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Sudden fish boom doesn't mean decline is over, inquiry head says

Over the past two decades, a series of inquiries has led to more than 30 reports and 700 recommendations on how to improve the state of West Coast salmon resources, but none managed to halt a "steady and profound decline" of stocks in the Fraser River.

In a preliminary report released on Friday, the head of the latest investigation, British Columbia Supreme Court Justice Bruce Cohen, said he hopes his judicial inquiry will both help restore the fishery and "end the cycle of reviewing the same issues over and over again."

Mr. Justice Cohen, whose Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River began evidentiary hearings this week, was required to file an interim report this fall giving his preliminary views on the large number of investigations that preceded his.

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He said a review by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans provided his staff with 25 reports prepared by or for the federal government between 1982 and 2005, and that he also examined several other studies, such as an auditor general's report.

"My principal interest was reports that are relevant to the Fraser sockeye fishery, but I also thought it important to review reports that deal more generally with various aspects of West Coast fisheries, such as DFO management, conservation and habitat protection and the potential impact of open-pen salmon farms on wild salmon stocks," he wrote.

"The number of previous reports and the number of recommendations contained within them is remarkable, as is the wide range of issues that were examined," Mr. Justice Cohen stated in his preliminary report.

"Some issues have been examined repeatedly. An enormous amount of time and money has been invested in arriving at the recommendations contained in these previous reports, yet the decline in Fraser sockeye stocks continued through 2009," he wrote.

Although he said much has been learned from his extensive review of past findings, "I have concluded that it would be premature and unwise to make findings of fact or recommendations based solely on these reports."

Mr. Justice Cohen, who expects the evidentiary hearings to continue through next spring, said he will wait until all the information is in before drawing conclusions.

And he said although there have been numerous investigations before, his commission is unique because it is the first one that has been directed specifically to identify the causes of sockeye decline or that has been given the authority to summon witnesses to give evidence under oath.

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"The Fraser sockeye is an iconic species of fish," he wrote. "The steady decline of this resource over several decades has put enormous pressure on the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities that depend on it for their food, social and ceremonial purposes; recreational pursuits and livelihood needs. They want answers as to why there has been a steady decline in the Fraser sockeye stocks. They seek solutions for restoring the stocks to those levels of abundance where an ample supply of sockeye salmon served the needs of all the communities that relied heavily on it."

Mr. Cohen says his commission, which was struck to examine the collapse of salmon stocks in the Fraser last year, will take into consideration the record runs that surprisingly returned to the river this year.

He said the sudden boom is not a sign the decline that began in the early 1990s is over.

"Notwithstanding the relief and excitement surrounding the 2010 return, no one is confident that the declines are a thing of the past," Mr. Justice Cohen wrote.

About 11 million sockeye were expected to return this year, but during the summer, the Pacific Salmon Commission estimated the run size at 34 million fish. Earlier this month, however, the PSC put the number at closer to 29 million - still the largest run of the century, but five million less than were thought to be in the river when fisheries took place.

Last year, more than 10 million fish were expected, but only about one million returned.

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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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