Since October 25, 2010, a rather curious theatre has been unfolding in a courtroom in downtown Vancouver. The Cohen commission of inquiry into the collapse of the sockeye salmon runs in 2009 is the latest in a long string of similar investigations that over the years have been called to determine why West Coast salmon numbers are on a downward spiral. Apparently, all the other royal commissions didn’t offer adequate answers because here we are at a cost of $25 million trying again.
I call this “rather curious theatre” because this is exactly what happens when rational people fill a sterile courtroom and speak for countless hours about the disappearance of a wild fish which inhabits the polar-opposite, organic world of sea and fresh water. The even more bizarre truth is that with little money or effort our society could—if it really wanted to—find answers for the steady decline in salmon numbers from clearly observable causes. On land, we could acknowledge and conscientiously repair the impacts of continued ecosystem loss and pollution; in the oceans, we could better monitor fishing methods and seriously revise aquaculture. But this appears too simplistic, unscientific, and “anecdotal” for First World societies in the 21st century which prefer to subcontract the dirty work of “managing” fisheries to their democratically elected governments. These third-party stewards use taxpayer dollars to produce mountains of studies whose conclusions are sometimes covered up when they are inconvenient for the social and political climate of the moment. So the pushing of paper and the paying of bureaucrats continues while our wild salmon stocks shrink.
The fuss over the hook-nosed Oncorhynchus—wild Pacific salmon, which are red, grey, or pink in colour—is not surprising since their protein-rich bodies are worth their weight in gold. Salmon were admirably stewarded by local First Nations people for millennia. Then settler entrepreneurs and the other interested parties—which sometimes included the governments who policed the others—decided salmon were a valuable commodity to be exploited. Then as now the intention was to make lots of money off the backs of this nutrient-rich fish which once filled the rivers and streams. These are today—like the abundant salmon runs—a shadow of their former selves.
Except for a few concerned citizens and the necessary lawyers and witnesses, not many people have attended or reported on the steady legal slog at the Cohen commission since last October. This is not surprising since endless discussion on why this fish is disappearing is not exactly riveting. And Salmon doesn’t have any immediate family who is personally concerned about his demise to look on in the courtroom. This of course is part of the problem. While Salmon is a common resource—he is also part of the “commons” which means everyone wants to benefit—few have a clear commitment to making sure he has a healthy ecosystem to thrive in. It doesn’t help that Salmon’s home is a large subsection of the planet and he is totally disinclined to remain within any country’s legal boundaries.
There have been occasional blips in the Cohen broadcast, with a few stories appearing in the newspapers over the course of the year. A few months back there was a flurry of articles on the aboriginal fishery. This is an easy target of course and some fingers pointed at the number of fish illegally caught by aboriginals on the Fraser River. But it is hard to imagine this as the sole cause of the disappearance of 90 percent of an annual fishery. Another report claimed freshwater habitat is not the primary problem which means sockeye’s life in the ocean is the main culprit. But what rarely seems to enter the discussion is the integrity of the South Arm of the Fraser River where the majority of the millions of fish that travel upstream have to enter by a single narrow channel. The continued pollution and development of the Fraser’s estuary should be a major concern but the area is surrounded by the largest number of electors in the British Columbia and their concerns have historically come first.
The best is yet to come. What is far more compelling—and this will be ramped up in the weeks ahead—is the debate on salmon aquaculture. Corporate aquaculture has used the declines of wild fish as a justification for expanding industrial fish production. Of course their incentives are primarily driven by certain profits. The discussions on the impacts of these open-net fish farms will certainly fill courtroom chairs at the Cohen commission as they will be a window on the true political and ethical health of our society. The classic struggle will unfold between the industrial barons and their wealthy friends and those who seek to return to some semblance of a wild and organic world originally envisioned by a non-human creator.
