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Excluded transcript frustrates group at Cohen inquiry

A sockeye salmon is caught in a commercial fishing boat's net on the mouth of the Fraser River in Richmond, B.C., on Wednesday August 25, 2010.

DARRYL DYCKDarryl Dyck For The Globe and Mail/darryl dyck The Globe and Mail

In the fall of 1989, two U.S. undercover fisheries officers, a fish broker and a native fisherman from the Fraser Valley sat in a hotel room near Vancouver and talked about illegally dealing in "tonnes" of salmon caught in the aboriginal food fishery.

"I've only produced, you know, maybe 100, ah maybe 150,000 pounds … I shipped to one guy 2 to 300,000," says the fisherman when asked how much sockeye he can provide.

"Well, what we're talking about is increasing your yearly production then maybe tenfold," says one of the agents, posing as an American buyer. "Can you do that?"

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"… if that's the market and the cash is there, you know … we can produce that," says the fisherman.

He goes on to say he can provide Chinook, pink and chum salmon too, which would be taken during native food and ceremonial fisheries on the Fraser River.

"What kind of Chinook volume are we talking about?" asks the agent.

"Ah, I would think that around here more than about 20 tonnes," replies the fisherman.

The joint U.S.-Canada sting failed to lead to any charges, and a transcript of that secretly wired meeting was never filed in any court.

On Wednesday, an attempt was made to enter it as evidence at the Cohen Commission, a federal judicial inquiry into the decline of sockeye populations in the Fraser River. But commissioner Bruce Cohen rejected the document after a lawyer for an aboriginal group challenged its relevance.

Tim Dickson, speaking for the Sto:lo Tribal Council and Cheam Indian Band, said the document wasn't in keeping with the commission's mandate of not finding fault with any individual, community or organization.

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"It's not appropriate to this inquiry and I refer to the finger-pointing," he said.

A copy of the transcript was obtained by The Globe and Mail, however, and it shows why top Department of Fisheries and Oceans enforcement officers, who are testifying at the commission this week, believe the illegal sale of native food fish has long been considered a big problem.

Phil Eidsvik, who is representing the BC Fisheries Survival Coalition at the inquiry, said outside the hearings it was frustrating not to be able to get the transcript on the official record, because it illustrates the magnitude of illegal fish sales and shows "this has been a problem for two decades."

Scott Coultish, regional chief of DFO's intelligence and investigation services, and Randy Nelson, director of conservation and protection, both estimated 97 per cent of the salmon caught under food, social and ceremonial (FSC) licences are illegally sold.

They also testified that 345,000 sockeye, found stored in industrial freezers during a 2005 DFO investigation, were FSC fish that were "most likely" headed for illegal sale.

During cross-examination, Anja Brown, a lawyer for the First Nations Coalition, pointed out that cold storage facilities don't record where salmon come from, and that DFO has no evidence of where the fish ended up, because the fish weren't tracked after leaving cold storage.

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Mr. Coultish said DNA samples showed the sockeye were caught in the Fraser River, during the FSC fishery, but he agreed DFO didn't know where the fish went. "Our belief … is that the fish were sold," he said.

Ms. Brown, however, said it is possible the fish were used for food, social and ceremonial purposes.

"That could have occurred, yes," agreed Mr. Coultish, who added he was skeptical that small communities would go to the expense of packaging and storing food fish in industrial freezers.

Outside the hearings, Jordan Point, executive director of the First Nations Fisheries Council, said it would be easy for native communities in the Fraser Valley to consume 345,000 sockeye in a year. He said he alone puts away 200 fish annually for feasts at funerals, weddings and other ceremonies, and there are 1,200 people on his reserve.

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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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