Money for aquaculture, but not wild salmon, critics note

The government gave the Department of Fisheries and Oceans $57.5-million over five years "to enhance regulatory certainty" in aquaculture but it has yet to respond to the final report of the commission looking into the decline of Fraser River salmon.

MPs say federal budget fails to respond to Cohen report on B.C. salmon decline

A fish farm as it appears August 2004 in Jervis Inlet along the famed Sunshine Coast of B.C. Critics say that the farms are a threat to wild salmon stock. ((CP PHOTO/Chuck Stoody))

Money in this year's federal budget for aquaculture has critics wondering when Ottawa plans to speak up for wild salmon on the west coast.

The government gave the Department of Fisheries and Oceans $57.5 million over five years "to enhance regulatory certainty" in the aquaculture industry, but it has yet to respond to the final report of the $26-million Cohen Commission, which was set up to look into the decline of sockeye salmon in the Fraser River.

"How do you respond to the recommendations of Mr. Justice [Bruce] Cohen, specifically that there be a moratorium on new aquaculture development near the Discovery Islands [B.C.]," asked Green Party Leader Elizabeth May outside the House of Commons after Tuesday's question period.

May added that there is a great deal of concern in B.C. that farmed salmon are harming the survival of wild stocks.

The Cohen Commission was set up in 2009 to look into the dramatic and unexpected decline of that year's Fraser River sockeye salmon run. DFO expected 11 million fish to return in 2009, but fewer than 1.5 million did.

Cohen's report was released in October of last year and made 75 recommendations to ensure the future well-being of sockeye salmon. Chief among them was a call for a moratorium on all new salmon farm operations in the Discovery Islands between Vancouver Island and B.C.'s mainland.

Cohen also pointed out a conflict of interest in the mandate of DFO. While the department is in charge of protecting wild fish stocks, it is also responsible for promoting the aquaculture industry. Cohen recommended that responsibility be taken away from DFO.

"It does appear that the federal government is going in the other direction from the main recommendations of the Cohen Commission," said John Reynolds, who holds the Tom Buell B.C. Leadership Chair in Salmon Conservation and Management at Simon Fraser University.

He pointed out how strange that was since just last week the B.C. government decided to accept all the recommendations that pointed to the province, in particular, a moratorium on aquaculture in the Discovery Islands.

Still reviewing report

"People living in British Columbia certainly have the right to be confused about what their government's priorities are with regard to wild salmon," said Reynolds.

For its part, DFO says it is still reviewing the Cohen Commission's report nearly five months after its release.

"This is an extensive report with serious implications for the British Columbia sockeye salmon fishery. Going forward, the Government is working with partners and reviewing Justice Cohen's findings and recommendations very carefully. The Government of Canada has long recognized the importance of protecting sockeye salmon in the Fraser River," DFO Official Melanie Carkner wrote to the CBC.

Robert Chisholm, the NDP's Fisheries critic, said the money for aquaculture regulation was "a bit of a surprise" given how little new money there was in the budget. The NDP has called on the government to accept the recommendations of the Cohen Commission report.

The government should "begin to do the work that needs to be done and make the investments that need to be made in order to protect the wild salmon fishery on the west coast," said Chisholm.