VANCOUVER — How did more than nine million sockeye salmon disappear in the Pacific Ocean?
The federal government announced Thursday it will call a judicial inquiry into the collapse of the Fraser River sockeye fishery in hopes of answering that question.
Reaction to the inquiry ranged from elation to skepticism among those who have sounded the alarm for years over the state of British Columbia’s salmon stocks.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the inquiry Thursday in the House of Commons, calling the fishery collapse a “serious matter.”
“As the minister of Fisheries and Oceans has said on numerous occasions, we are very concerned about the low and falling returns of sockeye salmon in British Columbia,” he said.
Trade Minister Stockwell Day, the regional minister for B.C., is to announce details of the inquiry Friday in Vancouver, including the judge who will head the probe.
There’s been widespread alarm over the collapse of the multimillion-dollar sockeye salmon fishery on the West Coast in what was supposed to be a bumper year.
For the skeptics, the term “judicial” is important, because those who testify will have to do so under oath.
Alex Rose, who wrote a book on the collapse of the East Coast cod fishery, applauds Harper’s decision.
“We need people under oath to tell the truth about this terrible crisis,” Rose said. “I feel that DFO is intellectually bankrupt and they’ve been covering up for a long time the perilous state of our wild coho, while chinook and now our sockeye.”
Biologist Alexandra Morton believes fish farms are contaminating wild salmon as they migrate past farms in B.C.’s Broughton Archipelago, home to 60 such farms.
“I’m thrilled,” Morton said of the inquiry, especially because those who testify will have to do so under oath.
“So the people in DFO who have been working far more than I have on the Fraser River sockeye, they don’t have to go through the public relations department anymore, they can speak freely.”
Calls to the department seeking comment Thursday were not returned.
The federal Fisheries department estimated about 10.5 million sockeye would return to the Fraser River this year, but only about a tenth of that have shown up.
The huge shortfall has forced the closure of commercial sockeye fisheries and aboriginal food fisheries for Fraser River-based First Nations.
Chief Bob Chamberlin, chairman of the aquaculture working group of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, said he’s been watching a steady decline of salmon over the last few decades and says the inquiry is long overdue.
He also believes wild salmon pick up disease from the fish farms while migrating past them in the ocean.
Other theories on why the salmon didn’t return to the river after their four-year migration include warming water temperatures, new predators, changes to the food supply or, more likely, a combination of the above.
B.C. Environment Minister Barry Penner said he’s grateful for the inquiry.
and hopes it can answer for how the DFO predictions could be so far off.
“The ocean’s a big place, so I can understand there are a lot of unknowns. But I think it’s important that we have a public process so everyone can learn from this experience,” Penner said.
Federal opposition politicians were more cautious about an inquiry for which the terms of reference have yet to be released.
Liberal MP Ujjal Dosanjh, whose riding borders on the Fraser River, wants to see a broad-spectrum inquiry, that includes First Nations, scientists and Canadian and American interests.
“This is a very, very serious issue,” he said in an interview from Ottawa.
New Democrat fisheries critic Peter Julian said the terms of reference will indicate if the government is serious about solving the problem, or if it plans to just watch the fishery collapse like it did for Atlantic cod.
“It was the same kind of initial signs of collapse, a significant collapse, followed by government inaction,” Julian said, comparing the two coastal fisheries.
Steven Cooke of Carleton University, who holds the Canada Research Chair in fish ecology and conservation, said it’s unlikely a judicial inquiry will be able to answer fundamental questions about why so many sockeye salmon disappeared.
Cooke said there are large gaps in what scientists know about the fish, particularly when it comes to their lives at sea. He said the federal government has to fill those gaps before it can find a solution.
He’s also concerned that a judicial inquiry will only provide a podium for interest groups to make claims that aren’t based on science, and won’t help determine what needs to be done.
“There are all sorts of folks willing to go on the record with what appears to be absolute certainty that they know the cause,” said Cooke.
“And the reality is they’re probably all right, and they’re probably all wrong. Typically when there’s a crisis, it’s not one factor that’s the root cause.”