Will Fisheries minister act in response to the Cohen Commission?

It has been nearly five months since the mammoth report of Justice Bruce Cohen on “The Uncertain Future of Fraser River Sockeye” was tabled with the Governor General. The Cohen Commission was set in motion in the fall of 2009 to explore the causes for the collapse of returning sockeye populations to the Fraser River. Cohen undertook a substantial process, with commissioned scientific research, testimony from scientists, First Nations, and the public. The result is a three-volume report of more than 1,000 pages, taking a critical look at the multiple threats to the survival of British Columbia’s wild salmon. While Cohen identified dozens of stressors on wild salmon, from climate change, to pollution, ocean acidification, over-fishing, habitat loss, and infectious disease, he characterized the results as having no one “smoking gun.” But his recommendations clearly point to salmon aquaculture and escape of sea lice and farmed fish as a contributing factor.

Of course, the weakening of the Fisheries Act and the removal of habitat protection is another blow. Cohen was highly critical of these changes brought in through the spring 2012 omnibus bill C-38. He was specifically angered that the changes to the Fisheries Act did not await the recommendations of this major commission of inquiry.

Here we are, nearly five months later, and the minister of Fisheries has not yet formally responded to the recommendations. It is getting to the point where time-limited recommendations will be stale-dated due to the non-response from the minister. For example, Cohen recommended that a “wild salmon policy implementation plan,” be developed, with specific and dedicated funding and be published no later than March 31, 2013.

Of the 75 recommendations, a key principle was established in his second recommendation:

“In relation to wild fisheries, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans should act in accordance with its paramount regulatory objective to conserve wild fish.” (emphasis added). This is a critical interpretation of the federal responsibility for the fisheries found in the Constitution. It appears to be one Prime Minister Stephen Harper would like to abandon. Flowing from this principle, Cohen also called for an end to DFO’s conflict of interest around farmed salmon. He called for the DFO mandate to promote aquaculture to be scrapped in favour of living up to its core mandatethe conservation of wild fish.

Cohen recommended the establishment of a moratorium on any new salmon farms near the Discovery Islands. And he called for more research into the stressors impacting salmon survival, including the threats associated with fish farms.

Ideally, these recommendations would lead to policy changes to assist in wild salmon recovery on both the West Coast and East Coast. Tremendous effort has gone into trying to restore wild Atlantic salmon populations. A once healthy and prosperous fishery is now closed. The only Atlantic salmon on the market are farmed, and the presence of open-pen salmon farms on coasts along New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, imperils Atlantic salmon recovery. The decision just this week by the Nova Scotia government to turn down a salmon farm near Sheet Harbour after a 22-month review, is further evidence that the plight of wild salmon needs a national lens.

In relation to aquaculture, the minister now has another report to consider. On March 7, 2013, the House Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans tabled its report on the potential for closed containment salmon aquaculture. While not as strongly-worded a report as Cohen’s, nevertheless it is to be noted when in our current hyper-partisan House, a committee issues a united report. The committee recommends in a number of ways that closed-containment aquaculture can be explored and supported. Of course, ensuring salmon are raised in tanks where the water is exchanged, but fish and disease are kept out of the environment, is an improvement. Nevertheless, it does not solve all the ecological downsides associated with fish farming.

We will continue to have the problem that a large proportion of the planet’s wild fish being turned into fish meal to be fed to carnivorous fish, like salmon, in aquaculture operations. Nevertheless, the report from the committee creates space for reacting to Cohen’s report and the committee’s report with a series of actions that could apply nationally to help protect and restore wild salmon populations.

Both reports now sit on the minister of Fisheries’ desk. Perhaps, since the Cohen report is so heavy, he could use those three volumes to bludgeon some sense into the Prime Minister’s Office whiz-kids who decided re-doing the federal responsibility for the nation’s fisheries would be without negative repercussions to the Conservative Party. Perhaps he could suggest that the changes to the Fisheries Act be reversed and that the Cohen and standing committee recommendations for the foundation for a policy shift. Maybe Harper could start protecting wild salmon instead of hurrying them along a path to extinction.

Originally published in the Hill Times.