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General · 6th December 2012
Ray Grigg
After three years of evidence, study and writing, Justice Bruce Cohen has finally submitted his $26 million Report on the disappearance of the Fraser River sockeye salmon. Despite being written in the restrained language of the judiciary, it is explicitly and implicitly explosive, condemning of the federal government's environmental policies, scathing in its assessment of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), and critical of the salmon farming industry.

One of the most impressive qualities of Justice Cohen's report is its perspective. While it acknowledges the deleterious effect on wild salmon from warming oceans and rivers due to global climate change, it recognizes that the longterm future of wild salmon is bleak without the proper funding, research and supervision by the federal government. Such a splendid, valuable and crucially important natural resource cannot continue to exist if it is not properly protected, managed and appreciated. According to Justice Cohen, the federal government's abdication of its responsibility for this ecological treasure has been unwise and “troubling”.

The predominance of politics over responsibility is echoed in the actions and inactions of DFO. While Justice Cohen praises the efforts of lower level fisheries officials who work heroically in a regime of ongoing constraints, his Report highlights DFO's contradictory goals of promoting salmon farming while being mandated to protect wild salmon. The two are mutually exclusive. His comments are an unequivocal condemnation of political interference within DFO and, by implication, confirmation of the detrimental effects of salmon farming on wild salmon.

Noteworthy is the fact that, of the 75 recommendations made by Justice Cohen, a disproportionally high number — 11 of them — deal specifically with salmon farming and the constraints that need to be placed on this industry if wild salmon are to prosper. Since global climate change, impaired ocean conditions, pollution and habitat loss are threats difficult to address, the negative effects of salmon farming become particularly conspicuous because they can be corrected immediately and easily by simple administrative measures.

Justice Cohen is explicit in some of these recommendations. For example, #16 and #17 specify that siting of salmon farms along the migration routes of wild fish be reviewed based on current scientific knowledge, and that those farms in the migration routes of Fraser River sockeye should be relocated.

Salmon farms in the Discovery Islands are of particular concern. #14 calls for a moratorium on all farmed salmon expansion located there. #18 specifies that, “If at any time between now and September 30, 2020, the minister of fisheries and oceans determines that net-pen salmon farms in the Discovery Islands (fish health sub-zone 3-2) pose more than a minimal risk of serious harm to the health of migrating Fraser River sockeye salmon, he or she should promptly order that those salmon farms cease operations.” And #19 is more prescriptive and comprehensive. After appropriate “research and analysis”, net-pen salmon farming should be prohibited in the Discovery Islands if any more than “a minimal risk of serious harm to the health of migrating Fraser River sockeye salmon” is determined.

The Discovery Islands area is a noted geographical constriction between Vancouver Island and the mainland where most migrating Fraser River fish are forced to travel. With only nine of its 70 farms are located there, the salmon farming industry would experience limited economic impact should these sites be closed. Perhaps, then, the industry should close them voluntarily to ensure the safe passage of migrating salmon, avoid the cost of multiple studies, and take an ethically high position by exercising the Precautionary Principle. This would be a symbolic gesture of good faith since extensive studies have already implicated these salmon farms in the transfer of sea lice and disease to the migrating wild fish.

Justice Cohen's Report, however, has much wider implications than just the Discovery Islands. While he was mandated to review only the cause of the collapse in Fraser River sockeye, his recommendations clearly apply to other wild salmon. Recommendation #68 acknowledges that disease and sea lice are likely emanating from all salmon farms, clear recognition that concentrating large numbers of contained fish in confined conditions creates breeding sites for pathogens and parasites which are an obvious threat to virtually every salmon swimming within proximity of the net-pens. Many salmon farms happen to be located along migration routes where the most damage is done. Indeed, the entire salmon farming industry, as it is presently practiced, is under suspicion.

Perhaps the most damning assessment of the tripartite fiasco created by government, DFO and salmon farming is captured in just a few words by Justice Cohen. “I accept the evidence that devastating disease could sweep through the wild populations, killing large numbers of wild fish without scientists being aware of it.” This dramatically and succinctly summarizes the deplorable state of the present situation. DFO has so blatantly mismanaged, compromised and neglected wild salmon that it has no idea of what is happening to them, why it is happening, and wouldn't know if it did happen.

The source of such “devastating disease”, although not expressly stated by Justice Cohen, points directly to the salmon farming industry. This is what Justice Cohen would have deduced after reconvening his Commission for three days of exceptional hearings in December, 2011, to hear new evidence of the unprecedented presence in BC’s wild salmon of infectious salmon anemia (ISAv) — an alien disease that could only have reached the West Coast with farmed fish.

Wild salmon are failing because they are being subjected to undue risks. The thrust of Justice Cohen's recommendations is to first exercise precaution in our management of this crucial resource, and then to use open, serious and thorough research to identify and eliminate these risks.