Justice Bruce Cohen demanded urgent government action to save wild salmon. Instead, the situation has deteriorated.
By Katherine Palmer Gordon (First published in the December 2013 edition of Focus Magazine)
On October 31 last year, there was cheering in the streets when the Cohen Commission released its final report. Commissioner Bruce Cohen, who had been tasked with investigating the rapidly declining Fraser River sockeye salmon run, made no less than 75 recommendations for immediate action to save the wild fish, including taking strong measures against the impacts of net-pen Atlantic salmon farms. He also set deadlines for compliance that he expected the federal government to meet.
Wild salmon advocates were overjoyed; the tide seemed to have turned in their favour at long last. Craig Orr, executive director of Vancouver-based Watershed Watch, was highly optimistic about the Cohen report, telling Focus in last December’s issue that this time, things would be different: “It’s a very powerful report,” Orr exclaimed enthusiastically. “It captures information that might never have seen the light of day otherwise. That’s permanently on the record now.”
A year later, however, Orr’s enthusiasm has faded into frustration: “It’s still a very important report,” he insists, “but the lack of commitment by government to it is infuriating. I don’t know if the message isn’t getting through to government, or they are just ignoring it. There has been no meaningful action taken to implement any of the recommendations in the report—none.”
Apart from his recommendations, Cohen also skewered Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) in his report for mismanagement, conflicts of interest, and failure to carry out its mandate to protect wild fish and their habitat. But there is nothing to indicate that DFO’s leadership took that as a clarion call to take corrective action. If anything, what DFO has been doing suggests the opposite.
Immediately after its release the report vanished into DFO’s internal system, and hasn’t been seen since. In the meantime, 14 of Cohen’s recommendations with deadlines attached to them have passed, including the publication by March 2013 of an implementation plan for DFO’s 2005 Wild Salmon Policy. Cohen applauded the policy, stating that it contains vital steps for protecting the wild fish. But he also questioned why it hadn’t been implemented seven years later. Thirteen months later, there is still no sign of one. “How long does it take to draw up an implementation plan?” wonders Orr.
Another March deadline called for the development of revised criteria for siting of fish farms so as to protect wild salmon on important migratory routes. Any farms not meeting the new criteria were to be shut down immediately. That too hasn’t happened: “I’m not aware that any such criteria have even been considered. These deadlines appear to be completely meaningless to government,” concludes Orr.
DFO Minister Gail Shea refused all media interviews on the report’s first anniversary on October 31, issuing a short written statement instead: “Our Government has long recognized the importance of protecting sockeye salmon in the Fraser River…we are responding to Justice Cohen’s recommendations not by producing another written document but by taking concrete actions that make a real difference.”
But a difference to whom? Cohen strongly criticized the conflict of interest between DFO’s duty to protect wild fish and its mandate to promote fish farming, and recommended separating the two. That hasn’t been done either, and it looks like it won’t, if Shea’s statement is anything to go by. Indeed, the contents of the statement illustrate perfectly why Cohen was critical of the conflict, in terms that would be laughable if they didn’t so blatantly favour farmed fish at the expense of wild salmon.
Shea hasextended a moratorium on aquaculture development in the Discovery Islands, an area in which migrating wild salmon are particularly vulnerable to diseases transmitted from farmed fish. But she also omitted to mention that seven existing net-pen operations in that area are free to continue their activities unabated.
She also proudly announced a $57.5 million commitment—not to wild salmon environmental protection, but to the aquaculture industry, to “help bolster environmental protection” in that sector. By contrast recreational fisheries received a paltry $1.8 million for wild fish conservation, and the Pacific Salmon Foundation just $1 million a year.
Shea did assert that the government invests more than $65 million annually in Pacific salmon, of which about $20 million is directly related to Fraser River sockeye. But let’s just have a quick look at those figures in context. How much money is actually being spent on the fish remains far from clear, and she didn’t elaborate. The 2013 federal government budget isn’t precise enough to identify whether the sums quoted are accurate, nor on what that money is spent: It’s quite likely that a large portion of it is going to bureaucratic salaries and other DFO overhead.
