Local MP John Weston defended his government's decision to change critical environmental legislation months before the recent release of a long-awaited report on the state of B.C.'s sockeye salmon fishery.
After the release of his 1,200-page report, compiled after two and a half years of testimony at an expense of $26 million, Justice Bruce Cohen on Oct. 31 called last spring's changes to the Fisheries Act adopted in the spring a "regrettable" move for B.C.'s fisheries, adding, "I find it difficult to avoid the conclusion that [the changes] lower the standard of protection for Fraser River sockeye."
Weston said the changes were necessary as part of the government's agenda to keep the country's economic recovery on track.
"The reality is that we have a budget bill and the budget is the roadmap for the government and we had to move on with the budget," Weston said, referring to the federal government's omnibus Bill C-38, which was adopted in May.
Asked why the government didn't simply leave the environmental measures out of C-38 and consider them after Cohen issued his report, Weston said no one knew what Cohen was going to say and the government felt strongly that it needed to move forward on the changes.
"I agree that that's a criticism, but again, if you're in government and not in opposition, you have to make decisions that enable you to maintain momentum -and the momentum I'm talking about is that since July 2009, we've created over 800,000 jobs," Weston said. "Critics say we should have waited but meanwhile, Cohen's report is going to serve as a good guidepost for how we move forward."
Dave Brown, vice-chair of the Squamish-Lillooet Sportfish Advisory Committee, agreed that Justice Cohen's conclusion that there was no "smoking gun" pointing to the 2009 collapse of the Fraser sockeye run shows the B.C. Supreme Court justice did a thorough job with his inquiry. Weston called the report "gutsy."
Weston and a group called the Sea to Sky Fisheries Roundtable, including Brown and other local fisheries stakeholders, helped kick-start the Cohen inquiry in late 2009 after the group raised concerns about the state of B.C.'s salmon fishery in light of the collapse of the Fraser sockeye run. Since then Weston has hosted a series of talks aimed at finding ways to ensure that fisheries are protected, including one in Squamish this summer after the Fisheries Act changes were adopted.
Brown, who credited Weston for helping keep the dialogue going, said it's important that the government takes Cohen's recommendations seriously. That would include placing a moratorium on new fish farm licences in the Discovery Islands north of Campbell River until the impact of open-net fish farms on wild salmon stocks is better understood.
As well, Brown said he was pleased to see Cohen recommend that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) pass off responsibility for managing fish farms to another ministry because of an apparent conflict. Cohen stressed that the Fisheries Minister's primary job has to be the protection of wild stocks.
"He's identified the conflict that you can't both manage wild stocks and manage salmon farms at the same time," Brown said.
Weston said the latter recommendation will likely be given serious consideration.
"I think that's worth reviewing very closely," he said.
It'll take time, though, for the government to look at the full heft and breadth of Cohen's report, he said.
"In our riding, there are people who are passionate and committed to the cause and feel strongly that working together, we'll be able to take the best of Cohen's recommendations and move forward," he said.
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