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Panelists argue about how much biodiversity is good

It was billed as a panel of highly informed individuals who could help the Cohen commission understand what the words "conservation, sustainability and stewardship" mean in relation to British Columbia's salmon resource.

But while the conflicting views put forward by the panelists failed to give commissioner Bruce Cohen any common definitions, it may have helped him appreciate the tensions that exist on the Fraser River concerning salmon.

Mr. Justice Cohen, of the B.C. Supreme Court, who was appointed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to investigate sockeye declines on the Fraser, listened intently as two academics, a writer and a fishing industry executive gave their perspectives.

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Senior commission counsel Brian Wallace said the panelists - John Reynolds, David Close, Terry Glavin and Rob Morley - were "experts in a very limited way" who had been invited to discuss conservation, a key word in the terms of reference for the Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River.

Dr. Reynolds, who holds the Tom Buell Leadership Chair in Salmon Conservation at Simon Fraser University, led off by saying that conservation refers to the restoration of salmon and their habitats, but its real importance lies in promoting salmon diversity.

With the world's climate changing, he said it's important to maintain as many different stocks of salmon as possible because it is impossible to tell which might be best suited genetically to thrive under future conditions.

"There's strong evidence that salmon can evolve quickly … [but]the fish need as much room to manoeuvre as possible," he said.

In B.C. there has been a long, ongoing debate about the worth of protecting small stocks of endangered salmon, which often return to the Fraser intermingled with big runs headed for other tributaries. Often the only way to avoid killing the weaker stocks is by shutting down fisheries, sometimes causing the commercial fleet to miss out on millions of salmon.

Mr. Morley, vice-president of the Canadian Fishing Co. and director of the BC Salmon Marketing Council, said the commission has to come to grips with the tough issue of deciding if that policy makes sense.

"It's one of those things, everyone says 'sure biodiversity is good'… [but]how much biodiversity is enough?" he asked.

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"If our only goal was to pursue maximum biodiversity then we would never allow anyone to harvest [salmon]" he said. "Yes, there are benefits to biodiversity, there are also significant costs," he said. "It's not as simple as saying 'biodiversity is good, we need to have more of it.' "

But Mr. Glavin, an author who has written about salmon issues for more than two decades, cautioned Mr. Morley, saying that if the government starts weighing tradeoffs, it might look at all the money it has pumped into the commercial fishery.

He said the government has spent "half a billion" over the past 15 years, in buyouts to downsize the fleet and in various subsidies.

"Maybe that money could be spent somewhere else," he said.

And he criticized Mr. Morley for suggesting that pursuing biodiversity could mean an end to all fishing.

"Maximum biodiversity means no one gets to fish? Where did you get that idea?" he asked. "You can actually have commercial fisheries that are flourishing and don't compromise biodiversity."

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There have been experimental fisheries on the Fraser in recent years which use fish wheels or beach seines to catch salmon alive, allowing for the selection or release of individual fish. Before European contact, aboriginals used weirs, dip-nets or fish traps to the same end.

Dr. Close, a professor of aboriginal fisheries at the University of British Columbia, reminded the commission that native communities have been harvesting salmon in the Fraser for a long time.

"When you have 7,000 to 8,000 years of sustained use, there should be some lessons learned from that," he said, calling for an integration of traditional aboriginal knowledge and modern science, in fisheries management.

The Cohen commission began evidentiary hearings in Vancouver this week and will continue sitting through December.

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About the Author
National correspondent

Mark Hume is a National Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver, writing news and feature stories on a daily basis about his home province of British Columbia. His weekly column, which often challenges the orthodoxy on environmental issues, appears every Monday. More

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