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Cohen Commission Sockeye Decline Report:
It's Complicated

by Bill Rudolph
NW Fishletter, November 12, 2012

When only a million sockeye returned to the Fraser River in 2009 instead of an expected run of 10 million, a judicial inquiry into the disaster was revved up to solve the mystery. Called the Cohen Commission, it finally concluded last week with the release of three volumes of findings.

"Some, I suspect, hoped that our work would find the 'smoking gun'--a single cause that explained the two-decade decline in productivity--but finding that a single event or stressor is responsible is improbable," said the Hon. Bruce Cohen, the B.C. Supreme Court judge who led the commission, in an Oct. 31 statement.

The inquiry, which looked into the possible causes for the 2009 decline and reasons for long-term reductions in productivity, had testimony from nearly 200 witnesses at evidentiary hearings, which included cross-examination by attorneys and the compilation of more than 500,000 documents. The press release that accompanied the commission's findings said all the information associated with its inquiry needed 4,007 GB of disk storage.

Cohen did note that when the young sockeye went to sea in 2007, harmful algal blooms in the Strait of Georgia could have played a role in the poor return two years later, along with unfavorable marine conditions in Queen Charlotte Sound that same year.

Based on the evidence presented, Cohen said in the second volume of the findings, "these are the areas that most likely presaged the poor Fraser River sockeye salmon return in 2009. It is also possible that sub-lethal effects from other stressors such as disease or contaminants could have interacted with marine conditions, leading to death during a later life stage."

The judge did not let fish farms located along the migration route off the hook, though there was no direct evidence they played a role in the 2009 Fraser debacle.

"Mitigation measures should not be delayed in the absence of scientific certainty," he said, noting the farms had the potential to introduce exotic diseases and to aggravate endemic diseases in wild stocks.

He recommended a freeze on net-pen salmon farm production in the Discovery Islands until Sept. 30, 2020. "If by that date, DFO cannot confidently say the risk of serious harm to wild stocks is minimal, it should then prohibit all net-pen salmon farms from operating in the Discovery Islands," he said. Cohen also recommended that if before Sept. 30, 2020, the government determines that salmon farms pose more than a minimal risk to Fraser River sockeye, the government prohibit their operation immediately.

Cohen said a better understanding is needed of the migratory and feeding patterns in all marine areas. "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," he said.

Cohen made 75 recommendations to improve the sustainability of the fishery, including that the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans no longer promote salmon farming as an industry and farmed salmon as a product. "As long as DFO has a mandate to promote salmon farming, there is a risk that it will act in a manner that favors the interests of the salmon farming industry over the health of wild fish stocks," he said.

Salmon farmers said they supported him. "These recommendations are all about protecting wild salmon, which is central to the work that we do each day on our farms," said Clare Backman, a board member of the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association. "We're confident that our farms are not a risk to wild salmon and support more research to confirm that."

Anti-salmon-farm activist Alexandra Morton applauded Cohen's recommendations. "What I gather from this is that there's not enough research from DFO to make any conclusive remarks, but he says mitigation should not be delayed in the absence of certainty," she told the Victoria Times-Colonist.

The Cohen Commission was barely under way when the 2010 Fraser sockeye returned, to the tune of about 30 million fish, the largest return since 1913.

Cohen noted that some technical reports and several witnesses showed evidence that marine conditions were "significantly more favorable" for juvenile fish in 2008, along with a volcanic eruption in Alaska (providing iron to boost plankton production), which could partially explain the "historically good Fraser River sockeye return in 2010."

Related Sites:
2011 FCRPS BiOp Report
2012 draft Comparative Survival Study

Bill Rudolph
Cohen Commission Sockeye Decline Report: It's Complicated
NW Fishletter, November 12, 2012

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