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5 things: Breaking down Ottawa’s action on Fraser River sockeye salmon

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salmon cohen report

Spawning sockeye salmon are seen making their way up the Adams River in Roderick Haig-Brown Provincial Park near Chase, B.C. JONATHAN HAYWARD / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Federal Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc visited West Vancouver on Tuesday to provide an update on the federal government’s response to the Cohen Commission report on protecting B.C. salmon. Here are five things you need to know about this development:

What is this all about?

The 2012 report from the judicial inquiry, headed by retired judge Bruce Cohen, made 75 recommendations for reversing the decline of sockeye salmon along the Fraser River. It addressed issues such as commercial fisheries and scientific research, as well as the highly contentious question of how fish farming impacts wild sockeye.

LeBlanc’s update details the Department of Fisheries and Ocean’s progress on each of those recommendations.

What has already been done?

The ministry says it has implemented 32 of the Cohen recommendations in whole or in part. Several are points DFO says it was already doing — things like acting “in accordance with its paramount regulatory objective to conserve wild fish” and collecting data on how salmon farming impacts the health of wild fish. Some recommended research programs have also become realities, while the government says more funding is necessary to support others.

Sockeye migration routes are now being considered when the DFO approves locations of new salmon farms, and Ottawa has stopped issuing new licences for net-pen aquaculture operations in the Discovery Islands, near Campbell River.

What’s still to come?

Several recommendations called on the government to improve how it tracks the health of salmon populations, or at least bring its programs back up to the standards set in 2010. That has yet to happen for things like a test fisheries program in the Fraser River and initiatives that monitor river levels, temperatures and illegal fishing.

Meanwhile, research is underway to determine how fish farms in the Discovery Islands impact the health of wild salmon. If those aquaculture operations pose more than “minimal risk of serious harm,” the commission report called on Ottawa to shut the farms down by Sept. 30, 2020.

What’s late?

DFO was asked to produce a detailed plan in 2013 explaining how it will implement Canada’s Policy for Conservation of Wild Pacific Salmon, which dates back to 2005. The plan was supposed to include a breakdown of responsibilities and costs, as well as a timeline for completing each task, but it has yet to materialize. Consultation on the implementation plan is expected to get underway this year.

The lack of a plan means that there have been delays in acting on a handful of other recommendations, including a number of salmon habitat assessments that were expected by the end of 2013. A risk assessment on the impact of farmed salmon on sockeye at sea was also expected the same year, but research is still underway.

What won’t happen?

Salmon farming is a sticking point. The Cohen Commission had asked the DFO to no longer promote fish farming, but the ministry argues that is part of its mandate.

Ottawa has also declined to create a new, senior-level position accountable for policy around wild salmon, claiming it would be too expensive to justify. Instead, the job of putting wild salmon policy into action will be folded into the responsibilities of an existing manager.

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