By Celia Brauer
June 15 marked the opening sessions of the Cohen commission into the collapse of the sockeye fishery on the Fraser River. John Cummins, the Conservative MP for Delta-Richmond East who himself is a commercial fisher, has quickly articulated a number criticisms of the commission’s modus operandi. One of his main concerns is a potential conflict of interest for the six members of the commission’s scientific advisory panel, four of whom have strong historical ties to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans whose management of the fishery is one of the main subjects of the investigation. Brian Wallace, senior legal counsel for the Cohen commission responded, “We were looking for people with extensive scientific backgrounds, with experience in this field and you simply can’t get that kind of experience without working for the various players—including DFO. Do I see any conflict in that? No.”
Should we all see this as a valid concern? It certainly seems so, although there will be other former DFO-employed fisheries scientists who will appear before the commission and will argue for much better conservation policies. DFO, after all, was where many fisheries biologists first cut their teeth, and past employment there may not inhibit them from being candid. But it appears there is to be an “inner” advisory panel, and the more obviously critical scientists are not part of this panel. This is certainly cause for concern.
But there is a broader discussion that needs to take place here as well. Cummins and all of us have a right to be suspicious of too many secret panels and this endless fascination with scientists and experts. First there were the six advisors. Now there is news of 13 other scientists who are going to conduct more research into other aspects of the situation. It’s our modern-day Canadian tragic comedy: What do you get when you pair our elected government and publicly funded civil servants and lawyers with an ancient natural entity such as the salmon? The answer is more panels, more boards, and more experts meeting in secret. Cummins calls it a “farce”. It does beg the question: is this a legal inquiry into human policy and management or just more scientific inquiry, or both? And will it produce results?
It’s worth asking Justice Bruce Cohen and Wallace why they think an endless supply of experts will be sufficient to save the sockeye. Did Jesus need an expert to tell him that there were fish in the Sea of Galilee and they shouldn’t be overfished? Did the local First Nations need to consult experts when they saw for themselves that, if they overfished, their food supply would vanish and they would starve? For thousands of years, humankind sustainably fished in oceans and rivers without a scientific expert in site. Of course there were far fewer people then with far-lower-impact fishing technology. But it was also because the expertise came from knowledge handed down through generations. This expertise was slowly accumulated; it was honed wisdom learned from watching, learning, and feeling the turn of the tide and the cycles of life.
These days it seems we are a different breed of humans. We contract out honed wisdom to the tune of $14 million, six advisors, and 13 insider scientists. Should the Cohen commission really do all this study and research? There will certainly be pages of reports from the DFO to seriously examine through the hot days of summer ahead. But will common sense “fish wisdom” be buried by thousands of sheets of paper? We’re talking about fish here, and scientists aren’t the only ones on the planet who know anything about this species. What needs to be known is a lot more intuitive than is being admitted, and this is easily learned with an open and intelligent mind. After all, humans have lived side by side with fish for thousands of years. Not to deny the benefit of thousands of scientific papers already written on fish and their “management”. But at this point we have enough research to paper the entire surface of the planet, and our salmon are in rapid decline. Wouldn’t it be better to look in alternate directions?
Fish wisdom is pretty straightforward. Most of us know that if there are too many people wanting fish and we continue to keep fish cheap and there were historically poor fishing limits for decades, then numbers will decline. Most of us know that breeding fish artificially doesn’t always solve the problem. In fact, we have clearly seen that if we mess too much with Mother Nature we create weird new problems like too much sea lice, never mind catastrophic oil well blowouts. And most of us know that too much habitat continues to be needlessly lost or polluted and that large parts of the ocean and rivers have become too toxic and warm to support healthy fish.
To verify some of this simple local wisdom Justice Cohen could take a quick walk on Spanish Banks to observe the forage fish farmers with their massive nets and miniscule catches. He can then consult the DFO rules and discover that these fishers are not breaking any laws. This is the classic Canadian “fish—man—DFO” scenario which is completely unsustainable and yet it goes on year after year. (He might also note that salmon eat forage fish and an absence of these fish means salmon go hungry). Then Justice Cohen can walk alongside the North Arm of the Fraser where salmon used to travel in the millions (and don’t even enter anymore) and he might notice all the junk on the shoreline and the gunk on the surface of the water, the expensive but polluting boats in marinas as well as the multi-million-dollar homes. This arm of the Fraser was once fed by numerous salmon streams and provided extensive fish habitat. Today, if he sniffed the air, he might detect a whiff of human excrement—an unfortunate byproduct of the local sewage-treatment plant. Is there any wonder fish are under threat?
Justice Cohen can take a tour of Musqueam Creek—Vancouver’s last salmon stream—which is struggling to survive. He can venture over to the Museum of Anthropology and listen to some salmon legends that were told by the First Nations of the coast, look at the salmon images carved into masks and poles and learn a thing or two about how the indigenous local humans used to live successfully alongside fish without the aid of scientific inquiries. And then he can talk to the fishers in Steveston on the South Arm of the Fraser and they’ll let him know what’s going on in the industry. No experts needed—just an open mind and a walk in the real world.
Instead he will sit huddled over a desk in a stuffy office in the Vancouver Law Courts with cars whizzing by outside—wading not through living streams, but through countless reports and studies full of numbers, listening to experts tell him what is happening to Pacific wild sockeye. And we will all sleep better at night knowing he consulted real-live science and not “folk wisdom” or “anecdotal evidence”. If we are lucky these experts will say—in multitudes of words—pretty close to what Cohen could have learned talking to simpler folk who care a great deal about the fate of salmon on our coast. And hopefully they will also discover what has been common knowledge for years: that the DFO and the government has been in bed with those who gain financially from fish for too long, that we need to clean up the ocean and rivers—properly—and save more salmon habitat, and that global warming is a problem and we need to do something about it.
If Justice Cohen’s own ancestors were not originally fishers, they certainly would have lived close to people who fished the rivers and oceans and farmed the land. These people knew natural limits when they saw one because their lives depended on it. There were fewer outside experts in earlier times—who could afford it? But all our ancestors were clearly more connected to the land. They had no choice—the grocery stores were few and far between. And they certainly never called the natural world “the environment” and put it in a box to be categorized and measured.
Millions will be spent on the Cohen commission—a great part on salaries of scientific experts and lawyers. Will these hired hands really tell it like it is? And will there be enough political will to implement change? We can only hope that we will not be disappointed yet again and that there will be others in the proceedings who will talk frankly about what we really have to change in our society to bring the sockeye back. We can also hope Justice Cohen decides to get out of the courtroom and conduct some community consultations. And let’s pray that everyone, experts included, will open their minds and their hearts enough to listen and understand when they hear some real-live wisdom that speaks for the soul of the salmon.
Celia Brauer is the cofounder of the False Creek Watershed Society and works as a volunteer educating the public about the lost natural history of Vancouver, which once had 57 flourishing salmon streams. She is also a member of the Livable Region Coalition.