The Department of Fisheries and Oceans took a broadside for muzzling its scientists and the aquaculture industry was chastised for resisting change when key protagonists faced off in a panel before the Cohen Commission on Wednesday.
The four witnesses who were called to testify about aquaculture – including high-profile researcher and anti-fish-farm activist Alexandra Morton – drew a full house to the federal inquiry and led to some of the most spirited debate since the evidentiary hearings began last October.
Facing off against Ms. Morton, who has become something of a cult figure to those opposed to salmon farming in British Columbia, were Clare Backman, director of Environmental Compliance for Marine Harvest Canada, and Mia Parker, a DFO employee and former manager for Grieg Seafood BC Ltd., who was appearing as an industry representative.
Supporting Ms. Morton was Catherine Stewart, salmon farming campaign manager for Living Oceans Society, a non-profit group that is pushing for changes to the aquaculture industry.
Brock Martland, associate commission counsel, set the stage for a free-wheeling debate when he opened with "a big question," asking the panel if they thought DFO could successfully both regulate and promote the aquaculture industry, while protecting wild salmon stocks.
"I don't believe that's possible ... those two [mandates]are in conflict," shot back Ms. Stewart, who believes the industry damages wild salmon by spreading sea lice and disease.
She said the regulation of fish farms should be handed off to some other federal agency, such as Agriculture Canada or Industry Canada, while DFO should be charged with managing and protecting wild salmon.
Ms. Morton, who in 2009 launched a legal challenge that forced the provincial government to hand over fish-farm management to the federal government, was even more critical.
"I think it's potentially worse," she said of the situation since DFO took over from the province.
But Mr. Backman disagreed.
"It appears to be a conflict ... but in the modern role of governance it's quite common to have an agency that plays dual roles," he said, citing the example of how government health and safety workers promote safe work sites, while also enforcing regulations.
Ms. Parker said having DFO in charge of fish farming is "consistent with how other commercial fisheries are managed" and didn't see any reason for change.
Mr. Martland's next big question kept the opinionated discussion rolling when he asked the panel to talk about what DFO was doing well and where the department was falling short.
Ms. Morton used that opening to launch into an attack on DFO for restricting access to the work being done by Kristi Miller, head of molecular genetics at the federal Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo. The scientist has done ground-breaking work that points to disease problems afflicting sockeye salmon in the Fraser River.
But the Cohen Commission has heard that Dr. Miller's research funding has been cut, and that she was denied clearance to speak to the media after publishing a key paper in a major science journal.
Ms. Morton said Dr. Miller's studies "cut through the noise" about what is causing salmon to die, and DFO lost all credibility when it failed to promote further research.
"DFO needs to figure it out before we go one step further. Where is this [disease]coming from?" she said.
"We need to free their scientists," she added. "The [DFO]scientists need to be released from the political body."
Ms. Stewart criticized the fish-farming industry for failing to take steps to lessen its impact on wild stocks, but Mr. Backman and Ms. Parker ran through a litany of changes that have reduced the number of farmed fish escapes, brought sea lice under control, and stifled disease outbreaks.
"I have no doubt that farms are committed to doing their best to maintain the health of their fish. My concern is the health of our [wild]fish," responded Ms. Stewart.
The panel is to continue the debate Thursday.