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As Salmon Farm Tensions Escalate, Watchdog Finds Feds Failed to Fully Implement Cohen Commission Recommendations

The federal government is playing a shell game, claiming to have acted on most of the Cohen Commission recommendations, but failing to fully implement many of them, say critics, pointing to lack of action on fundamental issues such as fish farms and removing responsibility for the promotion of salmon farming from Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

“They are being very disingenuous by deeming some of the recommendations irrelevant or saying they have addressed them when they have not implemented them,” said Chief Bob Chamberlin of the Kwikwasut’inuxw Haxwas’mis First Nation and chairman of the First Nations Wild Salmon Alliance.

The 2012 Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River, headed by Justice Bruce Cohen, cost taxpayers more than $37 million and came up with 75 recommendations designed to save wild salmon runs after the disastrous 2009 sockeye run.

The recommendations, ranging from habitat protection to government accountability, were all but ignored by the previous Conservative government and some deadlines had lapsed by the time the Trudeau government promised to follow through on Cohen’s recommendations.

Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc said last month that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has now acted on 64 of the 75 recommendations. Also, the government is drafting a five-year Wild Salmon Policy implementation plan and putting $40 million annually, for five years, into research, science and monitoring of Pacific salmon.

That amounts to meaningful progress toward completing the Cohen Commission recommendations, according to LeBlanc, but Aaron Hill, executive director of the Watershed Watch Salmon Society, sees it differently.

“They are making progress, but it’s not as impressive as their announcements would indicate,” Hill told DeSmog Canada.

A report compiled by Watershed Watch puts it more bluntly, saying the federal report lacks meaningful substance.

“It also attempts to replace the true intentions of fully implementing Justice Cohen’s recommendations with simply acting on the recommendations (meaningfully or not.) Canadians truly deserve an independent assessment of the recommendations, not slick messaging,” it says.

For both Chamberlin and Hill, government’s failure to close down open-net fish farms on wild salmon migration routes or separate responsibility for promoting the farms from DFO’s duty to protect wild salmon illustrate the half-hearted response to the Cohen recommendations.

The decades-long battle over open-net pen farms is again heating up, with First Nations occupying fish farms off northeast Vancouver Island and an injunction application by the company, Marine Harvest, seeking to remove the protesters.

Currents of dissatisfaction have reached the offices of provincial ministers, briefly taken over by fish farm opponents who reminded the province of its commitment to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and election campaign promises made by some NDP ministers to scuttle open-net fish farms.

The province has the authority to issue farm licences.

Meanwhile, Premier John Horgan has twice assured the Legislature this week that wild salmon are his priority and Agriculture Minister Lana Popham has sent a sharp letter to Marine Harvest reminding the company of its obligations to First Nations, after the company restocked farms with fish that will not have grown to harvest size before the licences expire.

So, why is the federal government not implementing all the commission’s recommendations and taking action on salmon farms, rather than responding with a press release, Chamberlin asked.

“How can they not listen to the clear message that we do not give any consent to having these farms in our territory?” he asked.

Despite increasing discontent and a growing body of scientific evidence that fish farms are posing serious threats to wild salmon, it does not seem that the government is willing to take action, Hill said.

Cohen recommended that, if salmon farms in the Discovery Islands were found to pose more than a minimal risk to the health of migrating sockeye salmon, they should be closed, but Watershed Watch points out that DFO has delayed any meaningful action.

“Salmon farms in the Discovery Islands have not been removed, despite new scientific evidence identifying new disease risks from salmon farms,” says the report, pointing to a research paper identifying heart and skeletal muscle inflammation (HSMI) on a B.C. salmon farm.

In an e-mailed response to questions from DeSmog Canada a DFO spokeswoman said the government has put limits on salmon farming operations in the Discovery Islands until September 2020 and multi-year licences will not be available.

“During this time, additional scientific research will be conducted and a disease risk assessment process will be completed. In the interim, licence holders are required to submit health data to DFO, which is then posted on the DFO website,” she wrote.

As for removing salmon farming from DFO’s mandate, “no further action is required on this recommendation as responsibility for production and export is split between several different departments,” according to DFO.

The commission’s recommendation for an independent audit “is considered acted upon” as DFO complies with all external reviews and access to information requests related to the Cohen Commission, says the opaque statement.

“DFO is acting on the intent of this recommendation through the development of the Wild Salmon Policy implementation plan and the associated commitment to public reporting on the status of the implementation on an annual basis,” it says.

A sticking point for both levels of government is that some First Nations support farms in their territories because they provide jobs.

However, Chamberlin regards that as a red herring and said, in addition to resolutions from major First Nations organizations, 90 per cent of B.C. First Nations oppose open-net fish farms.

If the government is anxious to create jobs in First Nations communities, all of Cohen’s recommendations should be met, creating tourism and bear-watching opportunities as wild runs recover, and then resources should be put toward developing a closed containment industry, he suggested.

John Reynolds, professor of aquatic ecology and conservation at Simon Fraser University, believes the federal government should be given credit for moving in the right direction and trying to catch up after years of inaction by the previous government.

However, there has been a nebulous response to many of the recommendations, such as the independent audit, rather than the focused response Cohen asked for, he said.

“For example, Cohen had very specific comments about the need for habitat protection and the government’s response is that, in many different ways, they are working on that,” Reynolds said.

“These are not the kind of targeted, easily-evaluated programs that I believe Commissioner Cohen had in mind.”

Government has made it clear it will not be following some key recommendations, such as creating a new position to oversee funding and implementation of the Wild Salmon Policy, said Reynolds, adding that he does not understand the explanation that government ‘does not work that way.’

“The intent was very, very clear and I don’t believe that after two-and-a-half years of deliberations and all the expert witnesses that Commissioner Cohen called from all levels of government that this recommendation should be quite so easily dismissed,” Reynolds said.

“It makes me uneasy. I really think there should be someone whose job is to oversee the wild salmon policy.”

Image: Open pen fish farm. Photo: Friends of Clayquot Sound

Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist based in Victoria, British Columbia. Lavoie covered environment and First Nations stories for the…

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