Retired Judge Bruce Cohen has handed down his findings and recommendations on the decline of Fraser River sockeye salmon runs.

Retired Judge Bruce Cohen has handed down his findings and recommendations on the decline of Fraser River sockeye salmon runs.

Freeze new salmon farms on sockeye migration route: Cohen

Inquiry finds no one culprit behind Fraser salmon collapse, but key recommendations target aquaculture



The Cohen Inquiry is urging an immediate eight-year freeze on new net-pen salmon farms in the Discovery Islands between northern Vancouver Island and the B.C. mainland.

Farms in that area should be prohibited outright in 2020 if the Department of Fisheries and Oceans cannot confidently say by then the risk to wild salmon from aquaculture there is minimal, the inquiry’s three-volume report says, and the ban should be immediate if evidence of elevated risk arises sooner.

No single culprit – not fish farms, overfishing, pollution, natural predators or global warming – gets primary blame for the two-decade decline of Fraser River sockeye salmon.

And while commission head and retired Justice Bruce Cohen said he saw “no smoking gun” in the evidence he heard, key recommendations aim to limit the possible threat from aquaculture.

“Mitigation measures should not be delayed in the absence of scientific certainty,” Cohen said, adding farms in the Discovery Islands of Johnstone Strait have potential to introduce exotic diseases and aggravate existing ones in wild fish.

He also recommended DFO no longer be charged with promoting the salmon farming industry to prevent “divided loyalties” or conflicts of interest from compromising its duty to defend wild fish.

“As long as DFO has a mandate to promote salmon farming, there is a risk that it will act in a manner that favours the interests of the salmon farming industry over the health of wild stocks.”

Critics have accused DFO of siding with the aquaculture industry while failing to protect wild stocks amid years of budget cuts and mismanagement.

The industry contends it’s the victim of a vendetta by environmentalists who have alleged farm-linked virus infections in B.C. salmon that federal food inspectors have refuted.

If Cohen’s recommendations are followed, existing farms in the Discovery Islands could continue operations – unless the fisheries minister decides before 2020 that they pose a “more than minimal risk of serious harm” to migrating Fraser sockeye.

DFO should draw up new siting criteria for fish farms that take into account Fraser sockeye migration routes and the latest evidence on the risks to them, Cohen said.

“If existing salmon farms do not comply with revised siting criteria they should be promptly removed or relocated.”

B.C. Salmon Farming Association spokesman Stewart Hawthorn said only nine of 70 B.C. salmon farms are located in the Discovery Islands and predicted the recommendations will have very limited impact on the industry.

“He’s particularly concerned about one small area,” he said. “We’re very happy to do more research there. Our farming practices are second to none.”

While the inquiry findings were being prepared, the federal government this year significantly downgraded habitat protection laws and is now planning cuts to front-line DFO biologists.

Cohen warned Ottawa further cuts to DFO are dangerous to B.C.’s iconic salmon species and run counter to his key finding that much more research is needed.

“The shrinking resources of government, which may result in delays in implementing reforms and research, mean that the stressors to which sockeye are exposed and the deterioration of sockeye habitat will continue,” he said in the report.

He also criticized Ottawa’s move to alter the environmental assessment process for major projects like oil pipelines.

Cohen called last spring’s legislative amendments “troubling” and said they appear to take DFO “in a very different direction” from the advice of many experts in the field to protect fish habitat and promote biodiversity.

The report says sources of stress specific to the Fraser – such as pollution and development – have likely played a role in the decline.

But he said troubled fisheries beyond the Fraser system suggest broader problems in marine waters play a big role.

“I heard enough evidence about warming waters to conclude that climate change is a significant stressor for sockeye and in combination with other stressors, may determine the fate of the fishery.”

Cohen also urged the implementation of the 2005 Wild Salmon Policy and provisions for no net loss of habitat.

Leading conservationists said they would have preferred an immediate aquaculture ban but most hailed the report.

“He obviously didn’t hear enough to say ‘Get the nets out of the water,'” said Georgia Strait Alliance executive director Christianne Wilhelmson. “But I think he came pretty close to saying that.”

She said the report offers a “solid plan” to restore Fraser salmon runs – if the federal government implements it and stops gutting research and habitat protection provisions.

“We have an ecologically ignorant federal government right now, so I’m wary,” Wilhelmson said.

“Anyone who has skin in the game of sockeye salmon on the Fraser River has to put public pressure on this government in Ottawa to make sure this report gets legs and keeps moving,” added Sto:lo fisheries advisor Ernie Crey said. “Or else it will surely sit on a shelf.”

