The Hon. Bruce Cohen today presented to the public the final report of his Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River, titled “The Uncertain Future of Fraser River Sockeye.”
Under the Terms of Reference for the Cohen Commission, which was established on November 5, 2009, the Commissioner was charged to investigate and report on the decline of sockeye salmon in the Fraser River and make recommendations for improving the future sustainability of the fishery. This report comes after 179 witnesses testifying at 138 days of hearings, 2,145 exhibits, and 892 public submissions, and is the culmination of the commission’s work.
In “The Uncertain Future of Fraser River Sockeye,” Commissioner Bruce Cohen discussed the causes for the decades-long decline in productivity of Fraser River sockeye salmon and makes 75 recommendations to improve the future sustainability of the fishery.
“Some, I suspect, hoped that our work would find the “smoking gun” – a single cause that explained the two-decade decline in productivity – but finding that a single event or stressor is responsible is improbable,” said Cohen.
He noted that the inquiry uncovered extensive information about potential causes for the decline of Fraser River sockeye, but it also demonstrated how much is still unknown about individual stressors as well as cumulative effects and delayed effects. He found that stressors specific to the Fraser River, as well as region-wide influences, may both have contributed to the long-term decline.
“Further research is crucial to understanding the long-term productivity and sustainability of Fraser River sockeye salmon,” said Cohen. “Notably, a better understanding is needed of the migratory and feeding patterns in all marine areas. I heard enough evidence about warming waters to conclude that climate change is a significant stressor for sockeye and in combination with other stressors, may determine the fate of the fishery.”
Cohen emphasized that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) should fully implement and fund both the 2005 Wild Salmon Policy and the1986 Habitat Policy. “DFO should develop and publish a detailed implementation plan as set out in the Wild Salmon Policy and, without further delay, honour its commitment to implementation,” he noted. “The goals of the Habitat Policy and its No Net Loss principle are sound and should be retained.”
To address the potential conflict for DFO between promoting salmon farms and regulating them, the Commissioner recommended that DFO no longer be responsible for promoting salmon farming as an industry and farmed salmon as a product. “As long as DFO has a mandate to promote salmon farming, there is a risk that it will act in a manner that favours the interests of the salmon farming industry over the health of wild fish stocks,” he said.
The Commissioner concluded that salmon farms along the sockeye migration route in the Discovery Islands have the potential to introduce exotic diseases and to aggravate endemic diseases which can have a negative impact on Fraser River sockeye. “Mitigation measures should not be delayed in the absence of scientific certainty,” he said.
For that reason, Cohen recommended a freeze on net-pen salmon farm production in the Discovery Islands until September 30, 2020. “If by that date, DFO cannot confidently say the risk of serious harm to wild stocks is minimal, it should then prohibit all net-pen salmon farms from operating in the Discovery Islands,” he said. Cohen also recommended that if before September 30, 2020, the government determines that salmon farms pose more than a minimal risk to Fraser River sockeye, the government prohibit their operation immediately.
In his three-volume report, the Commissioner reviewed all the evidence he heard at the inquiry’s hearings and public input. Volume one reviews evidence related to the sockeye fishery, volume two discusses causes of the decline, and volume three presents recommendations and a review of the commission’s process, as well as an executive summary of the report.
Cohen said that implementing his recommendations should begin immediately. “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 noted. “I urge the federal government, in the interests of conserving this iconic species of salmon, to heed my findings and to implement these recommendations.”
The Commissioner also commented on recent amendments to the environmental assessment process and the Fisheries Act. “I find the thrust of some of these amendments to be troubling,” said Commissioner Cohen. “Many experts have emphasized the importance of protecting fish habitat, promoting biodiversity and adopting ecosystem-based management practices. However, the recent amendments to the Fisheries Act appear to be taking DFO in a very different direction.”
The final report of the Cohen Commission is available online at www.cohencommission.ca
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