Pacific salmon: going, going …

In 2009, 10 million sockeye salmon were expected to make their spawning run up B.C.'s Fraser River.

In 2009, 10 million sockeye salmon were expected to make their spawning run up B.C.‘s Fraser River. When the run was all over, only 1.4 million had been counted.

Salmon stocks had been declining for 20 years, and the two previous years had each seen closures on the fishery due to poor returns. Then in 2010 the salmon confounded expectations again by returning with a hundred-year peak run.

In November 2009, the federal government appointed B.C. Supreme Court Justice Bruce Cohen to chair a commission of inquiry into the crash of the salmon stocks. When the final bill is tallied the cost of the commission is expected to top $26 million. The report was released on Wednesday, and to no one’s great surprise it failed to point to what Cohen calls “the ‘smoking gun’- a single cause that explained the two-decade decline.”

Instead the commission found “that sockeye experience multiple stressors that may affect their health and their habitats,” and recommended that “DFO should develop and carry out a research strategy to assess the cumulative effects of stressors. … Filling the knowledge gaps will be a major endeavour.”

Among these multiple stressors, though, it’s clear that one in particular stood out for Cohen. In his report he calls for an immediate freeze on salmon farms in the migration route of the wild salmon, and declares that a total ban on fish farms may be necessary if further study proves them to be as dangerous as they seem.

Judge Cohen doesn’t mince words about the dangers associated with salmon farming. “Salmon farms along the sockeye migration route … have the potential to introduce exotic diseases. … I therefore conclude that the potential harm posed by salmon farms to Fraser River sockeye salmon is serious or irreversible,” he states.

He also singled out federally operated salmon hatcheries along the coast as possible sources of contamination in the wild salmon. But above all the report calls for study.

While the Cohen commission has been at work, the Harper government has taken action. They’ve made changes that weaken the Environmental Assessment Act and the Navigable Waters Protection Act.

They’ve cut $79 million from the Fisheries and Oceans budget, and last week the Globe and Mail revealed that a large part of that savings will come from firing biologists who are “the front-line protectors of the province’s salmon resource.”

They’ve also brought changes to the Fisheries Act which, according to Cohen, “lower the standard of protection for Fraser River sockeye salmon.” And just to cap it off, they’ve authorized a new fish farm.

Considering that the feds spent $26 million on this enquiry, you might think the DFO would do everything in its power to facilitate the report, but according to Kathy Scarfo, president of the West Coast Trollers Area G Association, they did just the opposite.

“Everything else within the Department of Fisheries and Oceans stopped during the inquiry because they reallocated all their resources to that inquiry, and it wasn’t to try assist the inquiry in finding the solutions but it was basically to block,” she told the Canadian Press. “I mean so much time was spent with them just blocking access to documents.”

It’s no secret that the Harper government favours development over environmental guardianship, so of course its concern is for the salmon fishery rather than for the salmon. Seen from a strictly commercial point of view, the loss of the wild Pacific salmon would be no big deal if it was offset by growth in the farmed salmon industry.

It takes a different kind of vision to see the sockeye as a huge piece of the ecological puzzle, a major predator and also a significant prey species. Understanding the ecosystems affected by the salmon and their migrations takes a lot of study.

So why is the federal government getting rid of one third of the people responsible for gathering data that might help us understand the salmon’s place in the ocean and the rivers? The excuse of cost-cutting hardly holds water when there’s millions to spend on an inquiry and possibly millions more for blocking that inquiry’s access to documents.

No, it’s not money. They’re getting rid of the data collectors because the Conservatives don’t like data. They don’t want to know about ecology or global warming or the hazards of fish farming. Data like that is bad for business.

True, environmental collapses such as the 2009 salmon run cause great economic damage, but in the end the Harper Conservatives see environmentalism as the greater danger. Critics may cry about the far greater collapse that awaits if we ignore warnings like Cohen’s, but don’t expect that to distract the Conservatives from their program. It’s amazing how much peace can be achieved simply by sticking your fingers in your ears.

Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in B.C./Yukon in 2010 and 2002.