Missing Sockeye Salmon – The fate of a British Columbian Icon


Glen O'Niell

The Pacific salmon emerges into life in the river, a sacred place of birth and death separate from the majority of the creature’s sentient life, which is spent exploring the wildest remaining ocean in the world. From the moment it emerges from the river’s depths to the time that it lays itself to rest on gravel beds, it is in a constant state of martyrdom for the surrounding ecosystem, feeding eagles, bears, wolves, whales, forests, the atmosphere and humans. The story of the salmon is a narrative that every British Columbian knows to be one of the most iconic, important, mysterious and spiritual of all stories native to this bioregion. The wild salmon is the backbone of the Coast, having sustained the First Nations and settler societies since their origins. It is a creature that overlaps colonial and First Nations timelines, as well as fresh- and salt-water ecosystems. This species defines the Pacific coast.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has taken a special interest in the Fraser River. In 2009, the Cohen Commission was established to investigate the disappearance of a healthy, stable Sthəqe’y (Sockeye) Salmon run — a run that has historically been regarded as the aorta of southwestern B.C. Lead by Justice Bruce Cohen, the mandate of the commission is to “investigate and report on the reasons for the decline of sockeye salmon in the Fraser River,” according to a November 2009 press release from the Prime Minister’s Office.

The implications of the commission’s findings are as significant as they could be. There is a direct impact on the First Nations subsistence and culture, founding commercial and sport fisheries, ecotourism and —most importantly — dependent ecology.

No media, no message

Mark Hume, a Globe and Mail reporter who has been covering the Cohen Commission since the beginning, recognizes the importance of the Commission.

“It’s a hugely important resource. It’s a judicial inquiry ordered by the prime minister himself with a budget of over $20 million dollars for an investigation, the likes of which we’ve never seen in North America,” he said.

But Hume is confused and concerned as to why he is one of the only journalists following the story.

“I’m dumbfounded by it,” said Hume. “The place is empty. The media room is empty. There are a few [non-governmental organizations] sitting there taking notes. That’s it.”

Elena Edwards, a salmon activist who has spent much of her time sitting through arduous hearings and public forums since the Commission started, is equally concerned over the lack of media — and public — focus on the Commission.

“Besides the fact that it is boring, there is a failure to recognize what is at stake here,” she said. “You have the fate of the Fraser River sockeye at hand, and we want to know what the solutions are going to be . . . More or less there is a battle going on over the salmon right now.”

Alex Morton believes the Commission is “an amazing process.” Morton has been

granted standing in the Commission as part of the Aquaculture Coalition, a consortium of herself, Raincoast Research Society and the Pacific Coast Wild Salmon Society.

“An enormous effort has gone into the database [of compiled Commission data] and [the data] deserve to be read,” said Morton. “My commitment is not to read them all over, but to look at them all. We’ve never had he opportunity to look behind the scenes at patterns. They were never available.”

Morton and Edwards have both been at the forefront of the Commission’s findings, following how things develop. Edwards has been bearing witness to the hearings and public forums since an initial site visit to Cheam Beach (near Agassiz) on Aug. 12, 2010. She has attended the majority of the commission’s public forums in Lillooet, Prince Rupert, Campbell River, Stevenson, Nanaimo, Prince George, Victoria, New Westminster, Chilliwack and Kamloops. She finally settled into Vancouver’s Federal Courthouse for the formal Evidentiary Hearings.

“[Cohen is] very respectful and takes everyone seriously. But when he goes to Ottawa, the question is about the decision he makes. Is it going to be made by big business or real concern?” Edwards said. “When he does speak, he’s very considerate . . . I was really impressed with the way the judge is respectful to the First Nations. He seems to get the impression that there is an actual culture at stake here.”

First Nations interests

Relations between the courts and First Nations are of paramount importance to the Commission, as it relates to the larger situation of land claims and a historically shaky relationship between the colonial courts and First Peoples.

“The racism is still very strong around salmon,” Edwards said.

There are seven First Nations communities that have had their treaties put on hold, their debts mounting, waiting until the Cohen Commission announces its findings. And their wait has gotten longer since January, when the Commission was granted a 13-month extension and an additional $11 million dollars to submit its final report.

