A unique population of sockeye salmon identified in 2004 as facing "a high probability of extinction" wasn't given protection under the Species At Risk Act because the federal government was worried about the cost of shutting down fisheries.
Today, Cultus Lake sockeye are still on the edge of extinction, despite an effort by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to restore the salmon run outside the SARA process.
Documents filed with the Cohen Commission of inquiry this week show DFO officials knew in 2004 that the Cultus population, which has declined 92 per cent over the past 15 years, could go extinct if commercial, native and recreational fisheries weren't curtailed.
The sockeye spawn in Cultus Lake, near Chilliwack, about 100 kilometres east of Vancouver. When adult fish return to spawn, they co-migrate in the ocean and Lower Fraser River with larger runs of sockeye that are headed to other watersheds. Cultus fish, which look identical to other sockeye, are often killed in nets set for other runs of salmon.
A government assessment in 2004 concluded the Cultus population, which has unique genetic and biological characteristics, collapsed largely due to overfishing.
But John Davis, who retired in 2008 as DFO's associated deputy minister of science, said in testimony at the Cohen Commission, Monday and Tuesday, that the socio-economic impact of shutting down fisheries, just to protect the small Cultus run, was considered too great.
He said listing under SARA would have led to widespread fishery closings costing $126-million in lost revenue over four years.
"When is the likely economic impact [of listing a species]too high?" he asked.
Although the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada called for an emergency listing of the Cultus stock under SARA, in 2004, the Liberal government at the time rejected the proposal.
Instead, DFO launched a project to restore the population by killing predatory fish in Cultus Lake and by producing sockeye in a hatchery program.
Despite such efforts, the Cultus sockeye population, which historically averaged about 20,000 a year, has fallen to a four-year average of just 1,000 spawners.
Ernie Crey, an aboriginal fisheries adviser to the Sto:lo Tribal Council, on the Lower Fraser, said it is clear the stock can't recover until fisheries are restricted on the Lower Fraser River..
"My personal view is that the decision not to list Cultus sockeye under SARA was a critical mistake," said Mr. Crey in an interview outside the Cohen Commission hearings.
He said 30 per cent to 40 per cent of the Cultus sockeye are taken in commercial fisheries – and those fish are critically needed on the spawning grounds.
"At some point in time, they [the government]will have to make a tough decision about protecting small stocks of fish like this," Mr. Crey said.
At the inquiry, Mr. Davis said the government tried to balance the potential environmental losses against the financial gains associated with keeping fisheries open.
"Clearly the department wanted to do the right thing," he said.
But under cross-examination by Brenda Gaertner, a lawyer representing the First Nations Coalition, Mr. Davis acknowledged that at the time the government did not assess the "social value" of the Cultus fish to aboriginal communities. The coalition represents 12 bands that have standing at the Cohen Commission.
"I don't think there's a way of putting value [on the social importance of salmon]… I wouldn't know how to value that," he said.
When Ms. Gaertner suggested the government's assessment was flawed, Mr. Davis seemed to agree.
"I'm sure there were deficiencies there … we were learning from this early SARA experience," he said.