Dr. Kristi Miller at the Cohen Commission (photo by Jason Payne - the Province)

Why Cohen Matters: Salmon Inquiry’s Many Benefits


I attended a fair amount of the recent aquaculture and diseases hearings at the Cohen Commission into disappearing Fraser River sockeye – and like most of the Inquiry’s observers and participants I spoke to, I had a mixed reaction to what I saw.

I shared the consternation of many in attendance at the continued obfuscation from the scientists and managers of DFO, the Province and the aquaculture industry on the stand. Yet, I also believe the Cohen Commission will prove, in the fullness of time, a worthy exercise. Not necessarily because of whatever official recommendations eventually come forth from Justice Cohen, but because of the Inquiry’s many ancillary benefits.

There was a palpable undercurrent of frustration that ran through the Commission gallery during the two and a half weeks that diseases and aquaculture were under the microscope. Whatever sense I had personally had from documenting the salmon farming industry and its close-knit relationship with government regulators over the past several years, the reality revealed at the Inquiry was worse than I’d ever imagined.

There was the revolving door between the industry and government – on full display. Scientists changing their stories on years of published research, seemingly wherever it might have helped the work of Dr. Kristi Miller on a mysterious virus that may well be the “smoking gun” for our collapsing sockeye stocks. There was of course the “muzzling” of Miller (who was accompanied at all times throughout her appearance at the Inquiry by government bodyguards) from the highest echelon of government.

There was the revelation that government managers and industry lobbyists routinely use tax dollars to perform PR damage control with US retailers who’ve recently been visited by conservationists concerned about fish farms.

We saw industry and government lawyers doing everything they could to keep important data from the public. Then we witnessed them submit Alexandra Morton to hours of ad hominem attacks in a failed effort to smear her character and professional conduct on the stand…All of these tactics were fully evident to the public in attendance and elicited a fair share of well-warranted eye-rolling, grumbling, and even the occasional raucous moment (as raucous as you get in a generally tedious federal judicial inquiry where as much time seemed to be spent on procedure as the questioning of key witnesses).

So yes, it was a frustrating and at times disappointing process for those hoping to see the swift hand of justice at work (and efficient use of $25 million in tax dollars).

Moreover, doubters question what Justice Cohen will actually do with all he’s seen throughout the year-long Inquiry. Many observers and participants I’ve spoken to don’t have high hopes for a list of decisive measures that would adequately deal with the aquaculture industry and put our Fraser sockeye on a reliable path to recovery.

For instance, Justice Cohen won’t likely recommend the removal of all salmon farms from wild salmon migration routes. Nor would I envision any seismic regulatory changes at DFO.

However, there are some important recommendations the Commissioner could foreseeably make, points that were emphasized throughout much of the testimony he heard.

Before I list these, I want to be clear that there is much more to saving our wild salmon than dealing with fish farms. The lengthy Inquiry spent just two and a half weeks on diseases and aquaculture – short shrift for an area of such high public interest (the only days the Commission was literally packed with people). But an awful lot of data and other revealing information came forth in that short period and it was the only session that produced a suggestion of a “smoking gun” – one major possible cause of the Fraser sockeye’s startling decline. (see our previous reports on the Cohen Commission for a detailed discussion of these revelations).

The Commissioner will likely and should indeed make broad recommendations about DFO and government policy; he should also address issues like forestry practices, mining, hydroelectric projects, agricultural run-off and industrial pollution, transportation infrastructure and construction over critical habitat, the growing threat of impacts from oil and gas, climate change, ocean and river temperatures, feed and other ocean conditions, and, of course, harvest.

Clearly, as the Commission often heard, the health of wild salmon likely depends on a complex balance of all of these factors. But I concur with Commission panelist Catherine Stewart from Living Oceans Society, who said that her concern is for the factors we can control – the things we can do something about now.