Again we could save a lot of time and money by employing some good old-fashioned common sense—anyone can track the clear correlation between the major declines in salmon runs and the rise of the fish farms, which are frequently located in the pristine waters in the direct path of migrating wild fish fry. For decades the fry have been affected by major infections wafting out from the farmed salmon enclosed in nets whose diseases are open to the ocean. How can they not be? Never mind the toxic soup that pollutes the environment around these farms. And yet those levels of government with apparent jurisdiction (first B.C. and now the federal government) have done little to deal with this issue except spend more money assuring us they have it all under control. There have been major disease infestations all over the world over in waters near open-net fish farms in places such as Norway, Chile, and the U.K. And yet, similarly, these farms remain able to reap economic gains available from activities that pollute local waters and have a severe impact on the local wild ecosystems because they do not have to pay any of the social and ecological costs of doing so.
In Canada the fish police—the Department of Fisheries and Oceans—has too often had a curious history of mismanagement and an incestuous relationship with those who make their money from the capture and sale of wild and now farmed fish, from individual entrepreneurs to corporate fish farms. We can only wonder what drives the people at the DFO and provincial government so that they give a continual green light to the dubious practices of open-net fish farming. Obvious infestations of wild fish are ignored, covered up, and—of late—their own government’s studies of this evidence are muzzled. In recent weeks Kristi Miller, a government scientist who found a clear infection in farmed fish, published a major study and then was subsequently forbidden from speaking to the press. Theatre of the absurd indeed! Taxpayers fund scientific research to improve fish stocks and governments are afraid to discuss these findings. Truly “A School for Scandal”!
Canada has had its share of government indignities—one of the latest being the federal sponsorship scandal of the Chrétien government in the ’90s, where millions were robbed from the taxpayers to pay people who claimed false rewards for government contracts. Civil servants and common citizens were implicated and punished. But the Cohen commission is different. Salmon cannot climb onto the witness stand and speak for himself, describing in truth what happens when he passes by an open-net fish farm, gets an infection, and dies. Salmon cannot speak of his home stream which disappears one year when he returns to spawn. He cannot tell how man’s pollution fills up his gills and makes him sick and weakened or how warming waters wear him down in his epic river-to-ocean voyages. There is not one clear human villain in this crime and no “jury of peers” watching the proceedings and pronouncing anyone guilty or not. And there are no “rights of salmon” entrenched in our constitution—which incidentally is why so many humans have gotten away with stealing obscene numbers of Salmon family members for so many years.
Salmon can only hope that enough of his supporters can speak their truth on the witness stand and that these testimonies will be well heard and understood by Justice Cohen. This man is effectively responsible for either starting a process that will penalize those who choose to take too much of our common natural capital and give nothing back or he could continue to allow the sordid practice of government whitewashing so that wild Pacific salmon are driven to extinction. And so this theatre will take shape in the weeks to come. Will humans allow their own kind to be implicated in the plight of a creature which cannot defend itself in a human court of law and, frankly, has more important things to do like trying to save his skin in threatening waters? Will the government diminish the massive power of the fish farm corporations to do whatever they please since they have no interest in this land or these waters other than maximizing benefits for their own shareholders? Will the true culprit—the industrial growth economy—be shown for the Earth-destroying villain that it is? Our governments would be wise to slay at least one of these dragons sooner rather than later because salmon is an indicator species. If they and their ecosystem are not healthy, neither are the humans who depend on it.
Since the days of the first settlers, our wild world has been wrangled into submission—clear-cut and consumed. But however much we debate our opinions in courtrooms, the Earth will never be fully conquered by humans. And time will tell if Canadian society—whose elected government appointed this costly Cohen commission—has the guts to really look at the root causes of salmon decline and come to terms with its own unhealthy relationship with the Earth. The past performance of the Harper government does not promise a major shift here but one never knows. Are they just interested in industrializing the last wild food we eat—as they have countless other food sources because it seems to make them money and money buys votes? Or are they able to look at real reasons and allow the healthy return of a wild fish so wondrous it has found a place in the heart (and bellies) of many Canadians?
Watch for it: the Cohen commission discussion on aquaculture. Coming to a courtroom in downtown Vancouver August 22 to September 8.
Celia Brauer is the founder of a local watershed group, the False Creek Watershed Society. She became interested in salmon when she discovered that the False Creek watershed, which now houses about 30,000 people, was not long ago home to millions of salmon.