No data means no answers, sockeye inquiry told


From the Globe and Mail – May 30, 2011

by Mark Hume

The lack of hard data on the ocean environment has become on
important issue to a federal commission investigating the collapse of
sockeye salmon stocks in the Fraser River.

Repeatedly, scientists
testifying at the Cohen Commission have said they don’t really know what
happens to salmon once they have left fresh water and headed out into
the “black box” of the Pacific Ocean. They have complained about a
shortage of data, or no data at all, and have said there are limited
funds available for research.

One of the papers filed with the commission identifies a “hotspot” in
Queen Charlotte Sound, for example, where more than 10,000 sharks
gather on a main salmon migration route – but nobody knows why the
sharks are there, how long they are there, or what they are feeding on.

knowledge gap caused Tim Leadem, a lawyer representing a coalition of
conservation groups, to wonder out loud Thursday if the Cohen Commission
will ever get a definitive answer on what caused the Fraser River
sockeye population to collapse. The commission was appointed in 2009
after only one million salmon returned to spawn instead of the 10
million expected.

“What was the cause of the 2009 decline?” Mr.
Leadem asked a panel of scientists testifying about the impact of
predators on salmon. “I expect at the end of the day … [it will be an
inconclusive] death by 1,000 cuts.”

Mr. Leadem noted most of the
science teams that have presented papers to the Cohen Commission have
concluded by saying more research is needed.

“This is perplexing,”
he said. “If we are depending on science [for guidance], where are we
going to find the funding? And who’s going to be pulling the strings and
saying what science goes forward?”

Mr. Leadem said it appears
scientists “are in a world where you are scrambling for dollars” while
facing a growing list of questions.

“Yeah, we are scrambling for
research funding and it is going to be the nature of science that there
are always more questions that need answering,” said Andrew Trites, a
professor and director at the University of British Columbia Fisheries

Mr. Justice Bruce Cohen, the B.C. Supreme Court judge who
is heading the hearings, asked if there is an overall strategy for
addressing the many unanswered questions about the ocean environment.
“Within DFO and within the larger community of science … is there an
overarching body that does a macro analysis of all the science that’s
taking place? Who’s going to draw the agenda? Is this a scrambled
situation … or is there actually a game plane here?” he asked.

perception as an academic . . . in terms of fisheries management … I
don’t feel there is a game plan,” replied Dr. Trites, who appeared on a
panel with John Ford, head of cetacean research in the Pacific for
Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and Peter Olesiuk, DFO’s head of
pinniped research.

Lara Tessaro, junior commission counsel, later
asked the witnesses to name the DFO managers who are directing
scientific research in the Pacific, a line of questioning that suggested
the issue may be revisited as the hearings continue.

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About Damien Gillis

Damien Gillis is a Vancouver-based documentary filmmaker with a focus on environmental and social justice issues - especially relating to water, energy, and saving Canada's wild salmon - working with many environmental organizations in BC and around the world. He is the co-founder, along with Rafe Mair, of The Common Sense Canadian, and a board member of both the BC Environmental Network and the Haig-Brown Institute.