Last fall the estimated return of Fraser River sockeye salmon was less than two million fish instead of a predicted 10.5 million. Commercial fishing was shut down for conservation of the stock.
Although the cause of the decline could be related to low survival of the salmon due to low stream survival, poor ocean feeding conditions or high rates of capture at sea, several groups were quick to attribute the cause to early ocean mortality due to sea lice from salmon farms. These groups developed a new public relations campaign to remove five farm sites in Okisollo and Hoskyn channels, the so-called “Wild Salmon Narrows”.
In November 2009, responding to lobbying from commercial fishermen, sport fishermen, conservationists and some politicians, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced a Judicial Inquiry naming the Supreme Court of Canada Judge Bruce Cohen as commissioner to preside over the process. In announcing the reasons for the Inquiry many climate and habitat aspects were listed as possible contributors to the decline. Impacts from salmon farming were also listed as a possible cause to be investigated.
As announced, the Inquiry will seek information from diverse groups and individuals over an 18 month period with a final report to be delivered in September 2011. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans was the key agency required to present information to the Inquiry. Other groups that wished to present information or give testimony to the Inquiry were invited to seek status. Dozens of groups came forward to seek status and were grouped together for efficiency purposes. With twenty groups officially granted standing, the Fraser River sockeye Inquiry is now the largest judicial Inquiry in Canadian history.
At Marine Harvest Canada, we take great care to ensure that our salmon are healthy with low to no sea lice; they are unlikely to pose any significant impact to wild salmon. MHC, along with the other salmon growers, is represented by the BC Salmon Farmers Association and legal council has been retained. An Industry Oversight Committee comprising a key individual from each company is working closely with the lawyer and his team of researchers to prepare information for the hearings to begin this fall. Marine Harvest and the other salmon growers of BC are preparing to submit detailed information about the good health of our fish during 2007 when this group of sockeye migrated to sea. We are also preparing to present other information about our industry should it be requested.
The Inquiry is currently gathering published information and will move to formal hearings starting in September 2010. During this period and up to the final report expected in 2011 there will be media stories and information updates on the business of the Inquiry. We can expect many news stories and public demonstrations to be about the suspected impacts to the sockeye from salmon farms.
You can learn about the Cohen Inquiry and keep up on its progress at the BCSFA website: http://www.salmonfarmers.org/fraser-river-sockeye-commission.
The Cohen Commission is currently accepting comments from the public. Don’t miss this opportunity to tell the Commissioner that the final report should present meaningful and quantifiable results with practical solutions to conserve Fraser River Sockeye. It should resist attempts by some groups to make it simply another review of net-cage salmon farming. Just visit the Public Submissions page on the Inquiry website (http://www.commissioncohen.ca/en/submissions/PublicSubmissions.php) to enter your comments and ideas.