So my interest here is what recommendations, broad and specific, can and should be made concerning aquaculture and diseases in the Inquiry’s Final Report. Here, then, are a few conclusions Justice Cohen may draw – each of which would be enormously helpful in terms of better managing our salmon fisheries into the future:

1. Ensure the Precautionary Principle is firmly entrenched in DFO’s mandate and is respected and observed throughout all of DFO’s work (including and especially aquaculture)
2. Remove from DFO its mandate to promote aquaculture, which is in direct conflict to its constitutional obligation to protect wild fish
3. Ensure that DFO scientist Dr. Kristi Miller’s research is fully funded and free from political interference – up until and beyond its completion
4. Require independent, random, transparent disease testing of all BC salmon farms – this data should be fully and immediately available to the public through an easily accessible database.
5. Selectively remove salmon farms along critical sockeye migration routes (even as few as 5 farms in the “Wild Salmon Narrows”, amid the Discovery Islands near Campbell River, would be a big step in the right direction)

Will Justice Cohen make all the above recommendations in his final report? Not likely (particularly the last item). But it is not beyond conceivable that he will make some of them – and that would be very positive for our Fraser River sockeye and all of BC’s wild fish.

But regardless of the Final Report, the Cohen Commission has proved valuable on many other levels. 

First of all, the public and media got a clear glimpse of how closely the industry and governments work together. Never again will we accord even a modicum of credibility to any of their claims of independence. They have been thoroughly outed on this front.

Another extraordinarily significant development was the release of a decade’s worth of previously secret disease data from the Province and industry. This will naturally take time to unpack – but there are already some very interesting patterns emerging from the data to those who’ve been studying it inside the Commission’s cone of silence over the past year (more on that in subsequent columns).

The publication of all this disease data was a huge win for the Conservation Coalition, Alexandra Morton, and First Nations who’ve been fighting for this for years. So far, only Justice Bruce Cohen has had the power and gravitas to compel this information onto the public record, and that has been a leap forward for those battling fish farms on our coast.

Finally, more specifically, there’s the Kristi Miller story. We’ve discussed it a great deal in these pages of late – as has the mainstream media across the country and internationally. Dr. Miller became (this may be a stretch for some – but bear with me) the Valerie Plame of the Cohen Commission: a photogenic, eloquent, brilliant scientist whose story – as filled with intrigue and subterfuge as a Robert Ludlum novel – caused all kinds of problems for her government higher-ups and changed the tone of the Inquiry.  

For one thing, Dr. Miller confirmed her “muzzling” by the Harper Privy Counsel Office from speaking publicly about her groundbreaking discovery. Emails and testimony from Dr. Miller also suggested her own senior-level colleagues have worked to prevent her from extending her research to farmed fish.

But most importantly, the woman tasked by DFO to use leading-edge genomic research to get to the bottom of the sockeye mystery showed she may actually be figuring it out. Virtually no one expected a “smoking gun” – even the possibility of one – from this Inquiry. Dr. Miller was the big surprise of the whole show.

And now she needs to be funded and free to finish her work. Alexandra Morton said it best to Justice Cohen while on the stand: “The only thing I want you to take from this is that Dr. Miller needs to be able to do her work – someone who is an expert in disease needs to be free to look at this.”

My ultimate judgement of the Commissioner may hang on how he deals with this very matter. And I’m optimistic he will do the right thing here. While his recommendations won’t be technically binding, they will carry enormous weight politically and in the arena of public opinion – which would go a long way to ensuring Dr. Miller’s work carries on as it must.

Could the Cohen Commission have proceeded differently – in a way that didn’t rush participants’ counsel through the questioning of key witnesses so briskly, that contained more independent scientists and less government-industry butt-covering, that made public access to information a top priority? Absolutely.

And yet, when someone asks me whether I think the Cohen Commission was a waste of time and taxpayers’ money, I say an emphatic, “No.”

Cohen was a pebble (maybe even a decent sized rock) tossed in the pond; its effects will ripple out for years to come. In the very least it has reinvigorated the aquaculture debate, drawn more media attention to the issue, and provided the public, conservation community and First Nations with sorely needed answers – as well as vital new questions – to propel their work forward. 

Now they all need to keep up the pressure as we await the Commissioner’s Final Report next June – which, of course, will be far from the final chapter in the Cohen story. 


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.

5 thoughts on “Why Cohen Matters: Salmon Inquiry’s Many Benefits

  1. Thanks, Damien. All the Fiberals care about is appeasing industry and rubber stamping projects. It shows in all their relationships and what they have done to the ministries which used to protect the environment. They think they can avoid the financial pain that is surely coming to everyone by giving away all of our natural resources and not protecting the environment. It doesn’t work that way.

  2. Thanks Damien, terrific summary. I will forward it widely. Crossing fingers for some good decisions, and maybe some ‘direct action’ in the meantime to get the farms off the migration routs.

  3. Thanks Damien.
    I was wondering what to make of the entire construct and appreciate your perspective.
    Good work.

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