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Ghosts of vanished East Coast cod haunt Cohen inquiry

The least enviable person in Canada right now? Bruce Cohen. The British Columbia Supreme Court Justice presiding over the commission charged with investigating why the Fraser River sockeye salmon stocks have declined over the past 18 years.

As the representative of the Conservation Coalition, Tim Leadem, summed up: “Mr. Commissioner, you have a daunting task.” Two words come to mind, “No s---.”

When only about 1.7 million sockeye salmon -- instead of 10 million or more forecasted -- returned to the Fraser River in 2009, to say a lot of people were upset is an understatement. The federal government launched an inquiry that began yesterday in Vancouver.

Leadem’s clients were the 13th of 14 oral presentations commenting on the Commission’s Discussion Paper at the federal court. The Coalition represents seven organizations, including the David Suzuki Foundation.

“We care about the fish,” said Leadem. “We want them to be preserved and protected.”

Immediately after Leadem and finishing the day -- an hour early -- came the Aboriginal Aquaculture Association, a group of 17 First Nations, individuals and companies involved with aboriginal aquaculture industry.

“For my clients it’s not all about fish,” said Steven Kelliher, on the phone from Victoria. “It’s all about First Nations' ability to survive and prosper with an industry consistent with their cultural and economic conditions, as well as the preservation of the various species including the sockeye run.”

It’s a decades long tug-of-war: how do we eat fish, keep jobs and create a sustainable fishery? Good luck with that, Mr. Commissioner.

While more than one group pointed out that though the commission is not out to assign blame, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ organizational structure is found wanting.

“The commission should consider impacts on sockeye salmon due to organizational changes and expanding mandates of the DFO,” said Chris Sporer for the Seafood Producer of B.C.

And the United Environmental Workers representative, Chris Buchanan, said his clients believed the DFO has been underfunded and understaffed, which has contributed to the decline of Fraser River salmon and other fish populations on the coast.

Or maybe finding out what DFO is doing wrong is as simple as finding better managers and copying their style, pointed out the representative for the Southern Area E Gillnet Association and BC Fisheries Survival Coalition: “We know the stocks in Alaska are healthy and thriving and supporting a rich fishery. Is there something they’re doing right, and we’re doing wrong?”

Weak stock management was another phrase tossed around in relation to the DFO.

Did anyone NOT think of the East Coast cod fishery as they sat in the audience?

We can probably thank overfishing, a degraded environment, and stock overestimations for the cod fishery collapse in 1992. West Coast salmon may come back. The cod? Likely never in the same legendary quantities since other species have moved into the ecosystem.

Cod are not sockeye salmon. But both are icons of coastal provinces -- one on the east coast, one on the west coast -- and both went poof!

To find a simple solution to a big problem is attractive and it’s why the Aquaculture Coalition’s (Alexandra Morton, Raincoast Research Society, and Pacific Coast Wild Salmon Society) comments always resonate with the public.

“I predict that….you will not be able to state conclusively that aquaculture was responsible for the decline in 2009 nor will you be able to say it was not. We’re not dealing with questions of proof, we’re dealing with questions of risk,” said the coalition’s representative.

What are acceptable risks is a good question. Acceptable answers for everyone involved in the salmon debate, however, is a questionable possibility.

Jude Isabella’s has written a Tyee two-part series on ‘Salmon of the Future’. Isabella is managing editor of YES Mag, the Science Magazine for Adventurous Minds, a graduate student in the University of Victoria's anthropology department, and is writing a book on salmon for Rocky Mountain Press for publication in 2012.

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