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B.C. fisheries disaster haunts from the past

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British Columbia is, and has been, at the cusp of an ecological disaster. The province has already been in the spotlight due to the controversy over the Northern Gateway pipeline, there has been another issue that has been just as pressing a concern for the population. But to understand the issue at length, we must travel back some years in order to understand the growing concerns of sockeye salmon numbers in B.C.

Back in 2009, Harper held a move to hold a judicial inquiry into the loss of B.C.’s sockeye salmon. This was due to the collapse of B.C.’s sockeye salmon fishery on the Fraser River. Back then, the minister of trade at the time – Stockwell Day, had announced that Justice Bruce Cohen would head the salmon inquiry committee. Day said, “There has been an alarming decline in the return of sockeye to the Fraser River. Many analysts were predicting the return rate would be something of the order of 10 million sockeye, but tests have shown it is less than 1 million, and that is very concerning, not just to the people of British Columbia, but to our Prime Minister. In fact, it has broad implications well beyond our province.”  Phil Eidsvik, spokesman for the B.C. Fisheries Survival Coalition said, “This is our chance to save B.C. salmon from going the way of Atlantic cod.

The urgency into this was immediate, considering 10 – 13 million sockeye salmon had been expected to return to spawn, whereas only about one million fish returned. The Fraser River sockeye run collapsed, thus prompting a judicial inquiry into the matter in order to avoid a B.C. fisheries disaster. Back then, Conservative MP John Cummins supported an inquiry stating, “We face a disaster of epic proportions on the Fraser. In six out of the last 11 years the fishery has been closed. Tens of thousands of B.C. families have suffered as a result.” Native Chief Clarence Pennier, of the Stó:lô Tribal Council, also supported the inquiry when he said, “We are in the dark as to why the sockeye runs didn’t make it back to the river. We are still looking for the answers and this is why we support a judicial inquiry.

Wildlife conservationists had high hopes that the salmon inquiry would lead to changes in the operations of the Department of Fishers and Oceans (DFO) on the west coast. Since the collapse of the sockeye fishery, there have been charges that the DFO protects commercial fish farms, does not enforce salmon fishing rules, and ignores the concerns of those that rely on the wild salmon fisheries for their livelihoods. Some others have contended that the DFO fails to protect certain species at risk such as wild salmon.

Back in 2009, Minister of the DFO Gail Shea, was in Norway actively encouraging more Norwegian fish farms to set up business in British Columbia. For many BC citizens, the fish farms were and still are seen as contributing to the collapse of the sockeye fishery by spreading sea lice. The sea lice from salmon farms have been reported to be killing the migrating salmon, including sockeye from the Fraser. At the time, fish biologist Dr. John Volpe, made clear that the world’s independent fish biologists “spoke with one voice” and that the impact connection of lice from fish farms on wild salmon was “indisputable“.

As understood from the food chain, the disappearance of one element can have disastrous and far reaching implications. One of these has also been the declining population of B.C.’s bear population and of the Orcas. On the issue of black bears, Pacific Wild’s conservation director Ian McAllister had told the Globe and Mail that the provincial estimates for the population of  grizzly and black bears was not in line with the reality. McAllister stated that in 2002 the province defined “grizzly bear management areas” but the designation could also be withdrawn in 10 years, and this didn’t offer lasting protection necessary for at-risk populations. He also stated that the grizzly bears wandering into communities were wrongly concluded to believe that the population was on the rise. According to him the real problem was that the collapse of the Pacific salmon population forced bears to wander farther than usual. He said, “We’re finding bears coming into communities starving. They’re reaching out, searching for food.”

 This sets the stage for Justice Bruce Cohen’s public hearings into the judicial inquiry, that was released last month.

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