Sockeye salmon in the Adams River last fall.

Sockeye inquiry zeroes in on threat to fish habitat

Critics say further DFO cuts should be put on hold

Salmon advocates say federal fisheries staff in B.C. should be shielded from planned government cuts to avoid compromising potential recommendations of the inquiry underway into the collapse of Fraser River sockeye.

The planned cuts announced last month aim to carve nearly $57 million out of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans budget over the next couple of years.

Sto:lo fishery advisor Ernie Crey said Justice Bruce Cohen’s commission has been hearing evidence on the state of the fishery for months and may well hand down findings next year that call for new initiatives – and increased spending – to improve salmon science, habitat protection and fishery monitoring.

“It will make a mockery of the inquiry to make those cuts,” he said. “Don’t start swinging the axe until Justice Cohen comes down with his findings. It makes no sense.”

Crey spoke out after the Fraser sockeye inquiry heard evidence showing habitat protection efforts on which sockeye depend are already in deep trouble because of past cutbacks and policy changes.

One exhibit tabled was an internal note penned a couple of years ago by a Kamloop-based DFO habitat and enforcement manager who bluntly outlined the challenges.

“We can’t keep up,” Jason Hwang said in the note, in which he cited “huge” amounts of development in the Thompson, Okanagan, Nicola and Shuswap regions and long backlogs to examine proposals for possible habitat threats.

“We are not able to pursue smaller occurrences that in the past we have pursued and prosecuted.”

Regulatory streamlining, a poorly coordinated referral system and staff cuts have reduced DFO capacity to respond, his note said, resulting in an overall failure to achieve the department’s policy of no net loss of fish habitat where developers must compensate for any damage they do.

“Our staff are very disillusioned that the department is not doing more to address this.”

Hwang’s note also warned logging in the Interior had increased massively to salvage timber killed by mountain pine beetles.

“We are totally disengaged from operational forestry,” he wrote. “We don’t have  a handle on what is going on, and are not providing any meaningful guidance on what we would like to see for fish.”

A report on habitat enforcement tabled with the inquiry showed the number of patrols, sites checked and violations observed plunged at least 75 per cent each after DFO staff cuts were imposed in 2005.

Watershed Watch Salmon Society executive director Craig Orr, who has been observing the hearings, said the testimony confirms what environmental groups have long believed – salmon protection is taking a back seat to the demands of  industry and business.

“Government appears to be further streamlining how easy it is to develop around salmon habitat,” Orr said. “We think it should be tougher.”

He was referring to the DFO’s Environmental Process Modernization Plan (EPMP), which an internal department report tabled last week said was opposed by staff who felt it lowered the bar on habitat protection and primarily aimed to speed economic development.

“It takes DFO more out of the picture and puts consultants in on okaying development,” Orr said. “We just think that’s the wrong way to go.”

Georgia Strait Alliance executive director Christianne Wilhelmson added DFO largely refuses to prosecute habitat offenders, because of the time and cost involved.

“If somebody dumps toxins into the environment, it’s not the time for a nice letter and a warning not to do it any more,” she said.

The judicial inquiry was called after the collapse of the 2009 sockeye run, when just over a million fish returned, about a tenth the expected number. A huge return last year is thought by many experts to be an anomaly in a long-term decline.