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Senior scientist quits Cohen Commission panel

Sockeye salmon in a river in the Bristol Bay, Alaska watershed in 2007.

Ben Knight/Ben Knight/The Associated Press

One of six members of a science advisory panel for a federal inquiry into declining Fraser River sockeye salmon stocks has quit so he can be a witness at the probe.

Brian Riddell, president and CEO of the Vancouver-based Pacific Salmon Foundation, which works to improve salmon habitat and enhance salmon populations, spotlighted the witness issue in a statement on Wednesday that constituted his only comment on his resignation.

Through a spokesman at the foundation, Mr. Riddell declined an interview request to elaborate on his statement.

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He said he agreed to serve on the panel of the inquiry out of a commitment to studying and sustaining Pacific salmon, "with my initial understanding that panel members could also be called as witnesses.

"However, that understanding has now changed. The commission policy is now that panel members cannot be called as witnesses."

Carla Shore, a spokeswoman for the inquiry, said it's "highly likely" Mr. Riddell will be called as a witness, and noted that he had made a "helpful" contribution, to date, to the inquiry process.

If other members of the panel are to be called as witnesses, they will be asked to step down, she said.

Conservative MP John Cummins, who has challenged the credibility of the panel of scientists, said Mr. Riddell should never have been appointed because of conflicts of interest created by his 30-year career as a scientist with the fisheries department.

Mr. Cummins, a former commercial fisherman now MP for Delta-Richmond East, said other members of the panel should be dismissed because they have similar associations with the federal department that raise questions about their credibility.

But Ms. Shore said, "We have full confidence in the members of our advisory panel to provide us with independent scientific advice."

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Mr. Riddell, in his statement, said the commission has an excellent scientific panel that will provide "objective and trustworthy advice."

"I will continue to support the objectives of the commission, as the future sustainability of Fraser sockeye salmon is a worthy objective for all Canadians."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed the commission, which is being headed by B.C. Supreme Court Justice Bruce Cohen, late last year to study the decline of sockeye salmon in the Fraser River, and make recommendations for improving the sustainability of the fishery, including possible changes to the policies of the federal fisheries department.

It is to begin hearing evidence in the fall.

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