The villain behind sockeye decline

Examining the causes proves there's plenty of blame to go around.

The Cohen Inquiry into the disappearance of Fraser River sockeye says there’s ‘no smoking gun’ to explain the stock’s continuous decline.

“To think of a cause as a single entity,” says Cohen, hinders our focus on “remedial action” and “understanding the issues.”

Instead, Cohen identifies several smoking guns and explains the full impact each has on wild fish.

Firstly, there’s the DFO’s conflict of interest. Cohen says,“DFO should no longer be responsible for promoting salmon farming” because “there is a risk it will act in a manner that favours the interests of the salmon farming industry.”

Open-pen fish farms, an obvious smoking gun, are a source of lice and viruses – deadly for wild salmon. They don’t belong in the path of migrating sockeye, concludes Cohen.

But, the highest-caliber smoking gun, the one concealed behind a grassy knoll – Bill C-38 – is the Harper government’s rewriting of laws for habitat protection.

“I find the thrust of these amendments to be troubling,” writes Cohen. “Many experts have emphasized the importance of protecting fish habitat, promoting biodiversity and adopting eco-system management practices. However, the recent amendments of the F.A. appear to be taking the DFO in a different direction.”

The public’s disapproval of that “different direction”– away from protecting salmon and towards oil and gas development – is clear.

“I was impressed with how passionate British Columbians are about protecting our wild sockeye stocks,” notes Cohen.

Early evidence of Harper’s new direction, and his plan for paving it over the wishes of Canadians, appears in Section 35 of the new Fisheries Act, originally meant to safeguarded habitat. Until reworded, it read, “no person shall carry on work or undertaking that results in harmful alteration, disruption or destruction (HADD) of fish habitat.”

“Destruction” and “disturbance” need no explanation, but this wording is now intentionally weakened by vague terms like “serious harm,” which invites debate by lawyers and judges. Henceforth, offences for “serious harm” to habitat may not make it to court anyway because the minister may intercept the process by citing “exceptions” in any complaint. He may also insert “qualifiers” to allow habitat damage to occur.

Before amendments,“no person” was allowed to commit a HADD. Now, notes Cohen, HADDs “may occur at the discretion of the Minister” under “prescribed conditions.”

Amendment to Section 36 is another get-out-of-jail free card for oil and gas developments, including Enbridge. Wording once kept the lid on deleterious substances entering habitat. Again, changes allow the minister to make “exceptions.” Cohen says these include: the contribution of the relevant fish to the productivity of commercial, recreational, or Aboriginal fisheries; fisheries management objectives (promoting fish farms, for example).

Probable scenarios? A farmer lays irrigation pipe in a stream that fish live in. He upturns the bank, and machinery leaks oil into the water. Under the amendments, the farmer could successfully argue he needed water to save his crops, and the fish affected were of no “economic value.”

Imagine a student insisting he ‘had to’ steal a lunch because he was hungry, and the other kid’s food wasn’t worth much. We’ve lost salmon if that thinking stands, and our moral path.

More bad amendments occur within the Environmental Assessment Act. Cohen notes the CEAA, 2012, says“not all designated projects will require assessment” and screening on projects that could impact the environment will no longer be performed by DFO staff, but by a review panel established by the Ministries involved.

And, as with the Enbridge pipeline, final approval rests with cabinet. Not very reassuring for habitat, especially when anyone expressing concerns has only 20 days to prepare after public posting of the project.

Cohen summarizes amendments to the Species at Risk Act, a smoking gun. These changes threaten whole runs of sockeye identified by DFO in its Wild Salmon Policy – a project to identify and sustain sockeye within 20-30 “conservation units.”

Cohen urges DFO to implement the policy now.

DFO has delayed, perhaps because Harper is moving “in a different direction,” one illustrated by Cohen’s review of one CU, Cultus Lake Sockeye,

Once a run of 20,000 fish harvested by Soowahlie First Nations for centuries, Cultus sockeye plummeted to 93 fish in the year 2000 (DFO numbers). They could have been saved by habitat remediation, an obligation of the minister when a species is listed in SARA.

The law stated,“you may not kill, harass, or destroy the habitat of a listed species”(that kills them).

DFO directed SARA not to list these fish, or any henceforth, without balancing their survival against “socio-economic” factors as defined by Harper in amendments.

The new SARA has abandoned 197 species or more since amendments. In 2006, 13 environmental groups, including Nature Canada, the Suzuki Foundation, Forest Ethics, protested SARA’s failure to list or remediate threatened habitat.

Smoking guns? The secretive reworking of our laws to enable industry while advancing the destruction of habitat and salmon – slipped into law before Cohen could report – can’t be tolerated.

Cohen’s recommendations need to be acted on immediately. Failing to do so aggravates the insult to the inquiry process.

The central villain behind the decline of sockeye – the one holding most smoking guns  – has always been the Harper government.


Jack Emberly is a retired teacher, local author and environmentalist.

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