The Challenges Faced by the Cohen Inquiry


John Cummins – Conservative MP for Delta and a former commercial fisherman – shares his hopes and concerns for the upcoming Judicial Inquiry into the collapse of Fraser River sockeye, led by Justice Bruce Cohen.

DFO’s mismanagement of west-coast fishery

For much of the last half century Fraser River stocks were healthy and abundant and enjoying a period of sustained growth. On December 31, 1985 the management of the fishery was transferred from the International Pacific Salmon Fisheries Commission to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

DFO was now in charge. They determined how many fish were to be caught and by whom, how many fish were to spawn, what runs to enhance and where habitat restoration was necessary. In every way the fate of salmon in B.C. was now in the hands of DFO bureaucrats. Almost from the moment DFO acquired this power, the sockeye fishery began to decline.

By the mid-nineties dangerously low returns had led to a number of investigations of the Fraser River fishery. When it became obvious that inquiries lacking the ability to subpoena witnesses and take testimony under oath were leaving critical questions unanswered, including the impact of DFO’s management of the fishery, there were calls for a judicial inquiry.

Finally, during the 2006 election it was announced that if elected, a Conservative government would establish a judicial inquiry into the state of Fraser River sockeye fishery.

Efforts to keep this commitment were fought at every turn by DFO and its allies. By early 2007 media reports indicated that according to the then Fisheries Minister “British Columbia’s fishing community is almost unanimously opposed to the government’s promised public inquiry” and the idea was dropped.

The spectacular collapse of the 2009 sockeye run renewed calls for a public inquiry. On November 6, 2009 Prime Minister Harper established the Cohen Inquiry into the decline of the Fraser River sockeye fishery with a mandate to investigate the collapse and report to him with an interim report by August 1 of this year and a final report by May 1, 2011.

Justice Cohen has a formidable task

DFO and those who opposed an Inquiry will now try to neutralize the Inquiry by encouraging it to head down the same path as previous reviews. They will quietly advise Justice Cohen to hold private meetings where “evidence” is given off-the-record and to conduct roundtable discussions instead of giving fishermen and environmentalists the opportunity to scrutinize evidence and cross-examine witnesses.

Justice Cohen and his staff must always remember that DFO is the principle focus of their Inquiry and therefore expect its advice to be self-serving. The success of the Inquiry depends on it maintaining a healthy distance from academics and organizations that have benefited from DFO’s largesse and ensuring that those challenging the department’s actions are armed with the resources needed to effectively marshal their arguments.

Without specific interim recommendations from Justice Cohen the government should not be introducing confounding changes in the management of the fishery until the Inquiry submits its final report. They must not introduce a new Fisheries Act, enter into treaties with aboriginals that would further balkanize the management of the fishery, rewrite the rules governing salmon aquaculture or further expand the industry.

These cautions to the government are not ill-founded

In January, courtesy of a B.C. Supreme Court ruling, DFO announced that it had accepted responsibility for aquaculture but failed to make clear that there would be no expansion of salmon aquaculture until Justice Cohen submits his findings and recommendations.

On February 5th the government signed off on the Yale treaty and a fisheries harvest agreement giving the tiny Yale band, one of 140 bands claiming Fraser sockeye, approximately 2% of the Fraser River catch. The allocations, co-management and enforcement provisions of the treaty and its harvest agreement are all matters which will be investigated by Justice Cohen.

On March 2nd, reacting to public concern about the impact on the Inquiry of the signing of the Yale treaty, DFO announced it was going to defer treaty negotiations during the inquiry except for treaties with Yale, Siliammon and In-SHUCK-ch. The continued negotiation of these three treaties involving Fraser sockeye is a threat to the integrity of the Inquiry.

The latest challenge to the Inquiry was contained in the Throne Speech where the government committed itself to a new Fisheries Act. The new legislation would undoubtedly be written by DFO, the same department that presided over the decline in the Fraser sockeye fishery and the collapse of Newfoundland’s cod fishery. It would be written without the benefit of the Cohen Inquiry’s findings and recommendations.

New fisheries legislation brought forward before the Inquiry has completed its investigation should be seen as nothing more than another self-serving and rather clever attempt by DFO to cover-up its mismanagement and to marginalize and preempt the investigation.

Justice Cohen must understand that in the eyes of the public the fate of B.C. salmon is in his hands. Folks mistrust the department and the politicians who have promised much but delivered so little.

If Justice Cohen gets it right he will be remembered as the man who saved the wild salmon for our children and grandchildren, if he fails he’ll be remembered as just another guy who refused to speak the hard truth, a guy who was little more than another apologist for the incompetence of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.


