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Salmon Inquiry lacks Sea to Sky presence

Role of fish farms expected to be central issue when hearings begin in the fall





The Sea to Sky region has little-to-no-one to speak on its behalf at the federal Salmon Inquiry despite playing a big role in establishing it to begin with.

Last week the Cohen Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River announced that it had granted standing to 20 groups and individuals to participate in the inquiry's formal public hearings. They'll be able to propose witnesses, make oral submissions and cross-examine other witnesses.

The hearings begin in the fall. A discussion paper will be released late in June.

Groups and individuals to appear before the commission include the Government of Canada; the Province of British Columbia; an Aquaculture Coalition consisting of fisheries biologist and activist Alexandra Morton, the Raincost Research Society and the Pacific Coast Wild Salmon Society; as well as a Conservation Commission consisting of the David Suzuki Foundation, the Georgia Strait Alliance and the Fraser Riverkeeper Society.

Missing from the list of participants is anyone from the Sea to Sky region. West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country MP John Weston said stakeholders from the corridor played a big role in convincing the government an inquiry was necessary but there's no representation from any local government, First Nation or stakeholder group.

"That's a little bit surprising," said Dave Brown, vice-president of the Squamish to Lillooet Sportfish Advisory Committee. "But at the same time, certainly we do have some good representation on there knowing that (Alexandra Morton) is involved."

The inquiry was established after concerns grew in British Columbia about salmon returns on a regular cycle through the Fraser River. Approximately 1.37 million sockeye returned to the Fraser River last summer, about nine million shy of what fisheries experts expected.

The inquiry was struck after Weston asked Prime Minister Stephen Harper what the government was doing about the decline of salmon in B.C. waters. He thereafter announced the commission. B.C. Supreme Court Justice Bruce Cohen was appointed to oversee it.

Cohen is expected to look into alleged causes such as environmental changes on the Fraser River, predators, diseases and aquaculture, a point that is certain to generate interest from environmental activists who blame lice from fish farms for the decline in salmon returns.

Concerns about fish have been prevalent in Sea to Sky since a CN Rail train derailed and spilled sodium hydroxide into the Cheakamus River in 2005, killing thousands of fish.

They were exacerbated when Fisheries and Oceans Canada placed restrictions on fishing for Chinook in the Birkenhead River north of Pemberton in 2009. Acting on the advice of the Squamish to Lillooet Sportfish Advisory Committee, the ministry placed a "no fishing for salmon" restriction on the river that lasted to Sept. 15 last year.

Brown hopes that Morton's standing at the inquiry will help get Sea to Sky's concerns into the public record.

"I think the hope is that the inquiry would look at all of the science and data that's been collected by someone like Alex Morton and other organizations that have studied this closely," he said. "I think there is a communal concern for salmon stocks. We've been supportive of some of the findings that people like Alex Morton have brought out, so I guess the hope is that will be looked at carefully."