Published online 28 September 2011 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2011.563


Mystery of Canada's missing salmon continues

Multi-million dollar judicial inquiry expected to offer few solutions to declining fish stocks.

SalmonThe number of sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka) in the Fraser River has fallen dramatically over the past two decades.Werner Van Steen / Getty Images

As the last of this year's sockeye salmon battle up the Fraser River along the southern outskirts of Vancouver, Canada, a rather longer battle about the fishes' fate is drawing to a close in a staid courtroom downtown.

More than 4.5 million salmon have surged along the Fraser this year, returning to spawn before dying. But that is far fewer than the sockeye runs of 20 years ago, when the river was the world's single largest source of Pacific salmon, contributing hundreds of millions of dollars each year to British Columbia's economy.

Back in 2009, when just 1.5 million out of a forecasted 10.6 million fish returned to the river, Prime Minister Stephen Harper called for a judicial inquiry into the missing salmon and appointed Bruce Cohen, Justice of the Supreme Court of British Columbia, to preside over the mammoth task. The last of the inquiry's 128 witnesses are taking to the stand this month. Yet scientists and the public are questioning whether the Cohen Commission, which has cost an estimated CAN$25 million (US$24.4 million), has been a waste of time.

Where's the fish?

The commission's objectives are twofold: to figure out why the Fraser's sockeye run has been tanking since the early 1990s; and to make recommendations about how Fraser sockeye should be sustainably managed by Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO).

No one really believes that Justice Cohen will come up with an explanation for the decline. Tony Farrell, a fish physiologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, says that asking lawyers to work out why the Fraser sockeye is waning is incongruous. "Is that what you'd ask lawyers to look at? I wouldn't," he says.

But scientists hope that the commission's final recommendations, due in June 2012, will prompt reform of the DFO, which they say is failing woefully in its remit to protect Canada's fish. The DFO has a dual mandate to promote the aquaculture industry and to protect wild fish and their habitats — objectives that can be at odds. "I've lost faith that DFO can make a decision that is not politically based," says Rick Taylor, a zoologist at the University of British Columbia. "There are so many conflicts within that structure. That's why people don't trust them."

Fish fight

Although the number of returning sockeye has dropped dramatically from the early 1990s, the falling productivity of the population — how many offspring per spawning adult survive to spawn themselves – is a greater worry, declining from more than five offspring per spawning adult to less than one over the past 20 years. Possible culprits include marine predation, climate change, ocean contaminants, harmful algae, disease, ocean productivity and fish farms, which are controversially associated with a reduction in wild salmon survival. "I don't frankly have much hope that [Justice Cohen] will be able to sort this out," says Lawrence Dill, a behavioural ecologist at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. "I don't think there is a single cause."

The commission could have more impact on the management of the fishery. "The conclusion of the Cohen Commission will have far greater weight than any other inquiry dealing with our oceans in my memory," says Jeff Hutchings, a fish conservation biologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

"I'm looking for the Cohen Commission to really scrutinize the whole management structure [of the DFO] and how all that biological information is actually translated into public policy," adds Taylor.


Although the Cohen Commission expects to make recommendations to the DFO, "I think the language has to be stronger than that," says Ross Wilson, director of the Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department in Bella Bella, British Columbia. "The department can easily just review this and say thank you, this is very good information, and then file it."

"If the recommendations sit on a shelf, as has happened with many previous reports, then this was a waste of money," adds Judah Harrison, a lawyer at Vancouver-based health and environmental organization Ecojustice.

The DFO declined interview requests but said in a statement: "We look forward to reviewing the Commission's report as part of our continuing effort to improve our management of the Fraser River sockeye fishery." 

Commenting is now closed.