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Lawyer Brian Wallace spoke of a balance among Cohen Commission members investigating the decline of salmon. (Photo: Stock File/cohencommission.ca)

BC sockeye decline investigation launched

Click on the flag for more information about Canada CANADA
Friday, June 18, 2010, 00:40 (GMT + 9)

A CAD 14 million (USD 13.6 million) official investigation into the precipitous decline of sockeye salmon stocks in British Columbia's (BC) Fraser River begun on Tuesday in Vancouver.

The Cohen Commission of Inquiry starts off the first three days of what may be a prolonged technical exploration into the disappearance of nearly 10 million sockeye salmon from last year’s Fraser River run.

When only about 1 million fish returned to spawn, the federal government was prompted to order a probe led by BC Supreme Court Judge Bruce Cohen.

The research will analyse everything from fish biology to the organisation of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), according to a discussion paper published ahead of this week's hearings, reports The Canadian Press.

A highly controversial aspect of the inquiry will be the focus on what function was played by the open-pen fish farms scattered across the BC coast along wild salmon migration routes.

Open-pen fish farm critics argue lice and other contaminants from the farms are fatal to wild salmon. Still, the discussion paper claims Fraser River sockeye experience a "suite of impacts" that must all be considered to understand the decline.

But Vancouver-area MP John Cummins, the Conservative MP in Delta-Richmond East, worries that the Cohen commission is biased, as too many scientists on the panel have ties to the DFO.

"The last 15 years of management, mismanagement, have been at the hands of the DFO. And as the structure of this inquiry now stands, all of the information is going to be filtered through this science panel of people who are either ex-bureaucrats at DFO or people whose careers relied on the department," he stated.

Brian Wallace, the head lawyer for the Cohen commission, said it was impossible to avoid links to the DFO among the commission's experts. However, he noted there is a wide range of voices in the panel to provide balance.

"Our hope is to have a broad range of evidence from a number of different expert witnesses to help the commissioner," he said.

Apart from all this, the commission was criticised on Tuesday when participants complained funding is insufficient to cover the colossal amount of internal government documents to be released, the scope of the inquiry and the cross examination of witnesses, The Globe and Mail reports.

The Commission has assigned CAD 3.4 million (USD 3.3 million) from its overall budget to over 20 groups – including representing commercial fishing interests, various industries, native communities and governments.

Yet, Alan Blair, representing the BC Salmon Farmers Association (BCSFA), said the funding is lacking, as 21,000 documents have already been released by the government, 14,600 documents more arrived on Monday and “several hundred thousand more” are to come.

“We surely need to have resources [to deal with that],” he said. “This should not be an uneven playing field.”

Formal hearings will begin in September.

Related articles:

- Fraser River groups, individuals granted standing
Missing salmon stocks to be probed: PM

By Natalia Real


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