Photo: Let's get science back into the picture for wild salmon

(Credit: Dan Bennet via Flickr)

By Jay Ritchlin, Director General, Western Canada

The Cohen Commission recommendations arrived to much fanfare and praise. But that was five months ago, and still we haven't heard whether the federal government accepts any of them.

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The B.C. Government was the first to respond and stated it will address the eight areas of provincial jurisdiction outlined by Justice Cohen. The province supports the "intent" of these recommendations and will freeze new salmon farm tenures near the Discovery Islands, but hasn't committed to other immediate actions.

Strong actions are needed to show that B.C. is serious about protecting and recovering wild salmon, and challenge the federal government to act on the high profile commission they initiated. Our wild salmon would be better served if the province stopped new permits for all open net-cage farms right away, required farms to join a disease monitoring program as a condition of licence and immediately revoked licences for farms that increase the risk of disease in wild salmon.

British Columbians want a future that includes healthy, wild salmon and they are frustrated at the federal government's silence on the commission. Since 2010, the B.C. salmon farming industry has been regulated under the federal Fisheries Act, and only the federal government has the power to act on many of Justice Cohen's recommendations: it holds full responsibility to manage salmon fisheries and protect much of their habitat. The Cohen Commission has given us a roadmap to protect wild salmon, yet we've already passed deadlines for some recommendations and still we've heard nothing from the federal government.

It's time for action, not just words, from governments that control every aspect of our coastal aquaculture industry. The obstacles haven't gone away: First Nations, conservationists, fishermen and internationally recognized scientists continue to raise concerns about sea lice and disease threats from dozens of salmon farms along salmon migration routes.

We have viable alternatives to transition to a healthier aquaculture industry. Government could provide fiscal incentives to promote closed containment operations, and move them from small-scale pilots to viable operations. Through changes to fees and regulatory requirements, government can create incentives for closed-containment production and penalties for continuing open net-cage operations that elevate risk to our shared environment.

Despite these challenges, some new developments are a step in the right direction. The Salmon Health Initiative (SHI), a multi-year study managed by Genome BC and led by the Pacific Salmon Foundation and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, has been set up to understand sources and impacts of disease in Pacific salmon. The David Suzuki Foundation is part of the newly formed 12-member Stakeholder Advisory Panel. While the work is crucial, the study highlights some basic obstacles to producing good science. It seems reasonable to expect scientists to have full access to the samples they need to do their work. This requires cooperation for testing farmed salmon from all B.C. salmon farms. This should be a requirement for salmon farms to get a government permit. Given that salmon are a publicly shared resource, it's also reasonable that information from the farms be available for use by First Nations, academics, the fishing and aquaculture industries and conservation groups working to address the challenges facing wild salmon.

As the film Salmon Confidential so ably illustrates, we all lose when science becomes politicized and scientists are muzzled.

Over 4,200 people have already written Prime Minister Harper saying they want action. Let the federal government know you want them to act now on Cohen Commission recommendations.

April 26, 2013

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