By Tim Leadem, staff lawyer

On Monday, Ecojustice — on behalf of a coalition of conservation groups — filed supplementary submissions to the Cohen Commission commenting on the effect sweeping changes to Canada’s environmental laws, contained in the 2012 budget bill, will have on the Fraser River’s sockeye salmon.

In the submissions, we wrote that:

The legislative changes contained in the Bill represent a significant change in how Canada is setting laws and policy with respect to Fraser sockeye. Fundamentally, federal protection of sockeye salmon and the ecosystems they depend on will be reduced significantly. All of the evidence that the Commission has heard about how DFO consults with all stakeholders and convenes meetings to discuss topics of concern must now be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism. This legislation is a game changer, and undermines all of the assertions that DFO officials will consult with First Nations, commercial and recreational fishers and conservationists before making substantive long lasting changes that will affect the Fraser sockeye fishery and the conservation of the species. The importance of clear, prescriptive recommendations on how to improve federal protection and management of Fraser River sockeye salmon are now much more urgent and necessary.

By burying major changes to the Fisheries Act in the budget bill, the federal government has broken from a consultative, cooperative model, casting a pall over the work of the Cohen Commission, which was set up to encourage broad cooperation among stakeholders and conservation of the sockeye salmon stocks in the Fraser River.

Over the course of nearly two years, the Commission heard from many scientists and witnesses. Throughout the hearing process Canada seemed willing to await the Commission’s final recommendations before taking steps to amend fish conservation laws. But with the introduction of the bill, the process that Ecojustice, our clients, and so many others embarked upon to determine the best course of action for conserving Fraser sockeye has been undermined.

Changes to the Fisheries Act leave questions about the implementation of the Wild Salmon Policy — a document that was the subject of much evidence and discussion during the Commission hearings. Effective Wild Salmon Policy implementation is supported by prescriptive, protective laws that ensure the basic needs required to maintain and recover Fraser sockeye are met. Reduced legislative protection will require increased monitoring, reporting, and integrated governance.

One way to fix to this state of affairs is for the federal government to recognize that it has obligations to consult with Canadians who will be most affected by their legislative agenda. To do less is unacceptable to the participants in this Commission or to the Fraser sockeye.

The Commission should now respond to the changes contained in the bill in a manner that would elicit the cooperation that it was empowered to foster. More consultation on these changes is a key to moving forward and ensuring that future generations have the opportunity to enjoy the Fraser River’s iconic sockeye salmon.

The Commission is expected to file its final recommendations in the fall.