Senior officials from the Department of Fisheries have testified that one of the key questions facing the Cohen Commission – whether fish farms could have spread disease to wild salmon – has not been adequately researched.
Gregory McDade, a lawyer representing two conservation groups and fish farm critic Alexandra Morton, hammered away on the topic during cross-examination this week, as he tried to get a panel of DFO witnesses to acknowledge the government hasn't adequately researched one of the possible suspects in the 2009 collapse of the Fraser River sockeye run.
"I'm suggesting … you've done no research about the transmission of disease from fish farms to wild fish," Mr. McDade said.
"I do not agree with that. I will not agree to that," said Dr. Laura Richards, DFO's regional director of science.
"Can you name a study?" asked Mr. McDade.
"I don't have a list of particular study names in front of me," said Dr. Richards, before adding that one researcher has started to look at the dispersal of viruses in the water column.
Mr. McDade said that means while DFO might be doing such research now, it hasn't in the past, even though stocks were declining for a decade before a catastrophic collapse in 2009, when only one million of an anticipated 10 million sockeye returned to the Fraser.
The commission has heard evidence about a mysterious syndrome that causes fish to die in the river, before they have spawned. But research has not confirmed what type of disease it might be, or where it might have come from.
It is thought that Fraser sockeye ran into problems some time early in their life cycle, after leaving the river and while migrating north to the Gulf of Alaska, Dr. Richards said.
Although fish farms lie along part of that route, she said, there has never been any reason to suspect farms could have spread diseases to passing wild stocks.
Mr. McDade, however, drew her attention to provincial fish health records that show numerous disease incidents have occurred at farms.
"You are aware … there is regularly disease at the population levels in fish farms?" he asked.
"I think that that's not strictly within my area of responsibility," replied Dr. Richards, who said her job is to give advice to managers, not to regulate fish farms.
Claire Dansereau, DFO deputy minister, objected to Mr. McDade's line of questioning, saying, "you're making it sound as though the farms are infested with disease and remain infested with disease without any actions taken … to clear up the diseases."
She said that, in fact, farms do a good job of managing the health of their fish – with the result that wild fish in the vicinity of farms are also protected.
David Bevan, associate deputy minister, said DFO must manage salmon in the face of many "knowledge gaps," and because of that the department has adopted a precautionary approach.
Responding to questions from Tim Leadem, a lawyer for the Conservation Council, Mr. Bevan said that when managers think they know all the answers they can make big mistakes, and he cited the collapse of the northern cod fishery in the Atlantic as an example.
Don Rosenbloom, a lawyer for commercial gillnet and seine fishermen, asked Ms. Dansereau if she would agree DFO is unable to do its job properly because of past and continuing budget cuts.
"No, I'm not willing to say that," Ms. Dansereau said.
The Cohen Commission holds its final day of evidentiary hearings on Wednesday, then returns for final oral submissions, Nov. 4 to 10.