The Cohen Commission inquiry into declining Fraser River sockeye salmon gave the federal government until Sept. 30, 2020 to show salmon farms in the Discovery Islands were a “minimal risk of serious harm” to migrating salmon, or order them removed.
Now, on the eve of that deadline conservation groups are increasing pressure on Federal Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan to reach a conclusion on the question, leaning toward the latter option.
“It’s not going to be a flip of the switch and happen overnight,” said Kegan Pepper-Smith a Vancouver lawyer with the group Ecojustice, but “we would hope that the minister would comply with this provision, or in the very least, by Sept. 30, publish a commitment to the orderly transition of these farms.”
However, while conservation groups have reached the opinion that “it’s fairly clear that there’s more than a minimal risk” to migrating sockeye, Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has not, according to a statement from the department.
“The science advice to date has concluded that aquaculture farms pose no more than minimal risk of serious harm to the health of migrating sockeye salmon,” said DFO spokeswoma Alexandra Coutts in an emailed response to questions.
Coutts said that DFO is taking action on all 75 recommendations from the Cohen report, including No. 19, which sets the Sept. 30 deadline with respect to examining the risk of salmon farms to migrating sockeye.
And the industry’s main trade group in B.C. issued its own reminder that Cohen’s recommendation “did not simply call for removal of salmon farms,” in an Aug. 20 letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“We have confidence in the expertise of the DFO in their ongoing evaluation of wild and farmed salmon interaction in the Discovery Islands,” wrote John Paul Fraser, executive director of the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association.
Fraser added that the industry is “confident that farmed and wild salmon populations are sharing, and continue to share, marine waters with minimal impacts from interactions.”
DFO created a formal scientific risk assessment framework in response to that particular condition, which has conducted nine peer-reviewed studies to offer advice on the risks of pathogens being transmitted from farmed Atlantic salmon to wild sockeye.
In the statement, Coutts said eight risk assessments have been completed and results related to the ninth and final pathogen are due in mid-September.
However, Coutts wrote that work on responses to many of the Cohen Commission recommendations “are ongoing in nature,” and DFO continues to work with Indigenous communities and stakeholders on a longer-term strategy.
“The government of Canada is also committed to developing and delivering a real and concrete solution for transitioning away from open-net pens in coastal B.C. waters,” Coutts said.
From Ecojustice’s perspective, Fisheries Minister Jordan’s language around that commitment has become less definitive, said Pepper-Smith, and they’re looking for a firmer commitment considering the dire state of sockeye salmon stocks.
This year’s sockeye return is now estimated at 293,000, as of Sept. 4, down from the pre-season forecast of 941,000 fish, which was itself considered “well below the cycle average,” and the lowest return on record, according to the Pacific Salmon Commission.
Pepper-Smith said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said during last fall’s election campaign his government would transition from open-ocean salmon farming by 2025, but Jordan’s recent statements have been along the lines of coming up with a plan by 2025.
“(That suggests) that the actual transition may not happen for years or decades down the road,” Pepper-Smith said.
And considering this year’s sockeye return will be the lowest since 1893, Pepper-Smith said the minister should “recognize that it’s all hands on deck right now,” and salmon farms shouldn’t be exempt from extraordinary measures to preserve sockeye salmon.