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Prime Minister Stephen Harper has called an inquiry into the collapse of the Fraser River sockeye run. ((Chuck Stoody/Canadian Press))

B.C. Supreme Court Justice Bruce Cohen will head the federal inquiry into the decline of the Fraser River sockeye salmon stocks, Minister of International Trade Stockwell Day announced Friday morning in Vancouver.

As commissioner of the inquiry, Cohen's mandate will be to investigate the reasons for the collapse of the once thriving sockeye run and report by May 1, 2011, said Day.

Cohen will be expected to make recommendations for improving the sustainability of the fishery in the Fraser River, including any required changes to the operations of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

"This is a significant and important issue for BC fisheries industry," said Day. "Our government is deeply concerned about the low returns of sockeye salmon to the Fraser River and the implications for the fishery."

Collapsing stocks raise concerns

The inquiry was first announced on Thursday by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the House of Commons, and was widely welcomed by politicians, First Nations, and environmentalists in B.C.

As a commissioner, Cohen will have the authority to hold hearings, summon witnesses and gather evidence needed to conduct the inquiry.

Cohen was born in Vancouver and practised law in B.C. He was appointed a Queen’s Counsel in 1983 and appointed to the Supreme Court of British Columbia in 1987.

The announcement also follows widespread concern over the collapse of the multimillion-dollar sockeye salmon fishery on the Fraser River south of Vancouver. Scientists had predicted a healthy return of sockeye in 2009.

But in the end only an estimated seven per cent of the predicted 8.7 million sockeye in the summer run showed up, making it perhaps the worst return on record.

The huge shortfall forced the closure of the commercial, recreational and aboriginal sockeye fisheries on the river over the summer, and raised questions about the long-term survival of B.C.'s salmon stocks.