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A B.C. First Nations group is requesting an urgent meeting with the province to discuss plunging salmon returns in the province’s rivers

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The collapse of major salmon runs in B.C. this fall and the controversial expansion of fish farming on the West Coast have prompted First Nations to request "an urgent meeting" with newly appointed federal Fisheries Minister Hunter Tootoo.

Chief Bob Chamberlin, chair of the First Nations Wild Salmon Alliance, said the disappearance of millions of pink salmon headed for the Fraser and the collapse of the Adams River sockeye run underscore the need for immediate government action.

"Only about 2,000 fish made it back to the Adams River. That's supposed to be one of the biggest, most precious runs of sockeye in the world," he said Thursday.

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About 1.2 million sockeye were forecast to return to the Adams. As well, only about five million pink salmon returned to the Fraser when more than 14 million had been forecast.

No explanations for the failure of the runs to materialize have been given by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, with officials there saying the data are still preliminary.

But Mr. Chamberlin said it's pretty clear that there are major problems with salmon runs in the Fraser watershed, which includes the Adams River.

"The FNWSA is extremely disappointed and frustrated by the state of B.C.'s wild salmon stocks and the inaction of federal and provincial authorities to enact the recommendations … of the Cohen Commission of Inquiry into the decline of sockeye salmon in the Fraser River," Mr. Chamberlin states in his letter to Mr. Tootoo.

Mr. Chamberlin said one issue of pressing concern to First Nations is the spread of fish farms on the West Coast – with four new farms recently approved and several others given permits to expand.

"It is clear to the FNWSA that immediate action must be taken to protect our wild salmon for the benefit of all British Columbians and Canadians," he says in the letter. "A moratorium on the expansion of all fin-fish aquaculture ventures along the B.C. coast needs to be implemented until further evidence is gathered on the negative impacts these installations have on our wild stocks. This year's runs have made it abundantly clear that our salmon stocks are in grave danger, and require immediate action to preserve their habitat."

Mr. Tootoo could not be reached for comment and Mr. Chamberlin said he had not yet received a response to his letter.

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But he said he's hopeful the new Liberal government in Ottawa will act quickly because of promises the party made during the election campaign.

"A Liberal government will deepen our commitment to working with First Nations communities and … this will include action on the recommendations of the Cohen Commission on restoring sockeye salmon stocks in the Fraser River," the party platform states.

In 2012, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Bruce Cohen issued a report containing 75 recommendations after investigating the collapse of Fraser River sockeye stocks. Few of his recommendations were ever acted on.

Mr. Chamberlin said some of Justice Cohen's key recommendations related to the siting of fish farms, and to the "conflict of interest" DFO is in because the department is required to manage both aquaculture and wild fisheries.

Justice Cohen called on the government to change DFO's mandate so that it no longer was responsible for promoting salmon farming and instead became focused on conserving wild fish.

Mr. Chamberlin said because there are still unanswered science questions about the transfer of diseases and sea lice from farms to wild salmon, it is unwise to expand fish farms along the migration route of sockeye.

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He noted that independent researcher and fish-farm critic Alexandra Morton has blamed farms for contributing to collapses of sockeye and pink salmon runs in the past. And last spring, Ms. Morton reported that wild, juvenile pink and chum salmon caught near fish farms in the Broughton Archipelago had lethal levels of sea-lice infestations. She warned then that millions of those wild fish could die.

"You look at all these things and say, 'C'mon, it's time to connect the dots and start taking action,'" Mr. Chamberlin said.

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