Justice Cohen has seriously undermined the credibility of his inquiry with the appointment of David Levy as his Science Director. Levy is author of a 2006 report for the Sierra Club of BC that is supportive of DFO policies developed to address the series of disastrous sockeye returns which have plagued the fishery since DFO assumed management responsibilities: policies which rightfully should be the focus of Cohen’s Inquiry.

Let me be clear, Levy supports DFO’s “development of commercial inland fisheries” or terminal fisheries which will harvest Fraser sockeye in their home rivers just prior to spawning. He is hopeful “that a cannery grade” salmon can be obtained in such terminal fisheries but acknowledges this will result in a “reduction in the value of the fishery due to reduced quality.” Levy’s position would spell the end of commercial fisheries and would place serious limits on tidal water aboriginal fisheries and the sport fishery. It would also spell the end of fresh and frozen salmon for home and restaurant use and give farmed fish a virtual monopoly in that market.

Levy points the finger at climate change affecting Fraser sockeye returns without accounting for its seeming lack of impact on sockeye returns elsewhere. Unbelievably he completely ignores the potential impact of salmon farming on Fraser sockeye returns.

It is a serious error for Justice Cohen to select as his science advisor someone who has already concocted a solution to the problem before the Inquiry has heard any evidence. Furthermore, it is wrong for him to add an activist of any variety to his senior staff, whether that person is associated with aboriginal, recreational or commercial fisheries or any other faction.

To date Justice Cohen has only met with DFO and its supporters. The appointment of David Levy as Science Director reflects the narrowness of Cohen’s contacts and seriously undermines the impartiality of his inquiry.

In short, the Cohen Commission might already be compromised by an appearance of partiality to the very department he must examine with care and thoroughness.


About Alexandra Morton

Alexandra Morton from her home in Echo Bay in the Broughton Archipelago, has courageously taken on both the fish farm industry and governments. Her many peer reviewed scientific accounts confirm that migrating wild smolts are being slaughtered by sea lice from fish farms. She has faced down the best propaganda efforts of the industry and government, who deny their evil acts in spite of this overwhelming scientific evidence. In addition to articles in numerous journals, she has been featured in many news publications including the New York Times.

5 thoughts on “The Challenges Faced by the Cohen Inquiry

  1. Um… Mr. Cummins aren’t you a Conservative MP? Does this not mean you are a representative of the current governing party? Is not Ms. Shea the Fisheries Minister a colleague of yours within the governing party? – Along with Mr. Harper?

    I appreciate the article and opinions stated by Mr. Cummins; however, I really struggle with a statement such as:
    “New fisheries legislation brought forward before the Inquiry has completed its investigation should be seen as nothing more than another self-serving and rather clever attempt by DFO to cover-up its mismanagement and to marginalize and preempt the investigation.”

    As a member of the governing Conservative Party – there are few people in a better position than Mr. Cummins to have significant impact on legislation and decision-making guiding fisheries management in Canada. He sits on the same side of the room as the Prime Minister. Maybe even a direct line?

    Does this not mean direct access to DFO?

    I appreciate and respect the prerogative of Mr. Cummins to speak out vocally on issues he’s clearly passionate about – esp. as a member of the governing Conservatives. Yet, I’ve also seen far more than enough “public inquiries” in my short life time to be so naive as to think that Justice Cohen holds the future of Fraser Sockeye in his hands: e.g. “he [could] be remembered as the man who saved the wild salmon for our children and grandchildren.”

    I didn’t have this level of faith in Dr. Pearse, or the Honorable John Fraser, or any of the other folks that led the multiple expensive public inquiries – even one titled: “Here we go again” – over the last 25 years. Very competent individuals, but not the ones carrying the future of salmon on their backs…

    I share some of the views of skepticism and frustration towards DFO stated by Mr. Cummins – I was just a bit perplexed reading the article, realizing this was a Conservative MP saying this…

    I agree with some of the other comments made on this article — it is time for massive changes by all of us in how we relate to wild salmon. My hope would be that representatives of the Conservative governing party are leading those significant changes… the status-quo will not work.

    Justice Cohen will simply be listing another long list of recommendations. Those recommendations will still need to be implemented. Implemented by a governing party. Someone making recommendations does not hold the power to fundamentally alter our relationship with salmon — politicians do; and we do.

