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Cohen: Fish Act changes ‘troubling’

The Cohen report found no single cause, not fish farms, overfishing, pollution, natural predators or global warming, for the declining sockeye stocks which plunged in 2009, triggering the formation of the commission.  - The New/Files
The Cohen report found no single cause, not fish farms, overfishing, pollution, natural predators or global warming, for the declining sockeye stocks which plunged in 2009, triggering the formation of the commission.
— image credit: The New/Files

The federal government has the same hopes as the public and environmental groups for the Fraser River sockeye salmon.

It wants to see a "sustainable and prosperous salmon fishery for years to come," said Randy Kamp, local MP and fisheries parliamentary secretary.

And it wants "to work with stakeholders and partners, and review Justice Bruce Cohen's findings and recommendations carefully.

Kamp gave the assurance following Wednesday's release of the final report of the Cohen Commission on the Fraser River sockeye.

In the report titled "The Uncertain Future of Fraser River Sockeye," Cohen warns that further cuts to Fisheries and Oceans Canada are dangerous to B.C.'s iconic salmon species and run counter to his key finding that more research is needed.

"The shrinking resources of government, which may result in delays in implementing reforms and research, mean that the stressors to which sockeye are exposed and the deterioration of sockeye habitat will continue," he said.

And he said the changes made this year to the Fisheries Act that removes much of habitat protection were "troubling."

The report though found no single cause, not fish farms, overfishing, pollution, natural predators or global warming to the declining sockeye stocks which plunged in 2009, triggering the formation of the report.

For Geoff Clayton with the Alouette River Management Society, the report was a vindication of the society's position. Cohen visited ARMS Rivers Heritage Centre prior at the start of the process.

"We're feeling, generally speaking, exonerated by the Cohen Commission," Clayton said, particularly over their stance on fish farms and the Fisheries Act changes.

The Cohen report says an immediate freeze on new net pen salmon farms should be enforced between northern Vancouver Island and the mainland.

Fisheries also should get out of the business of promoting acquaculture, which creates conflict of interest when the department is charged with saving wild salmon.

Clayton said the government should have waited for the Cohen report before changing the Fisheries Act this summer. The changes remove protection of fish habitat from the act and instead focus on major fisheries.

"They've found themselves going 180 degrees from where Cohen is going.

"This doesn't really give me much hope that the federal government cared a fig for what Cohen was going to say. And Cohen has made this point himself."

But Clayton liked that the report didn't blame Fisheries staff. "We just can see that they're demoralized and their budgets slashed."

He pointed out fisheries staff jobs are all uncertain and Clayton said he's only heard that the government no longer needs the habitat branch because it's removing habitat protection from the act. "Very, very disappointing."

But there's been no consultation with provincial government as the federal presence winds down.

"We're all left in a state of confusion while (Prime Minister Stephen) Harper bullies his way through."

According to recent leaked documents, federal cuts mean the fisheries protection branch would be slashed from 90 to 60 workers.

"A few years ago, they had 120, so we're looking at a 50 per cent reduction," said Otto Langer, a former DFO biologist and habitat assessment manager.

"You're probably losing 33 per cent of your staff and probably 80 per cent of your experience."

A large habitat protection office in New Westminster would be eliminated and other offices and staff would be cut upstream along the Fraser River, he said.

That will leave fewer front-line scientists and allow salmon in B.C. rivers and streams exposed to damage from pollution, development and other threats, such as disease and overfishing.

Ross Davies with the Kanaka Education and Environmental Partnership Society, said until there's a definitive answer about what's safe for salmon stocks, caution should be the rule.

"I'd say listen to the scientists. Pay attention to what's happening on the ground. It's amazing how much we still don't know what goes on in the ocean.

"We're learning all the time and I hope what comes out of this is science based and not politically based."

NDP MLA Michael Sather said the report was "pretty hard hitting."

He hopes the government will follow the recommendations regarding fish farms and saying there was a lot of evidence, though not definitive, showing they were probably detrimental to wild salmon.

But that hasn't been considered when the locations are chosen for aquaculture, he added.

He said changing the Fisheries Act before the Cohen Commission final report "was a slap in the face."

Sather said he wrote to Kamp a few months ago but didn't get a reply.

with files from @Jeff Nagel

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