Resource: “Business as Usual”: a critique of federal update on Cohen

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WHAT IS THE “COHEN INQUIRY”?

The Cohen Inquiry was the largest investigation of wild salmon management in Canadian history, spurred by the devastating Fraser sockeye collapse in 2009. It cost taxpayers over $37 million and produced 75 recommendations widely recognized as critical to restoring and protecting wild salmon for future generations. Justice Bruce Cohen’s recommendations cover habitat protection, salmon farming risks, hatchery management, fishery management, government accountability, and more. As you would expect from a Supreme Court judge, the recommendations are pragmatic and thoughtful.

The final report was tabled more than 3 years ago. We immediately started tracking government’s progress in implementing the recommendations with our Cohen Report Card. Progress has been slow, with most of the recommendations not implemented. That’s why so many of us were thrilled when Prime Minister Trudeau promised to implement the recommendations in his mandate letter to the Minister of Fisheries.  

In August 2016, Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc made his first trip to the west coast since taking the helm at DFO. He held a press conference in Vancouver to provide a progress report on his government’s commitment to acting on the recommendations of the Cohen Inquiry.

OUR TAKE ON THE ANNOUNCEMENT

We commend Minister LeBlanc for providing an update implementing the 2012 Cohen Commission recommendations; it was an important show of transparency. We also commend Minister LeBlanc and the federal government for explicitly making implementation a priority. But let’s not forget that the Cohen Commission was primarily investigating DFO’s track record of managing wild salmon, so we cannot  expect an independent assessment to come from the agency (DFO) that was under investigation.

Although the federal government has changed since the Cohen Commission, the bureaucracy which spurred the investigation is still comprised of many of the same people, doing things the same way. This may be why Justice Cohen penned the 75th and last recommendation, which calls for a government-independent public update on the implementation status. This important recommendation has not yet been fulfilled.

After examining DFO’s update, we think it paints an overly rosy and vague picture of implementation without much evidence or detail. In some cases we believe DFO has not followed the intent of Justice Cohen’s recommendations. And many of the “actions” were taken under the previous government, so there wasn’t much that was actually new.

Here, we provide a few examples of the good and the bad on DFO’s update.

The Good

  • DFO is publicly taking the initiative to talk about the Cohen Commission. recommendations, something lacking in recent years.
  • Recognition that Cohen recommendations apply to BC salmon broadly, not just Fraser River sockeye.

 

The Bad

  • A biased update of many activities that are “dressed-up” as action taken on the Cohen recommendations.
  • Unnecessary and poorly justified delays on habitat-related recommendations.
  • DFO suggests it is devising a plan to implement the Wild Salmon Policy. However, the Wild Salmon Policy is a detailed implementation plan to restore and conserve BC’s salmon! There is no justifiable need for DFO to write a new implementation plan for the widely supported policy. If DFO is allowed to rewrite the Wild Salmon Policy we have no doubt that they will water it down, reducing it to another “guidelines” document without teeth and rigour.  

 

WILD SALMON POLICY

  • Justice Cohen recognized the value of the Wild Salmon Policy in providing specific guidance on how to restore and conserve BC’s salmon. He also understood that the Policy allowed First Nations, stakeholders, and the public to measure DFO’s performance in conserving wild salmon. He didn’t critique the Wild Salmon Policy or recommend it be re-written. Instead, he directed 8 of the first 10 recommendations towards implementing it, and ended his report by stating DFO’s performance on implementing the Policy should be reviewed by an independent body and reported publicly. This is absolutely crucial.

Examples:

  • #4 DFO has not hired an Associate Regional Director to champion the Policy’s implementation. We see no evidence of “a strengthened governance and oversight regime at the senior management level.” This is an important recommendation intended to make DFO accountable for implementing the Policy.
  • #5 No implementation plan for the Wild Salmon Policy has been published and DFO says “the Policy will be implemented through existing DFO programs.” Unfortunately, we’re concerned this means business as usual. Worse, they are using this recommendation as a Trojan Horse to re-write the implementation plan that is embedded in the Wild Salmon Policy and undoubtedly water it down. The only intelligible reason given for changing the Policy is to “align it with changed legislation”, by which they mean the changes made to the Fisheries Act by the Harper government when they gutted the Act’s habitat protection provisions. This government has promised to “restore lost protections” to the Act. Therefore, changing the Wild Salmon Policy to align with the gutted Fisheries Act is preposterous.
  • #6 No details are provided on properly funding the Wild Salmon Policy. DFO provides no concrete evidence the Policy will be a priority.  

