British Columbia

Lots of talk but little action on Cohen recommendations to protect wild salmon, critics say

The B.C. government has acknowledged it has concerns about fish farms in key wild salmon migration routes, but it has yet to act on a campaign promise to transition to closed containment.

'We've heard progress, I don't know that we've seen progress,' says B.C. Green MLA of government's record

Most of the 75 recommendations in the Cohen report fall under federal jurisdiction, but there are some areas where the province could make changes. (Gary Stewart/Associated Press)

It's been just over a year since the last B.C. election and CBC News has tracked every promise the NDP made during the campaign.

Implementing recommendations to protect dwindling wild salmon stocks was one of those campaign promises.

"We will ensure that the salmon farming industry does not endanger wild salmon by implementing the recommendations of the Cohen Commission, keeping farm sites out of important salmon migration routes, and supporting research and transparent monitoring to minimize the risk of disease transfer from captive to wild fish," the 2017 NDP campaign platform reads.

Critics say there's been a lot of talk about the issue since the NDP formed government, but not a lot of action.

"We've heard progress, I don't know that we've seen progress," said Adam Olsen, the Green MLA for Saanich North and the Islands. 

"I think there is a difference between words and actions."

Cohen recommendations

The 2012 Cohen Commission examined the decline of sockeye salmon in the Fraser River.

Most of the 75 recommendations in the report fall under federal jurisdiction, but there are some areas where the province could make policy changes.

The possibility of removing fish farms from key wild salmon migration routes is one area where the province has influence. Aquaculture operations are federally regulated, but they also require a provincial tenure.

The B.C. government will be making a critical decision on that front soon: 22 fish farms tenures are up for renewal in June.

The B.C. Salmon Farmers Association says the province's aquaculture industry generates $1.5 billion a year. (B.C. Salmon Farmers Association)

'It's complicated'

Agriculture Minister Lana Popham says her government has acknowledged migration routes are a concern and meetings continue on how to proceed on the future of existing tenures.

"We are in a very critical time as we look at how the Broughton Archipelago and the Cohen fit together," she said.

"It's complicated. We are incorporating the Cohen Commission recommendations into our considerations because we did commit to implementing those."

The province also has to weigh the impact of potential changes on the B.C. aquaculture industry.

There are 117 marine fin-fish aquaculture facilities in B.C. that generate a combined $1.5 billion per year and employ about 6,000 people, according to the most recent data from the industry.

The NDP campaign platform notes it would look to provide incentives to the industry to transition to closed containment where possible, but it has not elaborated on what that might entail.

Salmon secretariat

Last week, Olsen released a report outlining the challenges facing wild salmon in B.C.

Olsen says policies in several different provincial ministries affect fish habitat, and the province should move immediately to create a wild salmon commissioner and secretariat to coordinate the response to declining wild salmon stocks. 

"We should be doing it without delay. It is critical for our culture. It's critical for us socially, economically and for environmental policy," he said.

The government is open to the idea, Popham said.

"Having some sort of structure in place with wild salmon as a priority would allow for us to have discussions that would allow us to move forward," she said.

About the Author

Megan Thomas

Reporter

Megan Thomas is a reporter for CBC in Victoria, B.C. She covers stories from around Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast. Follow her on Twitter @meganTcbc.