Skip to main content

Aaron Murray, a 4th generation salmon fisherman, looks over the first test catch of wild salmon at Bruce’s Country Market August 7, 2013 in Maple Ridge, a store that specializes in fresh, wild salmon. Fisheries managers are watching with concern as sockeye salmon continue to trickle into the Fraser, returning in lower numbers and later in the season than anticipated. Uncertain how many more fish might be coming, no commercial or sport harvest has been allowed in the Fraser so far this season, and first nations have been greatly limited in their catches.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

One year after the release of a public inquiry report on the decline of Fraser River sockeye, wild salmon advocates – including a former Conservative fisheries minister – say Ottawa hasn't taken meaningful action on its recommendations.

But the current Fisheries Minister disagrees, arguing government has used the report to guide its day-to-day work and introduced three major measures that address the inquiry's findings.

Bruce Cohen, the B.C. Supreme Court justice who was appointed to lead the inquiry, released his three-volume report on Oct. 31 of last year. The inquiry was ordered after the Fraser River sockeye run – which once yielded 100 million sockeye – brought only one million spawners in 2009.

Mr. Cohen said there was no "smoking gun" behind the collapse and made 75 recommendations. He said government could restore the Fraser runs if it invested in research, limited the impact of fish farms, contained diseases in hatcheries, and rededicated the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to protecting wild salmon and their habitat.

The Watershed Watch Salmon Society held a news conference in downtown Vancouver on Wednesday to mark the anniversary. Craig Orr, Watershed's executive director and an inquiry participant, was joined by former fisheries minister John Fraser, and John Reynolds of Simon Fraser University. Mr. Reynolds also participated in the inquiry as an expert witness.

The men raised several concerns, saying government had missed more than a dozen time-related deadlines and not taken steps to rebuild salmon numbers.

"We're just here today to simply urge government to honour the intent of its own inquiry and to show a commitment to wild salmon and people who care about wild salmon," Mr. Orr said.

He said government could start by tabling an inquiry implementation plan with clear guidelines. He said he'd also like to see Ottawa address Mr. Cohen's concern about DFO's conflicted mandate – protecting wild salmon on one hand, while promoting fish farms on the other.

Mr. Fraser, who was fisheries minister in 1984-85, said he believes things are at a standstill. "The government to its very great credit [called an inquiry] and I don't want to take anything away from that," he said. "The trouble is it's not good enough to do something that then comes back, and maybe surprises you by saying, 'What we found out is you've got to do a whole bunch of other things' and then sit on it."

Mr. Fraser was one of four former federal fisheries ministers who spoke out last year against proposed legislative changes to the Fisheries Act. The group said the changes would irreparably damage fish habitat.

An interview request for current Fisheries Minister Gail Shea was met with a seven-paragraph written statement. The statement said Economic Action Plan 2013 included three measures directly addressing Mr. Cohen's recommendations. They included committing $57.5-million over five years to bolster environmental protection in the aquaculture industry, and the development of a new program to support conservation activities by recreational fisheries through partnerships with community groups. The statement said government invests more than $65-million a year in Pacific salmon, about $20-million of which is related to Fraser sockeye.

Fin Donnelly, the NDP's fisheries and oceans critic, wrote in a statement that the Conservatives have gone backwards by dismantling the Fisheries Act and he doubts the government will take meaningful action on the report.

The B.C. Salmon Farmers Association also issued a statement to mark the report's one-year release. The association said it's committed to the inquiry in a number of ways. For one thing, it said it's hosting workshops to identify possible risks to wild salmon and to identify knowledge gaps and research priorities.

Interact with The Globe