The budget does however list DFO’s strategic priorities, in this order: “economically prosperous” maritime sectors and fisheries take precedence over “sustainable aquatic ecosystems.” It’s a priority that’s reflected in the dollar figures as well. DFO’s total budget for 2013/2014 is $1.67 billion. Boosting economics gets $421.5 million; sustainable ecosystems, a little more than half of that at just $238.7 million.
The report card on the provincial government reads slightly better, at least in terms of habitat management. Tagged in eight of Cohen’s recommendations, BC accepted them in principle five months later.
Urged to complete a review of the provincial Water Actwith the goal of regulating issues that affect Fraser River sockeye, it released the proposed new legislation in October 2013 and plans to enact the modernized legislation (to be renamed the Water Sustainability Act) in 2014. If passed, development decisions and groundwater use will be constrained in future by potential impacts on stream health and water quality. The provincial government has also been putting pressure on local governments to complete and enforce riparian protection regulation within their boundaries, as recommended by Cohen.
So far, so good. However, things fall down again when it comes to the fish farm industry. While it committed in March this year not to issue any new tenure agreements for net-pen fish farms in the Discovery Islands, at the same time the government stated it remained fully committed to a “sustainable” aquaculture industry. They took that position into the May election (as did the BCNDP) and neither party has changed its position since.
In the meantime, veteran wild fish campaigner Alexandra Morton has continued her battle against fish farms and associated diseases killing our wild fish. A 2013 online documentary called Salmon Confidential by independent producer Twyla Roscovich (reviewed in the May issue of Focus) made it damningly clear not only that deadly diseases are invading our waters, but that DFO, in collusion with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), is conspiring to hide that fact from consumers.
Despite large numbers of BC fish (both wild and farmed) testing positive for a variety of diseases, CFIA continues to deny that is the case. In fact—apparently determined to undermine the credibility of Morton’s results at any cost—CFIA went as far as orchestrating the removal in July this year of international credentials from the Prince Edward Island laboratory that Morton had been using to test her samples.
Laboratory director Dr Fred Kibenge had reported positive results for infectious salmon anemia virus in several of Morton’s samples, and told the Cohen Commission so. The CFIA immediately leapt into action, pushing for audits of his work. “What they are doing is essentially punishing me for having testified,” Kibenge told theGlobe and Mailnewspaper. “They’re trying to suppress my findings.”
They haven’t succeeded; at least, not yet. Morton continues to publicize her work, and in July a report co-authored by Morton with Kibenge and others was published in Virology Journal, a peer-reviewed scientific journal published in London, England. The report proves that piscine reovirus is present in BC waters, and that it came from Norway, the source of most of the Atlantic salmon produced in local fish farms.
We are also faced with some other hard facts. The 2013 Fraser River run was as disastrous as ever. Rising water temperatures, almost certainly attributable to the accumulated impacts of climate change, saw 70 percent of the fish dying before reaching the spawning grounds. Fishing for all salmon species in the river was banned completely in mid-August in a desperate attempt to allow the few fish coming upriver to spawn. The same thing happened on the Skeena River.
So what now? “We’ve polled British Columbians,” says Orr, “and the overwhelming response is strong support for protecting wild salmon, but it’s hard for people to figure out how to translate that into hard action.”
Morton regularly begs for donations to help support paying the enormous laboratory bills that she faces. She doesn’t receive anywhere close enough to cover them. Orr says Watershed Watch has circulated a petition demanding action on the Cohen report, but by mid-November it had only attracted a few hundred signatures. Orr postulates, “People feel disenfranchised, and powerless against our government. They feel government simply ignores them, so they don’t even try anymore.”
We’ll have only ourselves to blame if a generation from now the Cohen Commission report lies forgotten in a dusty archive and there are no wild salmon left in BC for us to try and save.
Katherine Palmer Gordon is the author of six books of non-fiction, including several BC Bestsellers and a Haig-Brown prize-winner. Her most recent book, We Are Born with the Songs Inside Us: Lives and Stories of First Nations People in British Columbia, has just been released by Harbour Publishing.