When a federal inquiry into the drastic decline of sockeye salmon in the Fraser River was tabled in 2012, there was hope among conservationists in B.C. that the Conservative government was finally going to take steps to address the issue.
Almost two years later to the day, only one of the 75 recommendations included in Justice Bruce Cohen's report has been implemented, causing outrage among salmon preservationists, and leading one former federal fisheries minister to lampoon his own party.
"I've had a lot of experience and I can tell you this: You don't get anything done by being a nice, little patsy," said an irate John Fraser, a retired Conservative MP and Whistler resident. "I haven't got very commendatory things to say about my own party and my own government on this issue until they start to show me and a lot of other people what they're going to start to do about it."
Fraser was instrumental in ringing the alarm bell in 2009 after there was a drop-off in the expected number of sockeye returning to the Birkenhead River, a Fraser tributary, that year. He, along with other concerned conservationists, approached MP John Weston, who lobbied for action in the House of Commons.
The $26-million dollar report, which was the result of numerous public forums and 130 days of evidentiary hearings, failed to identify "a smoking gun" pinpointing the cause of the sockeye stock's two-decade decline, but underlined the need for the federal Ministry of Fisheries and Oceans to examine its policies and practices around salmon and habitat protection.
"The Cohen report may not have found a single 'smoking gun' but what it did find is there was a great deal of room for improvement, and without it, we are going to be in difficulty," said Fraser, who believes current fisheries minister Gail Shea hasn't been "properly backed up" by senior members of the Prime Minister's office on moving forward with the report's recommendations, despite a recent meeting headed by Weston which outlined a plan of action.
After a year had passed since the inquiry, the Sea to Sky Fisheries Roundtable, a group that formed in the wake of the Fraser River's sockeye collapse, was dismayed with the feds lack of action and forwarded a petition with 19 questions asking how Ottawa would move on the report's recommendations. The responses, according to roundtable member and Whistler local Dave Brown, were less than satisfactory.
"It was a bunch of — I don't know what word to use, but — crap," he said.
"I don't think anybody expected all 75 (recommendations) to be adopted, but I think we expected a whole lot more than just one. The government's track record on this is abysmal. This was a huge inquiry that costs a whole lot of money to Canadians and it's just being pushed out the backdoor."
Although Minister Shea declined to be interviewed, an email from her media relations officer said, "the Government is responding to (Cohen's) recommendations not by producing another written document, but by taking concrete actions that make a real difference," and pointed to the return of an estimated 20 million fish to the Fraser in 2014, although Brown said a large component of those fish originated from the Adams River.
"Other rivers like the Birkenhead had very poor returns," he added. Roughly 35,000 salmon returned to the Birkenhead this year, down from highs of around 300,000 in the mid-'90s, Brown said.
To its credit, the federal government committed $25 million in the 2013 budget to fisheries habitat conservation projects across Canada, a move that Weston advocated strongly for. And while Brown commended the move, he said more needs to be done to protect the Fraser River's vital sockeye population.
"All we've seen the government do is issue more salmon farm licenses," he said. "These salmon farms are owned by foreign companies, mainly Norwegian, and there's very little benefit to Canadians, but the government's interest is in selling out feed lot licenses in our oceans. That wasn't an encouraging sign."
A Tory MP for 21 years, Fraser has a unique perspective into the inner workings of the Conservative Party, and said ideology is the barrier preventing the Harper administration from taking concrete steps to protect B.C.'s salmon.
"I think there are some people in the party, not all of them by any means, who think that anybody who's concerned about the environment, conservation or fisheries is some kind of a leftwing nut," he said, vowing to continue his years-long fight to protect salmon in British Columbia.
"If I gave up easily, I'd have given up decades ago, but I don't give up easily. The stakes are very high and very valuable."
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