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Use closed containment for fish farms, ex-Canuck tells Cohen inquiry

Fish-farm critics got a high-profile assist on the first day of the Cohen commission's hearings on disease in fish populations, when former Vancouver Canucks defenceman Willie Mitchell showed up to advocate for closed-containment pens.

Mr. Mitchell, who grew up in the coastal fishing community of Port McNeill, B.C., had already sent the inquiry a written submission. In it, he called on the public inquiry to recommend fish farms move to closed containment to eliminate mortality stemming from sea lice.

Fish-farm opponents have argued that sea lice from the facilities are to blame for the collapse in Fraser River sockeye in 2009 – a collapse the commission was set up to investigate. The inquiry heard from a panel of experts Monday who said the exact reasons for the massive decline were unclear.

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Mr. Mitchell, a popular Canuck during his four seasons with the team, cautioned he's not a scientist. But in his first appearance at the inquiry he listened from the gallery and is not scheduled to testify. The 34-year-old said B.C.'s ecosystem is too valuable for him to simply stand on the sidelines.

"I've got a lot of friends who are employed by the fish-farming industry. I want them to have jobs, I want the province to grow. I just want to see it done in a safe way. In my opinion, if we move [fish farms] to land, we can do that," he told The Globe and Mail during a break in the proceedings.

Mr. Mitchell, who signed with the Los Angeles Kings in 2010, did his best not to point fingers at the fish-farm industry during the interview. He said he was more interested in finding a solution than laying blame.

But he said moving the farms to closed containment, so the fish within can't possibly come in contact with wild salmon and spread disease, is the right approach.

Monday marked the first day of testimony on disease in fish populations at the commission. Though the inquiry has been running for several months, its hearings have been relatively low-key. That will not be the case this week, with both disease and fish farms on the agenda. Usually empty seats in the downtown Vancouver hearing room were mostly full Monday.

Michael Kent, a professor of microbiology and biomedical sciences at Oregon State University, was one of four experts to appear before the panel. He said the reasons why millions of Fraser River sockeye failed to appear in 2009 are unclear.

"In my opinion, I don't see a smoking gun for the present situations," Prof. Kent said.

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"We cannot say that there is not an infectious agent, or other disease phenomenon that's played an important role in the survival of sockeye salmon. We just don't have any hard evidence to support that at this time."

Prof. Kent said little research has been done on diseases of wild salmonids. He said it was possible a disease could sweep through the fish without attracting the attention of scientists.

Craig Stephen, director of the centre for coastal health and faculty of veterinary medicine at the University of Calgary, said he also could not determine if diseases in fish farms presented potential for serious harm to Fraser River sockeye. Both he and Prof. Kent authored reports on the subject.

A lack of an adequate food supply and toxic algae were two other possible factors for the sockeye decline that were discussed during Monday's hearing.

Mary Ellen Walling, executive director of the BC Salmon Farmers Association, said the hearings have underlined the complexity of the sockeye issue.

"We saw a record return in 2010, one of the largest returns in over 100 years; 2009 was a very low return. This year, we're seeing a reasonable return. I think it's just one of those situations where there's not going to be an easy answer and I think people are starting to realize that."

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