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salmon inquiry

Timber Whitehouse checks the sockeye salmon stock on the Adams River on Oct. 26, 2011JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail

Some who took part in the inquiry looking into why millions of sockeye salmon vanished from one of British Columbia's most prized fisheries are already anticipating what the report might say, and many believe the news won't be good for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

After listening to 160 witnesses, compiling 14,000 pages of transcripts and 2,100 exhibits, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Bruce Cohen must deliver his report to the federal government by Monday, although it remains unclear when, or even if, the document will be made public.

One of the groups that participated in the inquiry is the Watershed Watch Salmon Society. Its executive director, Craig Orr, said he believes the inquiry has proven major reforms are needed in how fisheries and natural resources are managed by the federal government.

"The evidence was really clear that government is going to have quite a report on its hands, and there's going to be a very high expectation that there's going to be some major changes made," he said.

"The bigger question I think ... is [whether] government is going to have any meaningful reactions to the report, other than the usual deny, delay and distract kind of approach that we seem to get."

The federal government called the Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River and appointed Judge Cohen as commissioner in November, 2009. The bill for the inquiry is expected to be at least $26-million.

Months earlier, an estimated 1.4-million sockeye showed up in B.C.'s rivers and streams in a run that was projected to be around 10 million. The offspring of those salmon are expected to return to the Fraser River during the summer of 2013.

The inquiry began in August, 2010, and ended in December, 2011. During the course of its hearings, the commission tackled some 40 themes, ranging from aboriginal fishing to aquaculture, commercial fishing to disease, habitat management and enforcement to predation.

Melanie Carkner, a spokeswoman for Fisheries and Oceans Canada, said in an e-mail to The Canadian Press the department wouldn't be commenting or providing interviews on the report until it's tabled.

But Mr. Orr said many are cynical of the process because the federal government announced changes to legislation like the Fisheries Act, Environmental Assessment Act and Navigable Waters Protection Act and even announced a new salmon farm while Judge Cohen was still doing his job.

Members of the West Coast Trollers Area G Association are also skeptical about the process, said Kathy Scarfo, the group's president.

She said her members have been prevented from participating in the Fraser River fishery, even in 2010 when a record run of 25 million sockeye returned to the Fraser River. Ms. Scarfo even questioned whether there's been an actual decline in the sockeye runs because salmon are cyclical.

Nonetheless, Scarfo said members participated because they thought the process was important, but what they saw reflected poorly on the department.

"Everything else within the Department of Fisheries and Oceans stopped during the inquiry because they reallocated all their resources to that inquiry, and it wasn't to try assist the inquiry in finding the solutions but it was basically to block," she said. "I mean so much time was spent with them just blocking access to documents."

Her biggest concern, said Scarfo, is the report will reflect what DFO wants, and that's the rearranging, reorganizing and reallocating of the commercial fishery, not rebuilding stocks.

Phil Eidsvik, who represents the B.C. Fisheries Survival Coalition and Southern Area E Gillnetters Association, said much of the evidence put before the commission showed the problem was the management of the fishery, with some exceptions.

"But as a general rule, the chaos comes from inside DFO, not from the oceans and waters and lakes and rivers."

Eidsvik said while some runs remain in good shape, others aren't, and he said the commission never answered who has been fishing and who hasn't, and what fishery was responsible for any declines.

"That was a source of frustration for us," he said.

Ernie Crey, adviser to the Sto-lo Tribal Council, hopes the report will inform the public and will help DFO better manage future fisheries.

Crey said it will be hard for the department to "side step" or "dodge" Cohen's recommendations, adding the report is relevant because offspring of the 2009 run will be returning in 2013

"Look the sockeye come back every year," he added. "And so the relevance of this report in my view is applicable in each and every summer and each and every summer Fraser River sockeye return."

Mary Ellen Walling, executive director of the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association, said it's clear pressure must be taken off the wild salmon stocks and farmed salmon can help achieve that goal.

"We're seeing growing demand for salmon in the Canadian marketplace, the U.S. marketplace, the European marketplace, the Asian market," she said. "It's very important that we be able to provide that seafood to the world population in a responsible and sustainable way.

Walling said about three weeks of testimony focused on aquaculture.

As for how many salmon will return in 2013, experts say that's a little hard to predict, even when past reruns are taken into consideration.

Mike Lapointe, chief biologist of the Pacific Salmon Commission Secretariat, said it's a little like predicting what the weather will be like next week.

"A safe bet is it will be wet, but how many days will be wet and how much rain," he said in an email response to The Canadian Press.

Lapointe said experts won't have a better idea about those returns until sometime in late August or early September 2013 when officials will have in-season estimates, and those officials won't get estimates from the spawning grounds until December 2013 or even January or February 2014.

"So forecasting is not an exact science by any means, and it is important for the public not to have false confidence," he said.

Cohen's report, which must be submitted in both official languages, originally faced a deadline of May 1, 2011, but that deadline was extended to June 30, 2012, Sept. 30, 2012, and then Oct. 29, 2012.

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