MARK HUME – VANCOUVER
Under scrutiny because of a profound decline of sockeye salmon over the past decade, senior officials with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans testified Monday that the agency is undergoing major changes.
Claire Dansereau, DFO deputy minister, told the Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River that her department is in the process of restructuring to put more emphasis on ecosystem management.
Ms. Dansereau, who appeared with a panel of top DFO officials, said that in the past the department has been too concerned with managing individual stocks of salmon, and with allowing fisheries based on the numbers of fish in a given stock.
“If we do what we did in the past, which is count fish [for harvest] … and forget oceanographic conditions, etc., we could be taking too big a risk,” she said.
But Brian Wallace, senior commission counsel, wondered why DFO’s new commitment to ecosystem management isn’t spelled out in departmental documents that set the goals for 2010-2011.
“I was struck by one specific … under the heading departmental priorities … I don’t see anything that talks about conservation, ecosystem management … could you explain the omission?” he asked.
“I wouldn’t characterize it as an omission … for us the notion of conservation … permeates everything we do,” she said. “It is part of our DNA.”
Ms. Dansereau said DFO was due for an organizational overhaul because it has had the same structure for a decade, and “it was my belief we should be better organized around ecosystem management.”
She did not elaborate on what prompted the change, but the shift in focus was initiated last year, after the Fraser River had one of the worst sockeye runs in history and DFO came under fire for mismanaging the resource.
The salmon collapse of 2009, when only about one million fish returned instead of the 10 million forecast, prompted Prime Minister Stephen Harper to appoint Mr. Justice Bruce Cohen of the B.C. Supreme Court to head a commission of inquiry.
This summer and fall, the Fraser experienced a remarkable turnaround, with an estimated 29 million sockeye returning, providing the best run in a century. Some fisheries scientists have speculated the big return was caused by a volcanic eruption in Alaska, which fertilized the Gulf of Alaska with iron-rich ash, during the time young Fraser sockeye were feeding in the area.
Judge Cohen, in an interim report released last week, said this year’s big return does not mean salmon problems are over on the Fraser “and the need to find solutions is urgent.”
The commission began evidentiary hearings last week in Vancouver and is expected to continue through next spring.
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