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A recovery team that was set up to restore an endangered run of sockeye salmon was not consulted by the government before a decision was made in Ottawa not to list the fish under the Species At Risk Act.

And the team, which was supposed to save the Cultus Lake sockeye population from extinction, was disbanded in 2004 shortly after team members questioned the economic rationale for the then Liberal government's decision, the Cohen Commission of inquiry has been told.

Neil Schubert and Michael Bradford, both Department of Fisheries and Oceans officials assigned to help restore Cultus sockeye, confirmed that the department reached a decision to recommend against SARA listing before the recovery team was consulted.

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And Mr. Schubert said the team was disbanded, in 2004, shortly after it raised questions about the economic analysis the government based its recommendation on.

The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) called for an emergency SARA listing after the Cultus sockeye population plunged from more than 20,000 to less than 1,000 annual spawners, largely because of fishing pressure.

But the Cohen Commission heard earlier this week that the government rejected the COSEWIC proposal because closing fisheries to protect Cultus fish would have cost $126-million in lost revenue.

Brenda Gaertner, a lawyer for 12 native bands that have standing at the Cohen Commission under the First Nations Coalition banner, suggested during cross examination that the recovery team was disbanded because it questioned the government's decision.

"There were certainly members of the team that voiced that view, that we were being disbanded as a team because we had had the audacity to criticize the socioeconomic analysis," Mr. Schubert replied.

Among documents filed as evidence at the inquiry are minutes from a Cultus sockeye recovery team meeting, in the fall of 2004, when "members expressed disappointment that the team wasn't provided an opportunity to comment on the socio-economic evaluations."

The minutes also show members were concerned the economic analysis was wrong and that it did not consider the future value of saving the run.

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"One member wondered how he could tell his clients that these fish are important when there is a perception that [DFO]does not believe they are. Another suggests that, if these species can't be listed, will it ever be possible to list any economically utilized species."

Cultus fish spawn in a small lake near Chilliwack, about 100 kilometres east of Vancouver. They are genetically unique, but they look identical to other sockeye and are taken in commercial nets set for other, larger runs of fish.

DFO has been trying to restore the run through a hatchery program and by killing northern pike minnows, a fish that preys on young sockeye in Cultus Lake.

Dr. Bradford said those efforts have had some success, but the four-year average for Cultus sockeye remains at 1,000 fish. He said that is enough "to get it off life support … but we are a long way" from rebuilding the stock to previous levels.

Editor's note: Neil Schubert, head of the freshwater ecosystems section of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, testified at the Cohen Commission that "there were certainly members of the team that voiced that view, that we were being disbanded as a team because we had had the audacity to criticize the socioeconomic analysis." Incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of this story. This version has been corrected.

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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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