The Fraser Sockeye Inquiry

Cohen Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River


Spawned out sockeyeOver the last several decades declining salmon stocks surfaced as a major concern and as a result over the last three decades there have been dozens of investigations, inquiries and reports looking into the matter, and most have focused on Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s management of the resource. Some past investigations include:

  • 1982 – Turning the Tide – A New Policy for Canada’s Pacific Fisheries – Dr. Peter Pearse
  • 1995 – Fraser River Sockeye 1994, Problems and Discrepancies – John Fraser
  • 1998 – The West Coast Report – Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans
  • 1999 – Pacific Salmon: Sustainability of the Fisheries – Auditor General
  • 2000 – The Effects of Salmon Farming in British Columbia on the Management of Wild Salmon Stocks – Auditor General
  • 2001 – Inquiry into Salmon Farming in British Columbia – Stuart Leggatt
  • 2004 – Treaties and Transition: Towards a Sustainable Fishery on Canada’s Pacific Coast – Peter Pearse and Donald McRae
  • 2005 – Salmon Forever: An Assessment of the Provincial Role in Sustaining Wild Salmon – Auditor General of British Columbia
  • 2009 – Final Report of the BC Pacific Salmon Forum – John Fraser


Sockeye Graph

Four-year running average productivity of Fraser sockeye

In 2009, the Fraser River saw an extremely low sockeye return—the lowest in 50 years. Also alarming, Fraser River sockeye have experienced a steady decline in productivity over the last 15 years or so. Likely in response to these warning signs, in November 2009, the Prime Minister announced a 14 million dollar federal inquiry to examine the issue. The Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River is led by Bruce Cohen, a BC supreme court appointed judge since 1987. The Cohen Commission holds the most power of any previous investigation into salmon. It has the power to:

  • compel witnesses to appear;
  • compel witnesses to testify under oath;
  • treat any deliberately false answer given by a witness as perjury; and
  • compel witnesses to produce specific documents.


Many applicants have been granted official standing in the commission and all have been clustered into 20 groups. Watershed Watch has standing as an individual organization as well as through the Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform. We are a part of a larger group of environmental entities clustered into the Conservation Coalition which has legal representation through Ecojustice.

The Cohen Commission is organized into two parts. First, a review and assessment will be made of all previous and relevant investigations and reports. Secondly, the commission will investigate and report findings on:

  • the causes for the decline of Fraser River sockeye salmon including, but not limited to, the impact of environmental changes along the Fraser River, marine environmental conditions, aquaculture, predators, diseases, water temperature and other factors that may have affected the ability of sockeye salmon to reach traditional spawning grounds or reach the ocean;
  • the current state of Fraser River sockeye salmon stocks and the long term projections for those stocks; and
  • recommendations for improving the future sustainability of the sockeye salmon fishery in the Fraser River including, as required, any changes to the policies, practices and procedures of the Department (of Fisheries and Oceans) in relation to the management of the Fraser River sockeye salmon fishery.


An inquiry of this stature has significant powers, and it may be important in exposing underlying problems within DFO’s management regime and new information not previously public. However, even if strong recommendations for improvement are made by judge Cohen in his final report, it should be known that the government is under no legal obligation to follow through.

The final report was initially due on or before May 1, 2011; but the commission has acknowledged the complexity of the issues at hand and have requested and subsequently received an extension to June 30, 2012 and an additional 11 million dollars.

Watershed Watch has been heavily involved in the inquiry since the announcement of our standing in the commission through work in a broad array of subject areas such as:

  • submissions on previous inquires as part of phase one of the commission;
  • a sworn affidavit regarding the release of salmon farming data;
  • submissions of numerous evidence documents;
  • providing expertise and strategy support to our legal team;
  • attending or reviewing hearings on all subject areas of the inquiry;
  • providing insight to commission council through meetings on important subject areas;
  • searching the confidential database for evidence documents; and
  • we will likely testify in person.


We trust the Cohen Commission will be a useful exercise and strong recommendations will be put forward to protect sockeye biodiversity through:

  • the removal of salmon farms from wild salmon migration routes;
  • a precautionary harvest regime of mixed stock returns;
  • reformation of Fisheries and Ocean Canada into an agency that is truly science-based and independent; and
  • the accelerated implementation of the Wild Salmon Policy.


The public is encouraged to make submissions to the Commission, you can do that through the Cohen Commission website.