This year, First Nations engaged in treaty negotiations are looking at a $30 million loan to pay for slow and arduous negotiation processes. The extension granted to the Cohen Commission means that those negotiations that have salmon fishing rights on the table must swallow a larger bill.

Several people are speaking out against the delays, however.

“The Cohen inquiry should not continue to be used as an excuse not to get on with business at the treaty table,” said Sophie Pierre, chief commissioner for the B.C. Treaty Commission in an interview with the Globe and Mail.

The elephant, the mammoth

The Commission’s extension has elicited mixed emotions. While it’s important to have a thorough job done and to hear from all parties, the amount of money has made some people, including the participants, shake their heads.

“The amount of money is mind-boggling. And the money isn’t going to the participants,” said Morton. “I don’t understand why [the extension is] a year. They should be compiling this as they go. If it’s not out until June then we miss another whole cycle [of salmon].”

The Commission must investigate 75,000 core documents (not including emails) from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), 400,000 DFO emails (dating back five years), and 35,000 government documents from other departments. And the 21 official participants in the inquiry have contributed another 3,600 documents.

“It is understandable that this inquiry wants to be as thorough as possible,” said Edwards. “But given that a very common theme in the courtroom is a lack of adequate funding for studies, habitat conservation and employment, it is rather ironic that over $3.5 million is being spent on issues that have been brought up many times before. Indeed, what will be different at the end of this commission?”

Morton says that the amount of information is necessary and that she wants to see “everything on the table when it comes to aquaculture,” hinting at the elephant in the room: fish farms.

The role that fish farms have to play in the disappearance of wild salmon, namely the Fraser River’s Sockeye, is an issue that the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association and advocates for the removal of fish farms are hoping to have resolved by the Cohen Commission’s final verdict. The Commission will open up its investigation and hearings on aquaculture’s potential effects on the Fraser River Sockeye on Aug. 15. Once this day arrives, the hearings won’t be dry at all, and the media will have a heightened interest in the commission.

“The one [thing] everyone is skating around is: what role did salmon farms play, if any?” said Hume. “That’s really the hot topic and Justice Cohen is going to have to come out and say guilty or not guilty on salmon farms. That would really make it worth the money.”

Justice Cohen demanded that fish farmers release data on fish health and mortality rates from 120 farms over a 10-year period, a historical first in terms of gaining access to fish farm data anywhere in the world. However, while the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association describes the full disclosure of their records as a show of good faith, the Commission has yet to see the complete record.

If aquaculture and fish farms are the elephant in the room, then the mammoth in the room is the DFO’s management of Pacific salmon stocks. There is concern about the ministry’s ability to fulfil its fundamental mandate.

“In my mind, the upper management is the problem. The problem people on the river are having is the DFO, and it’s not the local DFO, it’s the Ottawa DFO,” said Morton. “I’m hopeful that one of the recommendations is to re-localize the offices because that’s where people were interacting. And that was good. The people that actually get wet — they are working very hard for these fish. But it’s the people in the ivory tower in Vancouver and Ottawa that concern me. Having written to them over the last 20 years, I feel like I’m at the Mad Hatter’s tea party.”

A lack of adequate funding for local DFO programs is a continual theme in the Commission’s hearings. One example is the department’s test fisheries, where the data found produce the stock numbers and ensuing catch limits and regulations for the season. The test fisheries program’s five-year funding agreement expired this year, and there is no awareness within the DFO of how the program will be paid for in the future.

“Without that information we don’t have the information to manage the fisheries. We need those test fisheries to properly manage,” said Paul Ryall, a senior DFO official, in his Jan. 31 testimony.

Going forward

The Cohen Commission will resume its evidentiary hearings on Feb. 21. What will be important to keep an eye open for are First Nations testimonials and the sharing of traditional ecological knowledge and management practices; and speakers including scientists, fish farmers, public figures (including William Shatner) and DFO officials.

The Cohen Commission provides a much-needed inquiry into the disappearance and instability of the Fraser River Sockeye, but is also the culmination of a number of issues around a distinctly British Columbian icon. The Cohen Commission is holding the fate of a species that has been the backbone of the coastal ecosystem, First Nations cultural heritage and subsistence and a founding and sustainable industry in its federally appointed hands.


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