Key scientific documents needed before the department of Fisheries and Oceans can implement its plan to save British Columbia's wild salmon have been held up in Ottawa for a year.
The documents, concerning sockeye conservation units on the Fraser River, were withheld from the Cohen Commission even though they were substantially ready for release at the time the federal inquiry was under way.
Fisheries managers planning catch limits for the 2013 season, which has yet to start, have had to do so to this point without knowing what the reports contain.
The reports, confidential draft copies of which have been obtained by The Globe and Mail, show that seven of the 24 conservation units in the watershed have been designated as "red zones" with another four rated red/amber. That classification means the salmon populations in those areas are considered at risk of extinction.
The reports show most of those red zones are located at the heads of distant tributaries, indicating the salmon that travel the farthest in the Fraser River system are having the hardest time surviving. That raises questions about the impact of climate change because the salmon that are in trouble are exposed to the warmer river temperatures longer.
Only five of the conservation units got "green zone" status, which means they are healthy, and six were amber or amber/green, at low risk, but of concern. Two populations weren't rated because of a lack of data.
The stocks were rated when 34 top fisheries scientists and managers retreated for a three-day workshop in November, 2011. They analyzed a variety of ways to assess the status of conservation units and came up with a method that would allow DFO to evaluate all salmon conservation units in the province. The approach leads to long-term projections of stock health, not just immediate snapshots.
The documents are considered to be one of the final pieces that need to be in place before DFO can implement its wild salmon policy, a strategy that has been in development for nearly 10 years.
DFO has refused to release the documents, saying they are still in draft form – even though the reports were effectively completed in the spring of 2012.
"We only release final copies of reports. At this time, I have no indication of when they will be finalized," Tom Robbins, a spokesman for DFO, stated in an e-mail last week, when asked for the documents.
A fisheries researcher, who didn't want to be named, said scientists suspect the government is delaying the release because it doesn't want to have to respond to the red-zone ratings.
"It's clearly political," he said of the delay. "I know they are not held up by scientific discussion. I can only guess that recognition several of these units are in the red zone – and therefore require recovery plans – is giving people angst."
He said the government's wild salmon policy can't be implemented until the documents are finalized and the analytical method outlined in them is adopted by managers.
"It's a real loss to have these documents delayed," he said. "It means we've lost another year in responding to what these documents show [about red zone stocks]."
He added "it is debilitating … it is so frustrating" for scientists to see important research tied up in the bureaucracy.
And he said withholding the finalized publication of such work amounts to muzzling scientists because it suppresses their research.
"Someone should draw this to the attention of the commissioner," he said, referring to Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault, who last month announced an investigation into complaints that government scientists are being silenced.
When then-fisheries minister Geoff Regan announced in 2004 that DFO was going to develop a wild salmon policy, he said it marked "a new era" that would transform salmon management on the West Coast.
But nine years later B.C. is still waiting for that policy to be implemented – and it can't be until the documents DFO has been sitting on for a year are adopted for use.