Swimming upstream

In a good year, wild Pacific Sockeye salmon converge on the Fraser River in the tens of millions. For a few weeks in the fall they surge through waterways across half of BC, filling rivers and streams with the rush of life that has sustained people and ecosystems for millennia.
2009 was not a good year. In fact it was the third consecutive year of salmon returns so low that the commercial fishery was closed. With all signs pointing to an ecological disaster comparable to the collapse of Atlantic cod stocks, the Prime Minister established a Commission of Inquiry, headed by highly-regarded Justice Bruce Cohen, to find out why the salmon were disappearing, what the future might hold for them, and whether changes were needed to the management of the fishery.

© Andrew S. Wright, WWF-Canada

2012 is a better year. Though it is still too soon to tell whether the healthier salmon returns of the past few years signal an encouraging long-term trend, there is one important new landmark of hope: this week’s release of the Cohen Commission’s final report and recommendations.
There is no doubt that Justice Cohen and his team took their task seriously. Over three years the Commission held public forums, conducted site visits, called over one hundred witnesses in over one hundred days of hearings, and reviewed hundreds of thousands of documents. The team commissioned over a dozen peer-reviewed scientific reports and wrote more than twenty policy and practice reports. The sheer effort devoted to the examination deserves our respect and appreciation.
The Commission also lived up to the spirit of its assignment. The Prime Minister directed the Commissioner to “conduct the Inquiry without seeking to find fault on the part of any individual, community or organization, and with the overall aim of respecting conservation of the sockeye salmon stock and encouraging broad cooperation among stakeholders.” In other words: this Inquiry must not be about assigning blame. It’s about finding solutions.
And the Commission delivered. The Final Report sets out 75 clear and specific recommendations to help secure the future of wild salmon stocks. As a central point, the Commission affirms that DFO’s paramount regulatory objective is to conserve wild fish, and that the government’s Wild Salmon Policy and Habitat Policy must both be fully implemented.
Even more importantly, the report and recommendations are not just about Fraser River salmon. Woven throughout the Commission’s findings are a few fundamental principles at the heart of all responsible resource management:

  • –A clear recognition that conservation and economic sustainability go hand in hand. Strong conservation measures create the conditions for healthy fisheries that, in turn, support jobs and communities.
  • –An awareness that ecosystems are complex, dynamic, and deeply interconnected, and that we have only begun to understand how our actions can affect rivers, seas, and wildlife. In the face of uncertainty, a prudent and thoughtful approach – known to science as “the precautionary principle” – is our best bet for smart management.
  • –A commitment to action. Good laws are meaningless if they are not enforced; good policies are little use unless they are implemented; and any promise of informed decision-making must be backed both by investments in robust research and analysis, and by a willingness to be guided by their results.

In the coming days, check back for more details on how WWF brings these principles to life through our own work in BC and across Canada, on some of the key issues identified by the Cohen Commision. For now, please join us in extending our appreciation to Justice Cohen and the Commission staff, and to all the witnesses and participants who gave their time and shared their expertise with the Commission. And, always, our thanks to the wild Pacific salmon that enrich our lives and inspire our work.