal catching and selling of fish was a concern for the Agassiz-based Sto:lo council.

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Mr. Crey said no.

"They appear to be an issue of concern to some folks, but I don't think those folks are in our community," Mr. Crey said, appearing to turn the question back around on Mr. Eidsvik. "When we do sell fish that we catch, we do so under agreements with Fisheries and Oceans Canada. We also have food social and ceremonial fisheries. Those fish are intended for just what it's described as."

At one point in the proceedings, Mr. Eidsvik tried to introduce a Globe and Mail article that detailed a black-market operation for salmon caught in some aboriginal food fisheries. When other parties objected to the document's introduction, Mr. Eidsvik simply asked Mr. Crey if members of the Sto:lo ever had their salmon supply cut short because of illegal sales.

"Not that I'm aware of," Mr. Crey replied.

Mr. Crey was joined in the witness box by Barry Rosenberger, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans' area director for the B.C. Interior, Marcel Shepert of the Upper Fraser Fisheries Conservation Alliance, and Ross Wilson, director of the Heiltsuk integrated resource management department.

Mr. Shepert said in his 15 years of work, he has never seen first nations receive the number of fish that they need. Mr. Crey said it's difficult to explain how much fish is required, since the salmon are used in important cultural ceremonies like weddings and potlatches.

The panel of witnesses also discussed how best to manage the fisheries in a way that serves all the various stakeholders.

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On Wednesday, the commission is expected to begin three days of testimony on marine environment habitats. The commission, which is headed by B.C. Supreme Court Justice Bruce Cohen, will return from its break Aug. 18. Its final report must be submitted to government by June, 2012.

The commission has been steadily holding hearings since a holiday break at the beginning of the year, and the time off will likely come as welcome news for some of the parties. Tempers appeared to flare during one exchange Tuesday morning. Mr. Eidsvik was interrupted several times during his cross-examination and said he could do without the objections.

"I know in hockey where somebody makes an objection and one side loses, there's a penalty to the person making the objection. I think it's with measuring sticks. Maybe that would be appropriate here," he said.

That comment sparked responses from a couple of opposing parties. Mr. Eidsvik said he did not mean to cause any offence.

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