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First Nations fishers fed up with government inaction on salmon inquiry

Frustration and anger are growing in native communities along the Fraser River because Ottawa has failed to implement recommendations on how to bring back the sockeye salmon fisheries.

BC Salmon Farmers Association for The Globe and Mail/bc salmon farmers association The Globe and Mail

Frustration and anger are growing in native communities along the Fraser River because Ottawa has failed to implement recommendations on how to bring back the sockeye salmon fisheries.

After spending $26-million and almost three years inquiring into the state of sockeye stocks in the Fraser, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Bruce Cohen handed in his final report in October, 2012. The document recommended ways for Ottawa to restore and protect salmon runs, but in written responses to questions in the House recently, federal ministers indicated only eight of the proposals have been acted on.

"In the communities up here, we raise it in our meetings all the time," Gord Sterritt, executive director of the Upper Fraser Fisheries Conservation Alliance, said on Wednesday.

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"Justice Cohen didn't find a smoking gun, but he did make 75 recommendations that could support sustaining the salmon resources that we rely on in the upper Fraser."

Mr. Sterritt, who is based in Williams Lake, said several rivers in his region have such poor runs of salmon no fishing is allowed.

"There is frustration. … Some of the First Nations have been forced to go fish in other areas in order to acquire their [food fish]," he said.

"Yes, there's frustration, bordering on anger, and it's leading to people moving away from the collaborative approach," said Jordan Point, executive director of the First Nations Fisheries Council. "I think the underlying feeling is we are very frustrated with the process. People are angry with the lack of movement."

Mr. Point said that instead of following Justice Cohen's advice concerning the protection of wild salmon, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has shifted its focus to supporting the aquaculture industry.

"Everyone is very disappointed in what we see taking place. Very angry about it," said Ernie Crey, who holds the fisheries portfolio for the Cheam Band on the lower Fraser.

"There's very little evidence they are putting money into it. Very little evidence the professional staff is putting time into it," he said. "In fact, people are being laid off left and right at [the DFO]. … So the message I'm getting from Ottawa is, 'We don't take these recommendations seriously. We're not going to do anything about them.'"

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Mr. Crey urged the government to adopt the report's findings.

"They have to put legs under the recommendations in [the report from Justice] Cohen. And to accomplish that, what they'll have to do is engage First Nations in meaningful discussion about charting the future for Fraser River sockeye salmon," he said. "If the Prime Minister were listening to me, I'd say he should strike a committee made up of First Nation communities, government officials, academics, people involved in the industry, sport fishing interests and really take a look at the future of Fraser River sockeye salmon."

Dan Bate, a spokesman for the DFO, said in an e-mail the government has taken steps to enhance and protect salmon runs in B.C.

"The Government of Canada has long recognized the importance of protecting sockeye salmon in the Fraser River. That's why we convened the Cohen Commission in the first place," he wrote.

Mr. Bate said the government has increased funding to the Pacific Salmon Foundation by about $1-million a year, put $10-million in new funding into supporting partnerships with local angling and conservation groups, and through the DFO is spending about $20-million a year on the Fraser River.

He said Fisheries Minister Gail Shea signed a memorandum of understanding last year that commits Ottawa to meet regularly with the First Nations Fisheries Council.

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