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Feds accused of ignoring Cohen's steps to save sockeye

Sockeye salmon in the Adams River heading upstream to spawn. A drop in returning sockeye to less than two million in 2009 prompted the federal government to appoint the Cohen inquiry.  - Black Press file photo
Sockeye salmon in the Adams River heading upstream to spawn. A drop in returning sockeye to less than two million in 2009 prompted the federal government to appoint the Cohen inquiry.
— image credit: Black Press file photo

Conservation groups are criticizing the federal government for inaction one year after the tabling of the Cohen Commission's exhaustive report on how to halt the decline of Fraser River sockeye salmon.

They say Justice Bruce Cohen's 75 recommendations have languished following the $26-million inquiry, with no sign of meaningful action from the federal government that dispatched him.

"There are a lot of people disappointed," Watershed Watch Salmon Society executive director Craig Orr said.

"What was hailed by many as a blueprint to sustain sockeye into the future is starting to look a lot more like a government retreat."

Cohen focused in large part on the potential risk to wild salmon from net pen fish farms and urged transparent sharing of disease data by the farms.

"We haven't seen that yet," Orr said, adding Ottawa should also take up Cohen's call to change how it regulates aquaculture.

"We want to see them fix the conflicted mandate of government – on the one hand promoting salmon farming while on the other supposedly protecting wild fish."

Orr said the provincial government is moving to update B.C.'s Water Act, potentially adding some additional protections, but added it's "a stretch" to think that will make up for the recent erosion of federal legislation protecting fish habitat.

The Fisheries Act was amended last year so its ban on damaging habitat now only outlaws "serious harm" to stocks that are actually fished by commercial, sport or aboriginal users.

Fisheries and Oceans Minister Gail Shea said in a statement the government is continuing a Cohen-recommended moratorium on new salmon farms in the Discovery Islands zone near Campbell River and that it "will not be lifted for the foreseeable future."

Shea said Cohen's findings are helping guide day-to-day work protecting salmon.

"We are responding to his recommendations not by producing another written document, but by taking concrete actions that make a real difference."

In a separate interview, Shea told Black Press the Cohen recommendations led to a doubling of fishing enforcement on the Pacific salmon fishery in August and September.

Using aerial surveillance and on-water enforcement, fisheries officers seized 10 vessels and 66 nets this year, an increase from the previous year.

Ottawa spends $65 million a year on Pacific salmon initiatives, $20 million of that directly tied to Fraser sockeye.

John Fraser, a former fisheries minister and speaker of the House of Commons who once led an earlier four-year probe of B.C. salmon stocks, said Ottawa deserves credit for steering extra money to Pacific salmon projects, but scolded the lack of response to Cohen.

"Quite frankly, there isn't any excuse for it," Fraser said. "And I say that as a lifetime Conservative."

He was among critics who warn the salmon outlook is further clouded by the Fisheries Act changes and deep cuts to biologists and other Department of Fisheries and Oceans staff.

DFO staff are acting without new regulations spelling out how changes to the act will be applied, he said, and increasingly with inadequate research.

"If you don't have the science, you don't know what you're doing," he said. "You're diminishing your capacity to know what you need to know to do your duty."

Cohen's three-volume report did not point to any single culprit for the two-decade slide in sockeye numbers.

But he targeted 11 recommendations at the aquaculture industry and said warmer ocean water due to climate change is likely a big factor, in combination with others.

– with files from Tom Fletcher

Aquaculture workers process salmon grown at a coastal fish farm. Photo – B.C. Salmon Farmers Association.

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