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Contaminant research fell through the cracks, Cohen Commission hears

A cutout of a sockeye salmon is raised above the crowd during a demonstration to coincide with the start of the Cohen Commission Inquiry into the 2009 decline of sockeye salmon in the Fraser River, in Vancouver, B.C., on Monday, Oct. 25, 2010.

Darryl Dyck/ The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck/ The Canadian Press

When the Department of Fisheries and Oceans stopped doing research on contaminants in ocean and freshwater environments several years ago, it was assumed Environment Canada would pick up the slack.

But that never happened, the Cohen Commission heard Monday, and that oversight created a serious gap in federal research capabilities despite growing concerns that pesticides and other contaminants were threatening Pacific salmon.

Testimony by witnesses and a series of government e-mails filed as evidence show that the research gap has long been viewed with concern and frustration by DFO scientists.

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Robie Macdonald, the DFO section head of marine environmental quality at the Institute of Ocean Sciences, told the Cohen Commission that a reorganization of the department in 2005 led to a "withdrawal" of the DFO from contaminant monitoring nationally.

Many thought Environment Canada would fill in where the DFO had left off, but that didn't occur, Mr. Macdonald said.

Wendy Baker, a lawyer for the Cohen Commission, asked him if monitoring for contaminants is important.

"Monitoring is actually one of the ways you can see what's happening in the environment," he said. "Monitoring is really the key tool to tell you whether [government]regulation has had [the desired]effect."

Mr. Macdonald said it is important to know what chemicals are out there because many contaminants, while not directly toxic to salmon, can build up in fish and prove fatal in the long term.

"What we're talking about here is sub-lethal [contaminants]… they fly under the death radar … and yet they may be every bit as risky for fish in their life cycle," he said.

He said fish can accumulate an array of contaminants without any obvious ill effect, then swim out to sea "and just not come back."

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The Cohen Commission is investigating the collapse of sockeye salmon populations in the Fraser River, and the inquiry has heard in earlier testimony that pollutants have been accumulating in salmon, with some toxins at levels that could be fatal to fish eggs.

In 2008, U.S. biologists reported that three pesticides commonly used in orchards in the West were disrupting salmon's sense of smell, which would make it harder for fish to avoid predators and navigate a return to spawning beds. Canada has had no research program aimed at determining if there is any pesticide impact on salmon.

One e-mail put before the Cohen Commission was a June, 2010 note from Robin Brown, manager of the oceans sciences division at the federal Institute of Ocean Sciences, in Sidney, B.C., to a DFO official. It noted that "an area of tension" existed between Environment Canada and the DFO.

"DFO has largely withdrawn from the 'contaminants research' field (at least on paper - there are still internally subversive elements at work and I leave it up to your imagination to decide where those elements might be located)," he wrote.

The reference to "subversives" wasn't explored by Cohen Commission counsel, but it appeared to refer to DFO scientists who were unofficially doing contaminant research.

Mr. Brown went on to state that "neither department is particularly consistent on WHAT they do, WHERE they do it and HOW they justify it against their mandate. … There is a pretty large gap between what EC is prepared to do and what DFO is prepared to do and this gap is largest in the marine environment."

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One e-mail string showed that the problem has existed for years.

In a November, 2008 note to several DFO officials, Peter Ross, a DFO research scientist at the Institute of Ocean Sciences, reported that researchers had been discussing concerns about the contaminants file.

"We all agree that the 'programme' no longer exists," he wrote. "There is no core, peer-reviewed budget for contaminant research … the contaminant research file and its biological effects orientation have stalled within DFO."

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About the Author
National correspondent

Mark Hume is a National Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver, writing news and feature stories on a daily basis about his home province of British Columbia. His weekly column, which often challenges the orthodoxy on environmental issues, appears every Monday. More

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