  2. Cummins’ piece did not dispute the impact of climate change on declining salmon populations. He pointed to the fact that Levy had previously ignored other known causes, namely, salmon farms. Cummins is suggesting that the uneven declines of our coastal salmon populations rule out climate change as the sole or even primary cause. Daniel Pauly, one of the world’s leading marine scientists, said the same thing to me in a recent interview (thank you, Ken, for reminding me – I will post that interview piece on for others to see). Surely Ken doesn’t put Daniel Pauly in the same category as Tim Ball (the notorious climate change denier funded by the oil lobby)?!! Ken does conflate Cummins with Tim Ball, because of an earlier comment from a reader mentioning Ball – not based on anything Cummins actually wrote. Linking Cummins to Ball via non-sequitur association is unfair. What I get from Cummins’ piece is that he’s concerned that we don’t take our eye off the things we can immediately change, by focusing only on larger problems over which we have less control. We can follow the precautionary principle and remove open net salmon farms from the migratory pathways of our wild salmon right now, and potentially give a major boost to the survival of our wild salmon; whereas arresting climate change is a larger, albeit essential task. The different dimensions of the problem require different solutions – scaling down our growing consumption of resources and pollution of the planet to deal with climate change and ocean conditions; and removing open net salmon farms to deal with the problem of sea lice, escapes, viruses, etc. they generate. Throw in preventing over-fishing and habitat destruction and you start to get a package of solutions that gives our wild salmon a fighting chance. To make this debate about whether or not the effects of climate change on fish are real is to miss the point – and to repeat an argument often levied by the salmon farming lobby, incidentally. Climate change is real and is adversely affecting all biological organisms on the planet, especially fish. In all scientifically verifiable likelihood, so are salmon farms. Let’s not forget that. And let’s not miss the opportunity to do something about that with the Cohen Commission.

  3. Dr. David Levy has a solid reputation as a clear thinking and independent biologist and fisheries scientists who has the courage of his convictions. In my view he is an excellent choice for Research Director of the Cohen Inquiry. I doubt that Dr. Levy has a lot to learn from Dr. Tim Ball, or John Cummins for that matter. We can argue at length about the role of humans in driving climate change, but the evidence that the world is getting warmer is already clear. Even if you disagree about the cause, climate change is still a reality, and Fraser sockeye are struggling to survive in a River, and an ocean, that is getting warmer. The survival of Fraser sockeye is in steep decline. If we are going to save Fraser sockeye we need to think differently, live differently, and fish differently. Perhaps Mr. Cummins should stop judging everyone else’s motives and give some thought to his own. Commercial fisheries for Fraser salmon need to change and change now. Our existing mixed stock fisheries for Fraser sockeye harvest both strong and weak stocks at the same time, and are no longer sustainable. It is time for real change. Let’s listen to what Justice Cohen and Dr. Levy have to say before we pass judgement on thier work. Is that too much to ask?

  4. Policy makers, as such, depend on impartial scientific advice. Usually that means that an organization like the DFO would or should depend on impartial advice from experts who are not enveloped in the same organization.

    The DFO scientists, while individually brilliant (for the most part) are not at arms length from the policy makers and we, as citizens, are entitled to ask just how these DFO scientists exert independent expert judgement, how they weigh up plausible explanations for observed scientific information and how they deal with issues of uncertainty and risk.

    It is at least one plausible thread in the sad decline of the Fraser River salmon that the scientific experts who set the tone for the DFO policy makers, may not be as independent as they believe.

    We have many recent vivid examples from the financial world of experts who failed to identify red flags because they were enveloped in an organizational cocoon.

    Is this the case with the DFO ?

    Perhaps Justice Cohen can shine a light on this matter.

  5. On another issue local to British Columbia, James Killam, Q.C. wote this in the Vancouver Sun about the government and corporate players: “In fact, a course in ethics would be in order for both him and Krueger [the provincial minister involved in that issue].”
    John Cummins, MP and James Killam, Q.C. are to be commended for their courage on these disparate issues.
    For the immediate short term, I would be glad to listen to Justice Cohen, in the faint hope that he was merely mistaken in naming Levy as his Science Director; and in the hope it was a mistake that can be corrected immediately. If Cohen does not rescind Levy’s appointment, however, then for British Columbian Canadians the perception will be that the ‘fix’ is in and they might as well kiss goodbye to their wild salmon stocks…and to much of the eco-system that depends on the healthy existence of those fish.
    I pray that is not the case.
    In closing, if he truly wishes to understand the subject of Climate Change, Mr. Levy would do well to spend some time studying under Ph.D. climatologist Dr. Tim Ball – a scientist who knows his subject well.

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