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A sockeye salmon scurries through shallow water in the Adams River while preparing to spawn near Chase, British Columbia northeast of Vancouver.

Andy Clark/ Reuters/Andy Clark/ Reuters

A federal judicial inquiry into the state of sockeye salmon stocks in the Fraser River which begins hearings next week has released a discussion paper detailing its areas of interest.

The organizational structure of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans; the harvesting sector, which will include an examination of pre-season planning; and the methods for forecasting run sizes and conservation efforts, will all come under examination by the inquiry led by British Columbia Supreme Court Justice Bruce Cohen.

But the key focus of the commission appears to be on fish biology and ecosystem issues - a category in the discussion paper which includes numerous, lengthy sub-sections, including water pollution, salmon farms, logging, diseases and parasites, predators, non-retention fisheries, climate change, urbanization and agricultural activities and hydro.

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"The commission will contract out, to recognized experts, research projects on a wide range of fish biology and ecosystem issues," states the discussion paper, released Wednesday. "The scientific reports will be provided to participants and posted on the Commission's website."

One of the more contentious issues to be examined will be the role salmon farms may have played.

"The commission intends to examine whether there is a linkage between salmon farm operations and Fraser River sockeye survival, including reductions of sockeye smolt survival from sea lice exposure, impacts of farm wastes on seabed and ocean habitat quality, effects of Atlantic salmon escapes on Fraser River sockeye, as well as any potential for the spreading of disease," states the discussion paper.

The inquiry will also examine the contaminants in the river coming from pulp mills, sewage treatment plants and other sources.

"Although the research issues discussed above will consider impacts in isolation from each other, the reality is that Fraser River sockeye experience a suite of impacts both simultaneously and sequentially, which can interact to amplify the effects of individual stressors," states the discussion paper. "The commission intends to evaluate these cumulative impacts to determine their role in Fraser River sockeye declines."

The inquiry was ordered by Prime Minister Stephen Harper last year following a monumental crash of sockeye stocks, when only about 1-million of an anticipated 10.6-million fish returned to the Fraser.

In the discussion paper released Wednesday the Cohen Commission states that last year's collapse was part of a longer trend.

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"Since the early 1990s, there has been a steady and profound decline, and now the ratio of returning progeny per spawner is well below the replacement level," states the report.

"This decline has been attributed to the interplay of a wide range of factors, including environmental changes along the Fraser River, marine environmental conditions and fisheries management," the paper states.

The report says the Cohen Commission will hold public forums "in several coastal and Fraser River communities," but it will conduct most of its hearings in Federal Court, in Vancouver.

Commissioner Cohen also "plans to visit various sties that are important to some aspect of the Fraser River sockeye salmon fishery, and to video record site visits, if possible."

The Cohen Commission has recognized 20 formal participants, some of whom represent multiple groups, is accepting written submissions from the public on its website, and has appointed a six-member panel of scientists to provide advice.

The opening hearings begin next Monday, but evidentiary hearings aren't set to begin until next September.

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Details can be found at the Cohen Commission website: www.cohencommission.ca

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