Fish experts in the Sea to Sky corridor are giving a warm welcome to a salmon inquiry, announced last week to address the unprecedented disappearances of sockeye from the Fraser River.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the inquiry in the House of Commons on Nov. 5 in response to a question from John Weston, MP for West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country.
Called the "Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River," it will be overseen by Bruce Cohen, a B.C. Supreme Court Justice who will have the power to summon anyone to give evidence if it is crucial to his investigation.
The inquiry aims to investigate and make independent findings of fact about the causes of 9 million sockeye salmon not returning to their regular cycle through the Fraser River. Cohen's investigation will look into suspected causes such as environmental changes on the river, predators, diseases and aquaculture, more popularly known as "fish farms."
The announcement came as welcome news to Dave Brown, vice-chair of the Squamish to Lillooet Sportfish Advisory Committee, who had previously been working with Weston to address a dramatic fall in fish stocks in Sea to Sky streams - notably the Birkenhead River, where Chinook counts have been low enough for authorities to issue a "no fishing" advisory.
"Looking at the Terms of Reference, it leaves all aspects open to be looked at including the aquaculture one," Brown said. "Getting a judicial inquiry and not closing the door on anything, I'm very pleased."
Brown has previously said that sea lice coming from fish farms along B.C.'s coast could be impacting the salmon that migrate through Sea to Sky's streams.
Last August he and the advisory committee wrote a letter to Weston expressing concerns about the state of the sockeye run and implored the government to look at the potential link with aquaculture.
Weston then contacted Brown about the possibility of arranging a fisheries discussion group. That group first met last September and raised concerns about sockeye stocks but also hoped to look at a broad-based approach for addressing the issue. They looked at habitat issues, enforcement and enhancing hatcheries.
Weston later wrote a letter to the Prime Minister addressing the group's concerns and asked him to call an inquiry.
"John, I thought, provided excellent representation," Brown said.
For his part, Weston credited Brown and other community members for volunteering to ensure fisheries can be preserved and protected.
"From the moment I stepped on to the fisheries committee, which was almost a year ago now, I've been trying to get a minister and our committee to listen to the needs of the West Coast fishery in ways that only a local MP can do," Weston said.
Hugh Naylor, a Pemberton resident and former fisheries technician with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, applauded the decision to hold an inquiry but said it will only be as effective as the scientific research that's available to investigators.
"There will still be a lot of very basic questions that will not be answerable," he said. "There very well may need to be more research and data."
Maxine Bruce, the fisheries manager for the Lil'wat First Nation and a member of the fisheries discussion group, said she hopes the inquiry can focus on migration through oceans and into provincial streams.
"There's a lot of challenges in that area," she said. "The DFO has stopped any fishing on the Chinook, (but) there's still the percentages or through the total allowable catch, there's a certain percentage they're allowing on the Birkenhead sockeye."
Cohen has been tasked with filing a final report by May 1, 2011, with an interim report coming by Aug.1, 2010. No hearings will be held during the Olympic and Paralympic Games.