Fisheries minister plans 'concrete' action to fight declining sockeye run

Nearly four years — and an election — since a federal inquiry into the decline of Fraser River sockeye, the federal fisheries minister is pledging "concrete" action.

'I wouldn't describe it as a conflict of interest,' says Dominic LeBlanc of DFO promoting aquaculture

Canada's Fisheries Minister is promising 'concrete' action to protect and restore wild salmon to B.C.'s Fraser River. (Gary Stewart/Associated Press)

Canada's minister of fisheries says the government is taking action in a "rigorous and robust" way to restore the Fraser River's sockeye salmon run after nearly four years of silence following a federal inquiry into the decline of the iconic species.

Dominic LeBlanc said Ottawa is committed to the 75 recommendations that came out of the Cohen Commission of Inquiry in October 2012, agreeing delayed action has been "unacceptable."

"The beginning of a transparent and open accountability to Canadians is today," he said Tuesday.

Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc does not seen the promotion of a safe science-backed and well-regulated aquaculture industry as a 'conflict of interest' for his ministry. (Don Marce/CBC)

LeBlanc made the remarks at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans' West Vancouver lab to a room packed with politicians, scientists, environmentalists and Indigenous leaders.

Many expressed hope that after nearly four years — and an election — the federal government was finally talking about action to protect wild salmon.

"Make no mistake, there are many challenges to come, minister," said Michael Meneer of the Pacific Salmon Foundation. "It's been four long years of no communication ... there's a lot of work to be done."

Sockeye salmon are among the most iconic species on the West Coast, and woven into the imagination of Canadians, said LeBlanc. (Matt Casselman)

Are wild salmon sick?

LeBlanc said he was asked about the Cohen report "within hours" of assuming the role as fisheries minister in June, and that it's a priority for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The government has started implementing 32 of the 75 recommendations, said LeBlanc and needs to work with other levels of government and stakeholders to achieve all of them. Some will require legislative changes.

One key action already underway is scientific research by DFO, the Pacific Salmon Foundation and others to answer questions raised by Justice Bruce Cohen in his report about whether fish farms are hurting wild salmon.

Cohen did not make a conclusion on the contentious issue, which has been debated by activists and the industry for decades, saying there isn't enough scientific evidence.

He did, however, conclude that salmon farms hold the potential for "serious or irreversible harm" to Fraser River sockeye through the transfer of disease and called on DFO to find out whether that risk is real.

Today's press conference highlighted the federal budget infusion of $197 million over five years to increase the ministry's science program and monitor and improve the health of fish stocks and hire 29 more scientists in the Pacific region.

Justice Bruce Cohen said there was a conflict of interest in DFO's dual role of protecting wild salmon and promoting net-pen aquaculture (B.C. Salmon Farmers Association)

'Conflict of interest' on fish farms

Still, there's a clear divide between what Cohen recommended and the minister is willing to do, on at least one issue.

Cohen wrote that DFO is in a conflict of interest in its dual role of protecting wild salmon and promoting salmon aquaculture — and runs the risk of choosing farmed over wild salmon in its policies.

Managing aquaculture is fine for the department, but it should stop the "promotion of salmon farming as an industry and farmed salmon as a product."

The minister disagreed, saying it would be irresponsible for the department not to promote aquaculture.

"I wouldn't describe it as a conflict of interest," said LeBlanc. "I'm not talking about running adds somewhere in Europe."

"I think there is a way for world-class, transparent, open and available science and management decisions that are transparent to Canadians to be made with respect to the aquaculture sector."

Michael Meneer of the Pacific Salmon Foundation says Ottawa has been silent on the salmon issue too long, and there is a lot of work to be done. (Don Moss/CBC)

'Wild salmon can't wait'

Other important actions include implementing DFO's own Wild Salmon Policy from 2005, and restoring protection for fish habitat removed from the Fisheries Act by the Conservative government in 2012 and 2013.

LeBlanc said his government plans to restore those provisions, but will consult with Canadians and indigenous groups first.

"We did not want to just cut and paste what was there before," said LeBlanc, who wants any new legislation to be in line with the needs of 2016.

Ian Hinkle of the Watershed Watch Salmon Society said he's encouraged by the response, but "the devil is in the details" and action is required urgently.

"Wild salmon can't wait. 2016 is another difficult year, we're looking at very low returns for wild salmon."

"It's time to take some of these policies that have been thought about very closely and implement them ... and bring back this resource that our province depends on."

With files from CBC Radio One's On The Coast

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