Georgia Strait Alliance is the only citizens' group focused on protecting the marine environment in and around the whole Strait of Georgia – Canada's most at-risk natural environment, and the place where 70% of British Columbians live, work and play. We are committed to a future for our region that includes clean water and air, healthy wild salmon runs, rich marine life and natural areas, and sustainable communities.

October 5, 2011

Reflections on the Cohen Inquiry into Decline of Fraser River Sockeye

Fraser River Sockeye - photo by Michelle Young
Hearings for the Cohen Inquiry into the Decline of Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River have come to an end after a year – and what a year it was.  This Inquiry was struck by the federal government following the 2009 collapse of Fraser River Sockeye. The Inquiry’s Terms of Reference are broad, with Justice Cohen being asked to investigate a host of possible threats which may have contributed to the collapse, including but not limited to “environmental changes along the Fraser River, marine environmental conditions, aquaculture, predators, diseases, water temperature and other factors that may have affected the ability of sockeye salmon to reach traditional spawning grounds or reach the ocean”.

For more than 20 years, Georgia Strait Alliance has tackled a wide range of issues affecting wild salmon and their habitat, but I must admit that I was both relieved and surprised to see aquaculture listed by the federal government in the Inquiry’s terms of reference. I was surprised given the frequent denial by industry and government of any possible impacts of sea lice from net-cage salmon farming on Fraser River sockeye. This denial seems to be based solely on the fact that Fraser River sockeye are much larger than juvenile pink and chum salmon (the weight of scientific evidence clearly demonstrates negative impact of sea lice from salmon farms on juvenile pink and chum) by the time they reach the Wild Salmon Narrows. This argument ignores that sea lice can weaken the immune system, leave juvenile salmon more susceptible to predation, and act as a vector for disease.

We are going to have to wait until mid 2012 for Justice Cohen’s recommendations. Whether his recommendations will be strong enough to protect wild salmon, or if they will be implemented is yet to be seen. However, the real value of the Cohen Inquiry is the information that has come to light during the hearings, including the lack of research being done on the impacts of fish farms on wild salmon as well as the very cozy relationship between the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the BC aquaculture industry.  Here are some interesting pieces of information I’ve taken away from the Inquiry:
  • Dr. Josh Korman revealed that salmon farms suffer, on average, 30 high-risk fish heath incidences per year among the approximately 60 to 80 farms active at any given time. That is an alarmingly high incidence of diseases diagnosed on salmon farms every year, despite assurances by the industry that their farming practices are sound.
  • Marine anemia was found on salmon farms in BC as early as 1988 (referenced in a DFO document from Dr. Michael Kent who was researching Plasmecytoid Leukemia or marine anemia), just before Fraser River sockeye went into sharp decline.
  • The Conville Bay site located along the Wild Salmon Narrows migration route had an outbreak of marine anemia in 2006 and those farmed fish were left in their net-cages until after the 2007 sockeye migration reached the farm; these are the same juvenile sockeye that failed to return to the Fraser River to spawn in 2009.
  • The “Discovery Island Modeling Progress Report” prepared for Justice Cohen shows that a disease outbreak at the Brent Island salmon farm at the west end of Okisollo Channel in the Wild Salmon Narrows would disperse throughout the channel within a week, potentially spreading the disease to several other farms and to wild salmon.
  • The province only audited 5 dead fish per farm, a sample size ridiculously low enough that even if a disease was present on a farm, it could easily go undetected. A scientifically defensible sample size would be 60 or more fish.
  • Sixty percent of diagnosis made on dead farmed fish audited by the provincial government (which they were responsible for prior to December 2010) were not definitively diagnosed but rather classified as “open”. As such, they were not included in the provincial fish health audit reports, so the average of 30 high-risk fish health incidences per year could be much, much higher if we actually knew what these fish were dying of. 
Discovery Island Virus Modeling
So many questions!  What are these mysterious diseases on salmon farms that were not being diagnosed? Symptoms in the disease databases include those of Infectious Salmon Anemia virus and marine anemia. Are these undiagnosed disease symptoms on farmed salmon related to the research Dr. Kristi Miller is doing into pre-spawn mortality of Fraser River sockeye? Dr. Miller has until recently been denied access to test farmed salmon for her as yet unidentified pre-spawn mortality virus which has similar symptoms to marine anemia. Interestingly enough, just one week before Dr. Miller took the stand, the BC Salmon Farmers’ Association offered to provide samples of their fish. If the sample fish are eventually provided, will these tests come soon enough to inform the Inquiry? Or will they happen at all as funding to Dr. Miller’s lab has been cut by DFO?

It is clear that there is significant risk to wild salmon from diseases and sea lice from salmon farms. We must find the answers to these many outstanding questions, however the risk to wild salmon is too great to just keep waiting. Under the precautionary principle, net-cage salmon farms should be removed.  We can’t allow the denial tactic of continually planting seeds of doubt to be a reason to do nothing when so much is at stake.

