Editor’s note: The Cohen Commission in its second year of investigating the dramatic decline of sockeye in the Fraser River has drawn profound interest from First Nations and others, who have contributed vast amounts of testimony and documentation.
In January the commission, administered by British Columbia Chief Justice Bruce Cohen, was granted an extension for filing the final report until June 2012, because of the vast volume of materials, in English and French, many of them highly technical reports.
A spokeswoman for the commission said that it was a first of its kind to delve into how ecosystem damage and human-caused climate change contribute to the decline of fish runs.
This perspective on the reasons for and history of the Cohen Commission is provided by Lisa Wilcox, who is the senior executive assistant for the Squamish Nation’s Intergovernmental Relations.
In November 2009 British Columbia’s Governor General-in-Council established the Cohen Commission, a Commission of Inquiry in British Columbia Supreme Court, on the decline of the sockeye salmon in the Fraser River.
The Fraser River is the longest river in British Columbia and flows into the Salish Sea by the City of Vancouver. Flowing 1,375 miles from mountain to ocean, the river has been a gathering place since time immemorial for the tribes, including Coast Salish, to harvest and sustain their culture, spirit, and health.
But the impact since contact with European cultures on the river has had an adverse affect and the changes that have been seen have altered our way of life and left a lasting legacy of displacement and alienation.
Where did the salmon go?
Under Western models of management the sockeye salmon stocks began to decline resulting in the closing of the fishery for three consecutive years, with 1992 representing a catalyst of change.
As government ministries met to review their analysis, fisheries management, and scientific understanding, of the decline the voices of the tribes of the traditional territories that encompass the Fraser River were silenced by bureaucracy and policy. As all interested stakeholders began to point fingers to a cause, no one determination of fault could be found.
Was the decline due to commercial fisheries, “illegal” fisheries, habitat loss, or fish farms?
Without a clear understanding of the decline the Cohen Commission was established to find fault, with an aim to conservation, to encourage a broad cooperation, and to consider policy and practices of the Department of Fisheries. Testimony was given for 125 days with a report due by Judge Cohen May 2011. However, due to the complexity and desire to hear the voices of all submissions the date of reporting was extended to May 2012.
What does the Cohen Commission represent?
“For one full year there was an unprecedented focus on the state of the sockeye salmon” said Greg McDade of Ratcliff & Company, who spoke at the Commission as Counsel for the Aquaculture Coalition.
The hearings were a coming together to hear all sides and each side, whether it be science, oral history, traditional knowledge, environmental, commercial, ecological, or biological, had to create the space for everyone to hear the story.
As each group presented its story to the hearing, no one side could explain why the salmon stock had declined, be it environmental, disease, predation or overfishing.
The Cohen Commission hearings heard from the tribes of the Coast Salish peoples and the impacts to their culture, economy, and health. The critical importance of the salmon in the cultural and spiritual well-being of aboriginal people was paramount.
The salmon are worth saving for everyone, and the idea is accepted that allowing them to become extinct would have catastrophic consequences on the Fraser River ecosystem and the people who live and work along it.
For now tribes in the U.S. have joined First Nations in Canada in awaiting the May 2012 Cohen Commission Report by Judge Cohen.
We hope that in finding fault we will come to a new way of managing the fisheries for the future. For the First Nations, there will be no question that the loss of salmon stocks is spiritually and culturally interrelated.
—Thanks to Greg McDade of Ratcliff & Company for contributions to this article.
Cohen Commission Facts: More than 400,000 documents have been submitted to the Cohen Commission. They include 1,200 exhibits and 200,000 emails, which have been pored over by the commission’s legal staff.
Days of testimony: 125
Miles of the Fraser River: 1,375
Number of First Nations on the Fraser River: 94
Carla Shore, Cohen Commission spokeswoman: “If there is reason to be optimistic, it is in the willingness of all those I have come into contact with to find a way to participate in as meaningful and helpful a manner as possible. From commission staff to participants to other interested citizens, we all share the common goal of doing our very best to identify the causes for the decline in numbers of Fraser River sockeye salmon and to make meaningful recommendations for the fishery’s future sustainability.”