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Fresh Water

News, views and analysis from our team as we work to create solutions to conservation challenges facing our planet.


The uncertain future of the Cohen Commission Report

“The Uncertain Future of Fraser River Sockeye” is the title Mr. Justice Cohen gave to the Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River report released six months ago today. No wonder. Look what the sockeye are up against.

The Fraser, the world’s mightiest salmon producing river, drains into the Pacific Ocean in BC’s most industrialized zone. Coursing past farms, plants, log booms, ports, factories, sewage plants, gravel mines, houses, condos, casinos, and ending at the airport, it’s a wonder that millions of salmon survive their journey down the Fraser, out to sea,  and back again each year. But survive they do, at least so far, despite the general downwards trend documented by the Cohen report.

linda nowlan cohen commission

(C) Linda Nowlan, WWF-Canada

Is the fate of the Cohen report as uncertain as the fate of the sockeye? Let’s hear from its author.

Last Friday Mr. Justice Cohen spoke at the AGM of the BC Wildlife Federation. He reviewed the lengthy $26 million, 3 year process that culminated in the 1100 page three volume report with 75 recommendations.

He noted that the BC Wildlife Federation’s voice echoed the unequivocal refrain he heard: We will not tolerate damaging or harming sockeye.

His advisory, impartial, fact-based, and public report reminded the federal Department of Fisheries of its paramount regulatory objective- to conserve wild fish.

There is no single cause for sockeye’s decline, according to Cohen. “Stressors” are to blame, and the list is lengthy, including climate change, infectious disease, contaminants, pre-spawn mortality, marine conditions, pathogens, human activities and development (logging, agriculture, gravel removal, pulp and paper mills, metal mining, municipal wastewater) predators and aquaculture.

Although there was insufficient evidence to determine whether disease transfer from salmon farms was a cause of decline, he recommended restrictions on licensing of aquaculture farms along the migratory route of Fraser sockeye to protect wild salmon.

And he reached “the uncomfortable conclusion that reducing deposits of contaminants and municipal wastewater into the Fraser River, or increasing productive sockeye habitat, will not make a big difference if climate change increases the temperature of those same waters to a level that is lethal to Fraser River sockeye. Although we must address the impact of contaminants and habitat loss, we cannot stop there. Warming waters is the elephant in the room that we cannot ignore.”

Are there any signs his recommendations will make a difference?  The province of BC appears ready to complete modernization of the BC Water Act as the Commission encouraged.

But so far there’s only been silence from the federal government.

Two policies singled out as essential for salmon survival are in limbo. Failure to implement, cost out, and put someone in charge of the 2005 Wild Salmon Policy WSP is ‘gravely disappointing’. Full implementation of the 1986 Habitat Policy is in doubt due to weakening of the Fisheries Act habitat provisions.

Referring to the latest round of new budget and staff cuts to DFO, Mr. Justice Cohen told the audience of fishers and anglers: “That’s where the system breaks down. They [DFO] simply don’t have the resources to do the job.”

After assiduously combing through 25 previous inquiries with 700 previous recommendations, the Commission found that most have been ignored.

And the fate of his own report? Mr. Justice Cohen said Friday that he hopes the report’s salmon saving solutions will be put in place soon.

He ended his talk with a poem by A.P. Herbert, “The Sad Fate of a Royal Commission”:

“I am the Royal Commission on Kissing

Appointed by Gladstone in Seventy-four.

The rest of my colleagues are buried or missing,

Our minutes were lost in the Last Great War,

But still I’m a Royal Commission

My work I intend to see through,

Though I know as an old politician

Not a thing will be done if I do.”