A $15-million federal inquiry into the management of salmon on the West Coast has been forced into a two-week adjournment to give legal counsel time to digest the huge volume of technical material being disclosed.
"It's information overload," Tim Leadem, a lawyer representing a coalition of seven conservation groups said on Tuesday shortly after the Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River was stood down until Nov. 29.
The surprise delay came after the more than 20 lawyers representing participants met with commission counsel to discuss concerns about the volume of scientific documents being filed.
Mr. Leadem said the delay is frustrating but necessary to allow lawyers time to read relevant documents before questioning expert witnesses before Bruce Cohen, the British Columbia Supreme Court Justice who is serving as commissioner.
The Cohen commission was to have heard this week from a panel made up of Brian Riddell, former head of science for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Pat Chamut, a former assistant deputy minister of DFO, Mark Saunders, manager of salmon assessment and freshwater ecosystems for DFO, and Jim Irvine, a leading research scientist with the Pacific Biological Station.
"For this panel alone, we were looking at in excess of 600 documents," Mr. Leadem said.
He said a key topic for the panel is DFO's wild salmon policy, which sets out a strategy for maintaining stocks in the face of increased environmental concerns, and pressure from resource users to harvest a maximum number of fish each year.
"I think this is the most important document to date . . . this is one of the key weeks [of testimony] ... and counsel need to be properly prepared," Mr. Leadem said.
David Butcher, a lawyer representing Southern Area E Gillnetters Association and the BC Fisheries Survival Coalition, first raised concerns about document overload about a week ago.
And he said a lot of new material related to the current panel has been filed with the commission since.
"It's not just volume. It's content," he said. "There's a lot and it's coming late. We got a huge amount over the weekend and it's very technical."
Mr. Butcher said a pause in proceedings is needed to allow counsel to catch up.
Brian Wallace, senior commission counsel, requested the delay at the opening of hearings on Tuesday morning.
"It's clear people feel very unprepared to proceed at this point given the volume of material ... it's just a very large job," he told Mr. Cohen.
Mr. Cohen granted the adjournment and thanked counsel for the efforts they have made to deal with the heavy workload.
"I regret that we can't go forward this morning," he said. "It's just obvious on the wild salmon policy ... it's important to take this break."
Outside the hearing room, Craig Orr, executive director of Watershed Watch Salmon Society, called the delay frustrating.
He said that for years, DFO put off formulating the wild salmon policy and then failed to fund it adequately, or to apply it fully in the field, putting wild stocks at risk.
"That's at the heart of what the Cohen commission has to get at – and the sooner the better," Dr. Orr said.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed the Cohen commission last year to investigate what happened on the Fraser River in 2009, when only about one million sockeye returned in a run that was supposed to number more than 10 million.
After the inquiry was announced, the Fraser had a bountiful sockeye return for 2010, but Mr. Cohen has said that has not lessened concerns over the collapse of the previous run, which came after decades of steady declines.