 

CONFLICT OF INTEREST

  • #3 deals with the concern that DFO’s salmon farming promotional mandate is impeding its ability to protect wild salmon, in part because the industry may be a threat to wild stocks. However, Minister Leblanc publicly dismissed this concern. The Cohen Commission wasn’t the only high-profile body to highlight this conflict of interest within DFO. In 2012, the Royal Society of Canada commissioned a report (Sustaining Canada’s Marine Biodiversity) which identified a similar concern. Given this recommendation has not been implemented, we question the integrity of DFO’s updates on all recommendations related to salmon farming.

 

SALMON FARMS: A RISK TO WILD SALMON

  • Justice Cohen highlighted salmon farms as a risk to wild salmon and articulated 10 recommendations dealing with farm management and 1 dealing with DFO’s problematic promotion of the industry.
  • Unfortunately, many of DFO’s responses on salmon farming are questionable.

Examples:

  • #15, 16 & 17 deal with the development of siting criteria for salmon farms (i.e., where farms should be located), so they explicitly integrate wild salmon migration routes, new science through a scientific peer-review process, and the involvement of stakeholders and First Nations. After these siting criteria are developed, Cohen states that existing farms that don’t comply with these criteria should be removed.
  • Watershed Watch and other NGOs were provided with DFO’s attempt at a draft siting criteria document last yearit was seriously flawed and lacking a scientific basis, without reference to a single scientific study. DFO referred to these criteria as “guidelines” which implies they are not mandatory or enforceable. To date, not one farm has been removed due to these new criteria, yet DFO considers these three recommendations “complete.”
  • See our letter to DFO regarding their proposed siting guidelines.

 

SCIENCE & STOCK ASSESSMENT

  • Several recommendations deal with obtaining accurate assessments and data on salmon stock size. This is critical monitoring information needed to properly assess and manage the health and status of Fraser sockeye stocks. Although DFO communicates that $197 million will be spent over five years to increase ocean and freshwater science, including monitoring and research on Pacific salmon, surprisingly, many recommendations that involve monitoring are marked as not implemented with no assurance they will be. Is this an indication of DFO’s true commitment to wild salmon?  

Examples:  

  • #28 deals with contributing to the Pacific Salmon Commission’s test-fishing program so it is capable of operating at 2010 levels. This allows a robust assessment of incoming stock size. Despite pronouncements of funding for monitoring, DFO provides no certainty that funding will facilitate this key recommendation.
  • #29 deals with maintaining hydroacoustic monitoring along the river at Mission and Qualark so they operate at 2010 levels. Again, DFO provides no commitment that this will be implemented.  
  • #32 & 33 deal with funding robust monitoring of juvenile sockeye salmon, which is key information in assessing the early lifecycle stages of salmon. Again, DFO admits they are not implementing these key recommendations. This raises the question about where all the monitoring money they quoted is going?

 

HABITAT & THE FISHERIES ACT

Justice Cohen reinforced the need for conserving existing habitat and restoring damaged habitat, and he emphasized that habitat is key to salmon recovery. While this government has promised it will restore lost protections to the Fisheries Act, it has yet to do so.

Examples:  

  • #41 & 42 deal with the implementation of the the 1986 Habitat Policy, establishing a detailed plan to increase productive capacity of Fraser River sockeye habitat.
  • DFO’s update calls these recommendations “Out of Date” but these recommendations are still relevant to protect habitat needed for salmon recovery.

 

CONCLUSION

Minister LeBlanc’s announcement was a small step in the right direction, but it is clear that he will need to take a firm hand with DFO if he expects them to deliver on the Cohen recommendations. Consultation, obfuscation, delays, and watering down the Wild Salmon Policy—while merely reporting on the partial implementation of recommendations made by a previous government—are not going to cut it.