By Andrew Gage
I was about 20 when the Atlantic cod stocks crashed. At the time, older and wiser people reassured me that this would never happen to B.C.’s salmon, because our stocks were healthier and we wouldn’t repeat Eastern Canada’s mistakes.
Fast forward almost 20 years, to 2009—a year with the lowest return of sockeye salmon in the Fraser River in more than 50 years. Fisheries and Oceans Canada had expected good returns—and were unable to explain the collapse. The returns in the previous two years had also been very poor, and in 2008 the International Union for the Conservation of Nature had warned that the Pacific sockeye was facing extinction, pointing to B.C.’s sockeye as examples of runs that are in trouble.
As a result of public outcry, the federal government appointed Justice Bruce Cohen, a judge of the B.C. Supreme Court, to head a commission to investigate the causes of the latest collapse of sockeye salmon runs in the Fraser. The inquiry began to consider the fisheries collapse in earnest on June 15, when the hearings started.
The life-cycle of the sockeye, which live most of their lives in the ocean, but are born and spawn in the province’s rivers, is more complex than the Atlantic cod. In addition to questions about over-fishing, the commissioner needs to examine the complex interplay between our development choices and the salmon—such as the impacts of cities, fish farms, and logging on the sockeye runs.
Put another way, Commissioner Cohen should be asking fundamental questions about the relationship between our economy and society and what the salmon need to survive and thrive. And that means that protecting the salmon may run up against well entrenched economic interests and cultural assumptions.
West Coast Environmental Law’s work to strengthen B.C. and Canada’s environmental laws gives us a perspective on how logging, urban development, and climate change impact salmon. But for me, it’s the telephone calls and e-mails we receive from British Columbians seeking legal help on environmental problems that give me a clearer picture of why we have lost so many fish. I hear about:
”¢ Run-off from the Lower Mainland and other Fraser River communities being funnelled directly into fish streams.
”¢ Logging companies that escape any penalty after logging to the banks of fish-bearing streams. In 2000, Fisheries and Oceans Canada staff warned that B.C.’s logging standards did not protect fish habitat; those standards are even weaker today.
”¢ Fish farms, located along the migration routes of young salmon, that keep parasitic sea lice in check only by resorting to more than a decade of widespread use of a pesticide known as SLICE. Until last year, SLICE had not been formally approved for use in Canada, and has still not been evaluated for its environmental impacts.
”¢ Developers whose hired consultants incorrectly identify fish habitat, resulting in malls and subdivisions built on top of sensitive fish habitat. One recent development on the Salmon River, a tributary of the Fraser, was scaled back only after local citizens, with financial support from West Coast Environmental Law, hired their own expert to demonstrate that the developer’s consultant had misidentified fish habitat.
These are just a few of the calls for help West Coast Environmental Law has received, all involving situations in which economic interests have been given priority over the fish and the impacts on fish have been ignored or dismissed as unimportant.
Commissioner Cohen is a man of intelligence and integrity who seems intent on conducting a thorough and credible investigation. His initial rulings on who can participate in the commission’s hearings recognized the need to hear from diverse groups. Similarly, the commission’s recently released discussion paper correctly identifies many of the key issues that the commission needs to examine.
If Commissioner Cohen is successful in mapping out what’s required to protect and restore the Fraser River’s sockeye runs, then his report will challenge vested interests, perhaps tempting the government to let it gather dust on a shelf. Canadians will need to demand that our elected representatives make the tough changes necessary to protect the salmon.