If this year's high Fraser River sockeye salmon returns taught us anything, it's that salmon are unpredictable. As we saw, salmon can demonstrate incredible resilience, returning in record numbers following years of dismally low returns. But if we look at some of the individual salmon populations in the Fraser system, such as the Cultus Lake sockeye, we see that salmon can also be extremely fragile if we mistreat them.
We don't know all the factors that affect salmon populations, but science points to a few clear threats, including climate change, overfishing, disease and parasites from open net-cage salmon farms, and habitat destruction. Efforts by the Cohen Commission to understand why Fraser sockeye have declined in recent years are important. But if this is all the inquiry does, it will have failed.
If we want to solve our salmon problems, the inquiry needs to look at why we willingly continue to put salmon at such serious risk. The federal government's mandate is clear: Conserving Pacific salmon is its priority objective, for the sake of the salmon, but also to sustain the benefits that salmon provide us through commercial, recreational and subsistence fishing, and as a vital part of ecosystems we depend on, like forests and rivers.
Unfortunately, the government agency responsible for pushing this conservation mandate, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, has conflicting mandates. The clearest example of this is its duty to protect wild salmon while promoting an aquaculture industry that science has shown is harming the same wild salmon DFO is tasked with protecting.
Switching to alternative technologies like closed containment aquaculture systems can prevent the transfer of disease and pollution from farmed salmon into the natural environment and is just one immediate step we can take to protect wild salmon. This opportunity was affirmed last week when DFO released research showing the perceived economic barriers to finding new ways of doing aquaculture are actually unfounded. So why isn't it happening?
DFO faces several challenges, including a lack of transparency and accountability, inadequate and often misallocated budgets, bureaucratic complexity, and weakness when it comes to enforcing existing laws and regulations. These are classic challenges for somewhat marginalized government departments. But they are also a consequence of letting politics interfere with science. Governments at all levels have muzzled scientists and tightly controlled communications regarding science around salmon, fisheries and aquaculture.
The Cohen Commission must make two kinds of strong recommendations. The first kind should be prescriptive and must directly address the impacts we control, like mandating a transition to closed containment, developing recovery plans for all wild salmon populations that are in trouble and limiting fishing until they have recovered, and increasing the number of fisheries officers in the Pacific Region with powers to enforce the habitat provisions of the federal Fisheries Act. The other type of recommendations should be overarching and deal with root problems, like separating science from management and making science advice transparent to the public (for example, going back to a separate fisheries research board), and providing a positive path for the future that benefits everyone by making a public commitment to a Pacific salmon rebuilding plan.
The need for change is clear. It is time to focus our efforts on recovering and rebuilding Pacific salmon, rather than maintaining outdated management approaches that have failed. The diversity of salmon, which is the basis of their productivity and resilience, is in ongoing decline. Salmon are indicators of the health of our home as critical components of ecosystems we depend on, from streams, to lakes, major rivers, estuaries, the coast and out to the deep blue sea. If they continue decline, what does that say about us?
We need everyone to come together around a strong and shared objective for salmon and their ecosystems. This objective is the recovery and rebuilding of Pacific salmon across Western Canada. Recovery to the epic, historic number of centuries ago is not guaranteed, but taking action to support this objective will give salmon the very best chance to weather the storms of climate change and habitat loss, and will benefit all. It is an objective that can bring together a diverse group of people and focus the disparate efforts within DFO, and beyond, towards a common goal.
Jeffery Young is an aquatic biologist and will be testifying before the Cohen Commission. Michelle Molnar is an environmental economist. Both work for the David Suzuki Foundation.
Originally published in the Vancouver Sun.