The inquiry heard from more than 170 witnesses and sifted through more than 2,000 reports or other pieces of evidence.

Cohen was appointed by the federal government after less than 1.5 million sockeye returned in 2009, far fewer than the more than 10 million expected.

Just Posted

Shaelyn Sinnott of Oak Bay Volunteer Services delivers groceries for client Irene Kenny. The organization has kept up delivery of food and medication throughout all phases of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Courtesy Oak Bay Volunteer Services)
Oak Bay volunteers keep critical services running

Duo drove between Oak Bay and Jubilee three days a week, twice a day during pandemic

Two volunteers work to sieve a sample of sand and ocean water through a filter, capturing any potential microplastics. (Courtesy of Ocean Diagnostics)
Victoria startup making waves in microplastics research

New products from Ocean Diagnostics will make research faster, more affordable

Island Savings kick-starts the Equipped to Heal campaign with $120,000. (Courtesy Victoria Hospitals Foundation)
Latest Victoria Hospitals Foundation campaign targets $1M for mental health

Goal is to outfit new 19-bed unit at Eric Martin Pavilion

Willows Beach in Oak Bay. (Black Press Media file photo)
Seven days of sun set to shine on Greater Victoria

Special weather statement warns of higher than usual temperatures

Chef Trevor Randle leads a June 21 online cooking featuring recipes – beef zesty lettuce wraps, blueberry strudel and blueberry spritzer. (Courtesy We Heart Local BC)
Free online cooking course explores B.C. blueberries and beef

Chef Trevor Randle calls them the province’s most flavourful foods

Jesse Roper tackles weeds in his garden to kick off the 2021 season of What’s In My Garden Man? (YouTube/Whats In My Garden)
VIDEO: Metchosin singer-songwriter Jesse Roper invites gardeners into his plot

What’s In My Garden, Man? kicks off with the poop on compost

FILE – Most lanes remain closed at the Peace Arch border crossing into the U.S. from Canada, where the shared border has been closed for nonessential travel in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Thursday, May 7, 2020, in Blaine, Wash. The restrictions at the border took effect March 21, while allowing trade and other travel deemed essential to continue. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Feds to issue update on border measures for fully vaccinated Canadians, permanent residents

Border with U.S. to remain closed to most until at least July 21

A portion of the George Road wildfire burns near Lytton, B.C. in this Friday, June 18, 2021 handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, BC Wildfire Service *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Blaze near Lytton spread across steep terrain, says BC Wildfire Service

Fire began Wednesday and is suspected to be human-caused, but remains under investigation

Blair Lebsack, owner of RGE RD restaurant, poses for a portrait in the dining room, in Edmonton, Friday, June 18, 2021. Canadian restaurants are having to find ways to deal with the rising cost of food. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Canadian restaurateurs grapple with rising food costs, menu prices expected to rise

Restaurants are a low margin industry, so there’s not a lot of room to work in additional costs

A Lotto 6/49 ticket purchased in Parksville for the June 19, 2021 draw is a $3M winner. (Submitted photo)
Winning Lotto 6/49 ticket worth $3M purchased on Vancouver Island

Lottery prize winners have 52 weeks to claim jackpot

Cpl. Scott MacLeod and Police Service Dog Jago. Jago was killed in the line of duty on Thursday, June 17. (RCMP)
Abbotsford police, RCMP grieve 4-year-old service dog killed in line of duty

Jago killed by armed suspect during ‘high-risk’ incident in Alberta

Patrick O’Brien, a 75-year-old fisherman, went missing near Port Angeles Thursday evening. (Courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard)
Search for lost fisherman near Victoria suspended, U.S. Coast Guard says

The 75-year-old man was reported missing Thursday evening

Barbara Violo, pharmacist and owner of The Junction Chemist Pharmacy, draws up a dose behind vials of both Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines on the counter, in Toronto, Friday, June 18, 2021. An independent vaccine tracker website founded by a University of Saskatchewan student says just over 20 per cent of eligible Canadians — those 12 years old and above — are now fully vaccinated. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
At least 20% of eligible Canadians fully vaccinated, 75% with one dose: data

Earlier projections for reopening at this milestone didn’t include Delta variant

This undated file photo provided by Ernie Carswell & Partners shows the home featured in the opening and closing scenes of The Brady Bunch in Los Angeles. Do you know the occupation of Mike Brady, the father in this show about a blended family? (Anthony Barcelo/Ernie Carswell & Partners via AP, File)
QUIZ: A celebration of dad on Father’s Day

How much do you know about famous fathers?

Most Read