Last week the federal government committed to following up on recommendations to protect wild salmon included in the 2012 Cohen Commission, but fisheries advocates across the region say the announcement didn't go far enough.
Speaking last Tuesday, Aug. 9, Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc said Ottawa is committed to the 75 recommendations that came out of the Cohen Commission after the previous regime was widely criticized for its lack of action following the $37-million inquiry.
"The beginning of a transparent and open accountability to Canadians is today," he said to a packed Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) lab in West Vancouver.
Aaron Hill of the Watershed Watch Salmon Society applauded the minister's West Coast visit, but called the announcement itself "disappointing."
"We aren't seeing a lot of new action or intention from the department to move forward with some of these recommendations," he said.
The Liberals' progress report released in conjunction with last week's announcement says 32 of Cohen's recommendations have already been implemented in whole or in part, many of those under the Conservatives. One recent commitment was $197 million in funding over five years to beef up scientific research and monitoring aimed at improving the health of dwindling salmon stocks.
There were, however, several notable recommendations the minister showed no intention of acting on.
In his landmark report Justice Bruce Cohen called on Ottawa to remove the DFO's mandate to promote fish farming — which scientists say is harming B.C.'s wild salmon stocks — that will not go ahead under the Liberals.
LeBlanc saw no issue with the department managing fish farms, and said the DFO would stop the "promotion of salmon farming as an industry and farmed salmon as a product."
Sea to Sky Fisheries Roundtable member Dave Brown said the messaging showed a clear conflict of interest.
"It is a total conflict with (the DFO's) mandate to manage fish farming. It seems right now their priority lies with the fish farmers. They've renewed their licenses another six years, granted new licenses and they did this all very quickly, yet they're dragging their feet on adopting the recommendations of the Cohen inquiry," he said.
Another key recommendation called for the implementation of the DFO's own Wild Salmon Policy from 2005, which LeBlanc said would be updated following further consultation to align with changes to the Fisheries Act under former PM Stephen Harper — changes that were lambasted by the Liberals during the election campaign.
"The Wild Salmon Policy is a foundational public policy, it's a blueprint for how we conserve and rebuild these wild salmon populations, and it has broad public support, took a lot of work to get in place and it's only been implemented in bits and pieces," Hill said.
"Now (the Liberals) are talking about revising the policy... to align it with weakened legislation from the previous government that this government has said they're going to re-strengthen. It's crazy. It does not make sense."
To help oversee the implementation of the Wild Salmon Policy, Cohen also recommended the creation of a new senior DFO position in the Pacific region. The Liberals, however, will not heed Justice Cohen's advice, a move Hill believes "will certainly make it harder for the DFO to be held accountable, and that's really concerning."
With salmon returns to the Fraser River this year at dismal lows — sockeye counts for 2016 total roughly 980,000, compared to a typical healthy year of around 5 million — the time for talk is over, said Whistler resident John Fraser, who served as fisheries minister under PM Brian Mulroney.
"If you get a period of years in which year after year the return of the stock... is going down, don't ever try to tell me that you've got years to fiddle around and solve it. It's an immediate problem," he said.
Brown echoed Fraser's remarks, saying he'd like to see the government take steps to restore salmon habitat protections that were lost under the Harper government.
A voicemail left with the DFO was not returned by press time. Sea to Sky federal MP Pam Goldsmith-Jones was out of country and unavailable for comment.
To view the DFO's update on the implementation of the Cohen Commission's recommendations, visit tinyurl.com/CohenReport.
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