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Cohen Commission Final Report covers more than Fraser River sockeye

November 1, 2012

At Living Oceans, we've been working to protect wild salmon against the harmful effects of open net-pen salmon farms from the day we opened our doors. The campaign to save wild salmon is even older than our organization. Many of us were there from the earliest days, trying to work with government and industry but feeling more than a little frustrated by their constant denials that the farms had any negative effects. When we read the long awaited Final Report from the Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River we felt vindicated by Justice Bruce Cohen's words:

"I therefore conclude the potential harm posed to Fraser River sockeye from salmon farms is serious or irreversible." … "On September 30, 2020, the minister should prohibit net-pen salmon farming in the Discovery Islands unless he or she is satisfied that such farms pose at the most a minimal risk of serious harm to the health of Fraser River sockeye salmon."

This is the first report on an environmental issue that has ever fully applied the precautionary principle. Justice Cohen reversed the onus and required salmon farmers to establish to government's satisfaction that they are not posing a risk of serious or irreversible harm.

This was just one of 75 recommendations —all of which, if implemented, will benefit Fraser River sockeye, their habitat and all of the other species that share it. Many of the recommendations can be applied equally well to other B.C. sockeye runs and other Canadian salmon species. The report also pointed to the need for more research to fill the gaps in our understanding of how the cumulative effects of natural and human-induced stressors combine to impact salmon runs over time.

Recognizing that past reports and recommendations have tended to sit on shelves collecting dust, Justice Cohen wisely set firm timelines for implementing his recommendations, one of which calls for an independent watchdog to report every two years to Parliament and the public on what progress is being made.

DFO in conflict of interest

A key commission recommendation urged the federal government to get the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) out of the business of promoting farmed salmon and salmon farming. He felt that these responsibilities had high potential to conflict with DFO's legislated mandate, which is to protect wild fish.

"Living Oceans has pointed out this conflict for many years," said Will Soltau, Salmon Farming Campaign Manager. "We presented clear evidence of it during the Commission hearings."

The Commission also came down heavily on the Harper Government for its ham fisted handling of Bill C-38, otherwise known as the omnibus budget of 2012. Justice Cohen made no bones when noting that repealing the Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act, bringing in a new Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and gutting the Fisheries Act "would be a departure from the longstanding principle of maximizing biodiversity espoused by Canadian legislation, in the Wild Salmon Policy, and in Canada's international commitments." He found it "difficult to avoid the conclusion that the legislative amendments in Bill C-38 lower the standard of protection for Fraser River sockeye salmon."

Living Oceans believes that the same could be said for the protection of fish and fish habitat everywhere in Canada.

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