A prominent wild salmon advocate says the federal government efforts to protect B.C.'s wild salmon are falling short, despite the Liberal government's plans to take 'concrete' steps to restore the Fraser River's sockeye run.

Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc spoke on Tuesday about plans to take action on Justice Bruce Cohen’s 2012 report from the Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River. The report, based on a three-year inquiry into the 2009 collapse of B.C.'s sockeye salmon stocks, had mostly languished under the Harper government, with little sign of action. LeBlanc announced an update to the implementation of the Cohen report's 75 recommendations, noting that the federal government's 2016 budget allocated $197.1 million over five years to increase DFO’s oceans and freshwater science program. Part of that funding would go toward promoting healthy fish stocks and supporting sustainable aquaculture.

But Alexandra Morton, a B.C.-based biologist and wild salmon activist, argues that the federal government is prioritizing the salmon farming industry's interests over the protection of B.C.'s wild salmon.

One of the Cohen report's key recommendations was to remove fish farm advocacy from the Fisheries Department's mandate. The 2012 report said the policy framework for aquaculture revealed "tension in DFO’s mandate" between promotion and regulation of the industry. According to the latest update, however, DFO will keep industry advocacy as part of its mandate.

"DFO is compromised," Morton said, criticizing the federal government for its decision last month to grant six-year licenses to companies farming salmon in open-net pens along the coast. "Justice Cohen said an agency that must regulate and promote the industry could be compromised. I'm not talking about the (fisheries) minister, but about the bureaucracy of the DFO, which was carried over from the Harper government — I just don't see an honest assessment of the salmon farming industry with that group of people."

Morton had been undertaking independent studies showing the link between piscine reo-virus, a virus discovered in farmed salmon, and heart and skeletal inflammation of wild salmon swimming near fish farms along its migratory route. Although the DFO hasn't confirmed any connection between this virus and salmon disease in B.C., it recently found potential heart and skeletal muscle inflammation in farmed Atlantic salmon samples collected from a B.C. aquaculture facility in 2013 and 2014. The DFO stated there is no health impact of the disease on humans, and that links between piscine reo-virus and heart and skeletal inflammation are still being investigated.

Currently, DFO scientists are undertaking an extensive study, the Strategic Salmon Health Initiative, with genomic research led by Dr. Kristi Miller, one of the scientists who was previously muzzled from talking to media about findings of her research into the collapse of wild salmon stocks.

B.C. Salmon Farming Association spokesperson Jeremy Dunn stated there was "no evidence of harm caused by BC’s salmon farms," referring to the Cohen report's conclusion that there was no single factor, such as fish farms, that was responsible for the decline of wild salmon between 1992 and 2009.

He said the BCSFA was working actively to help the Strategic Salmon Health Initiative, saying BCSFA members have provided 2,500 fish samples to this project over the last three years.

He said his association was "confident" that additional research would confirm that B.C.'s wild salmon stocks were not impacted by open-net fish farms in the ocean.

“The recommendations are about protecting wild salmon, which is important to all British Columbians,” he said. “Salmon farmers have supported Justice Cohen’s plan from the day it was released, and our members are pleased to see the government’s acknowledgement of the work that has been done on implementing the recommendations, and that DFO will be continuing to move its spirit forward.”

The federal department declined to respond to follow up questions from National Observer about Tuesday's announcement, sending a link to the same report and a one-page backgrounder.

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