GSA has had standing in the Cohen Inquiry as part of the Conservation Coalition examining the impacts on wild salmon from a number of threats. Right now we are in the process of drafting recommendations to Justice Cohen with our coalition partners, and these recommendations will be available on our website soon (learn how to make your submission here). You can bet they will include that DFO no longer be responsible for both the promotion of salmon aquaculture and the protection of wild salmon, a conflicting mandate. We will also ask that Justice Cohen recommend to Prime Minister Harper that net-cage salmon farms be removed from our oceans. If this industry wants to continue to operate in BC, their only option is closed containment.


  1. Yay! Another biased anti-aquaculture opinion piece by someone that doesn't understand how science works. First, anyone that understands the process of aquaculture will know that any fish in pens entered those pens DISEASE-free. The fish come directly from hatcheries, in sterile conditions, and get deposited into the pens. So, diseases (or lice, for that matter) that show up in the farmed fish CAME FROM the wild fish carriers - that is, the diseases were not introduced by farms. Further, given that these fish are monitored closely for health problems (b/c the farms DO NOT want to lose a whole crop = $$$), any fish that do become diseased will be treated immediately or removed, thus negating the theory that the farms are "amplifiers" of disease. Also, the farmed fish are not exhibiting massive die-offs. Yes, this could be because they are not undergoing the stresses of a natural life-cycle (i.e., migration), but they are experiencing the stresses of confinement, high-density rearing and LACK of ability to undergo natural life-cycle stages (which is proven to be stressful). So, in theory, their immune systems should be equally, or perhaps MORE compromised. Why are they surviving and the wilds not? Next, farms are isolated to very particular regions, and sockeye migrate to natal streams with high fidelity. This makes it quite easy to compare the health of wilds in farmed locations vs. those in "pristine" locations (indeed, such studies have been done for other salmon species). However, the sockeye die-off was universal among west-coast populations, showing insignificant deviation between farmed and non-farmed localities. Even sockeye that didn't migrate anywhere near a farm showed pathetic returns. So, how does this implicate farms again? Finally, subsequent sockeye runs have been HIGH... like, very high... despite that farming practices haven't changed at all. So, the conclusion that "It is clear that there is significant risk to wild salmon from diseases and sea lice from salmon farms" is inherently flawed. There is no basis for such a claim. Even Dr. Miller, in her infamous Science paper, doesn't make that claim (which I'm sure she'd be quick to tell you, should she be allowed to speak). Indeed, there is no mention of aquaculture in that paper, largely because there is no real evidence to suggest aquaculture is to blame. What she does mention, however, is climate change. There are loads of data implicating temperature stress in immune deficiency. Funny how I don't see you exploring that hypothesis in your article. Perhaps that's because climate change was yesterday's sexy topic, while aquaculture is today's.

  2. @Nicole - That crowding amplifies disease and parasites in whatever kind of animal farming is common knowledge. To claim otherwise for salmon is specious at best.

    If diseased fish are "treated immediately or removed" then why "an outbreak of marine anemia in 2006 and those farmed fish were left in their net-cages until after the 2007 sockeye migration reached the farm"?

    I don't know if farmed fish mortality numbers are public, but regardless, what would those numbers be if they were not fed tons of antibiotics every year? And what is the impact on long-term effectiveness of antibiotics when we put them into the environment in such quantities not just in fish farming but in all forms of industrial farming? When we lack effective antibiotics for human use I bet we'll look back unhappily on our farming practices.

    Not all wild sockeye runs had the same declines. The Harrison sockeye for one. They share the Fraser, but do not migrate close to farms and did not suffer the declines of other Fraser runs.

    The "HIGH" returns in 2010 were of sockeye that went out in 2008, a year when farm fish were removed from the water in the migration path. Coincidence?

    Dr. Miller's report originally did mention a potential link to salmon farms. That mention was removed. I wonder what she would tell us about that?

    I agree with you that climate change is another stress on the salmon. It is also another area where our governments are failing in their duties.

    We don't have to choose farmed fish OR wild. We can choose farmed fish AND wild. We need to clean up our act quickly though or there won't be a choice to make.

  3. @Nicole - I hope that climate change is not "yesterday's sexy topic". We haven't done anything about it yet!

  4. You can watch Dr. Kristi Miller's testimony under cross examination here:

  5. Nicole is most likely employed in the salmon farm industry. When are people going to stop being in denial to keep their jobs? We need to start thinking about not only our own generation but those to come. Wild salmon have fed our citizens for ions and new we are destroying them. The resources in this country belong to Canadian citizens, not Norwegian Corporations.
    In Nicole's words, the salmon are "experiencing the stresses of confinement, high-density rearing and LACK of ability to undergo natural life-cycle stages (which is proven to be stressful). So, in theory, their immune systems should be equally, or perhaps MORE compromised."

    Why would our government favour this way of farming a fish that is supposed to be wild? It is obviously all about business, money and jobs.
    But is it worth losing our wild salmon runs, orcas, grizzlies, eagles, seals, sea-lions and a myriad of other species to keep this absurd practice of raising farmed salmon going?

    Let's save the salmon while we can instead of destroying the coast ours and future generations.