Fletcher: Mystery of Fraser River salmon far from solved

Allow me to dip my toe into the river of data that has flowed by in the past three years.

VICTORIA—Before the 1,200-page, $25-million Cohen Commission report on the Fraser River sockeye salmon fishery slips beneath the waves, allow me to dip my toe into the river of data that has flowed by in the past three years.

If your information on this hugely complex subject consisted of skimming a few news stories or watching protesters on TV, you will likely conclude what urban people have been indoctrinated with for years—that the whole issue is salmon farms and whether they are bad or catastrophic.

“Freeze new salmon farms on sockeye migration route: Cohen” said the headline on a Black Press report. Those who read past the headline would learn that Justice Bruce Cohen recommended a freeze on further salmon farms around the Discovery Islands group near Campbell River until 2020. It’s up to the industry to show by that time that the risk is “minimal,” or farms there should be shut down.

A B.C. Salmon Farming Association spokesman said only nine of 70 B.C. salmon farms are in that area. There are no current applications for more.

Let’s say you decide to plunge in, and download the full report from www.cohencommission.ca. If you go to Volume 2, page 102, you will see a series of graphs that show sockeye runs from rivers other than the Fraser, from Washington all the way up to Alaska.

It’s not a pretty sight. From Washington up to the Central Coast, the Skeena, Nass and up to Yukon’s Klukshu and Alaska’s Alsek, most runs show a decline starting in the 1980s or early 1990s.

This includes runs that migrate down the west side of Vancouver Island, away from salmon farms. Alaska doesn’t allow farms, preferring “ranching”—a strategy that floods the ocean habitat with millions of hatchery fish. These are commercially fished and marketed as “wild.”

B.C.’s North Coast has never had salmon farms. The area has been subject to a moratorium since an NDP-controlled legislative committee gave its verdict on the problem in 2008.

The popular villain in those days was sea lice. Skeena MLA Robin Austin chaired the committee that called for an end to open-pen salmon farms in five years. Then-agriculture minister Pat Bell approved one NDP recommendation, a moratorium on salmon farms in North Coast waters.

This was after the Pacific Salmon Forum conducted its own four-year study, led by former fisheries minister John Fraser.

Similar to Cohen, Fraser concluded that there is no simple answer to this complex problem. And they agreed that salmon farms don’t explain it. Cohen’s report makes it clear that the problem is far larger than could possibly be explained by salmon farms.

How about logging impact? Cohen concludes after much testimony that stream protection has improved significantly during the time of observed sockeye decline. Impact from extra runoff due to pine beetle infestation couldn’t be evaluated.

Poaching on the Fraser? Cohen didn’t get around to that. His biggest concern was climate change, warming sensitive river waters and affecting ocean conditions.

During the Cohen commission hearings, the 2010 Fraser sockeye run came in gangbusters, with 35 million fish. One leading theory is that ash from an Alaska volcano fertilized the ocean, producing algae that supported more salmon feed.

Could it be that salmon ranching from Alaska, Japan and elsewhere is simply depleting the food supply? That too is inconclusive.

Finally, Tides Canada, a U.S. front group that diverts attention from U.S. salmon and oil tankers, spent $25,000 to publicize Cohen evidence. But only as it relates to B.C. salmon farms and how bad they are.

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