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Feds, and science, on the hook: day two of Cohen inquiry

Hot. That’s the only word to describe the seat the federal government has at the Cohen Commission table. At the start of the Cohen Commission hearings into the decline of sockeye salmon on the Fraser River, participants had a lot to say about the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

The most direct was from Brenda Gaertner, counsel for the First Nations Coalition, a broad-based group that includes the Haida Nation, First Nations Fisheries Council, and Chehalis Indian Band.

“They must assume primary responsibility for where we are now,” Gaertner said.

Other First Nations groups that followed Gaertner, who opened the proceedings on Wednesday, including Sto:lo Tribal council and the Western Coast Salish First Nations, backed the First Nations Council.

They issued a strong call for a scientific advisor with experience of Traditional Knowledge [TK] to sit on the commission’s science advisory panel. Gaertner even provided the CVs of three PhDs with TK who could bridge the divide between the Western scientific worldview and the traditional worldview.

“This is not simply a scientific inquiry,” Gaertner said. “Science is not unbiased, nor is it the cause or the ultimate solution to reestablishing sockeye population. Science does not have all the answers: unburden those scientists from that responsibility.” It should be a relief and not an insult, she added.

For anyone who has studied TK and ethnobiology, tradition can line up with Western scientific observations, so it’s not totally out there, which other representatives brought up.

Gaertner and others also pointed out First Nations constitutional rights and the need for co-management of the fishery.

“First Nations are not just another stakeholder, they have to be involved directly in management of fisheries. This expertise and their voice is key to rebuilding these important stocks,” Gaertner said.

Historical context was big. Even the counsel for the West Coast Trollers Area G Association and United Fishermen and Allied Workers’ Union, Chris Harvey, called for historical context within the DFO.

“Find out what fisheries management did right from 1913 to 1992 and what they did wrong from 1992 on,” he told the commission. Although, you have to ask, what’s the cut off date? Ten thousand years ago? Two thousand? Five hundred?

While the commission gave the initial hearing three days, to allow everyone to have their say and time for replies, hearings finished early. The Government of Canada had the most to say in reply.

The participants would start by acknowledging the hearings are not a fault-finding exercise, Canada’s counsel Mitchell Taylor said.

“And then turn in the next breath and point fingers. You, Mr. Commissioner should resist that.”

And Taylor reiterated that aside from human factors in the decline of Fraser River sockeye salmon, that natural factors be given their due.

In Gaertner’s presentation, she quoted a First Nations elder: “Salmon will not return in abundance until human beings stop arguing and fighting about them.” One thing pretty much everyone agreed on was that conservation was a top priority.

Jude Isabella’s has written a Tyee two-part series on ‘Salmon of the Future’ and is blogging the Cohen inquiry for The Hook. 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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