The Cohen Commission, Canada's judicial inquiry into the decline of Fraser River sockeye salmon, has been making headlines since evidentiary hearings began late last month and with good cause. While fisheries management may not seem like a sexy topic, the inquiry provides a critical opportunity for the government and public to find out what is threatening one of Canada's most iconic species. It also provides a forum for those of us who care about salmon to get a federal government commitment to a salmon rebuilding plan, including addressing key threats from open net-pen salmon farming, unsustainable fishing practices, and coastal and freshwater habitat loss.
Early hearings have included a nebulous attempt to define the terms 'conservation', 'sustainability' and 'stewardship', with Fisheries and Oceans Canada bureaucrats suggesting that conservation is "in their DNA" (which apparently means they don't have to actually build it into their management plans). Predictable posturing by various participant lawyers in an attempt to gain an early upper-hand with Justice Cohen has been spiced up with indications that a volcano may have contributed to good returns in 2010.
But despite all the process and posturing it's about to get more interesting. The David Suzuki Foundation is participating in the inquiry as a member of the "Conservation Coalition," and next week I'll be providing testimony on the federal Wild Salmon Policy. The policy serves as Canada's guide for how it manages wild Pacific salmon. This part of the hearings is important because it will illuminate the government's responsibilities to salmon conservation and provide a strong opportunity to evaluate its performance. The core element of the Wild Salmon Policy is the definition of conservation units, which define the irreplaceable level of salmon biodiversity we must conserve. When we look at the total number of Fraser sockeye, which was really low in 2009 and really high in 2010, we're actually missing what's going on with all the unique populations of sockeye from across the Fraser watershed. There are about 36 Fraser sockeye conservation units and we need all of them to be in good shape before we can declare that Fraser sockeye are okay. Unfortunately, we know that about a quarter are in trouble (one is listed as endangered) and another quarter aren't even monitored.
Although the inquiry draws our attention, and gives us the sense that things are happening to protect salmon, it's as important a time as ever to let the federal government know that it needs to step up in other ways too. For example, they need to increase the number of enforcement officers to protect salmon habitat and lower fishing rates on endangered salmon to promote their recovery. The David Suzuki Foundation will continue to work for the best outcomes from the Cohen Commission, but we'll need your help, and lots of it. Learn more about what you can do and how the saving salmon effort is going.
Jeffery Young is an aquatic biologist at the David Suzuki Foundation.