11/01/2012 04:00 EDT | Updated 12/31/2012 05:12 EST

Politicians call for action to save B.C. sockeye after release of report

VANCOUVER - Federal MPs from both the NDP and Liberals seized on a report Thursday about the dramatic decline of the Fraser River sockeye fishery, raising the issue in the House of Commons and demanding the government take immediate action.

Lawrence MacAulay, member of Parliament for Cardigan, P.E.I, and the Liberal fisheries critic, said he is planning on introducing a motion to the federal fisheries committee to study the report and even call the report's author as a witness.

B.C. Supreme Court Justice Bruce Cohen released his report, "The Uncertain Future of Fraser River Sockeye," Wednesday, following almost a year and a half of public hearings.

While Cohen found no "smoking gun" responsible for the decline, he pointed to factors like contamination and development along the river, ocean conditions and climate change, although he said much remains unknown and more scientific research is needed.

He also said Fraser River sockeye faced a "likelihood of harm" from disease and pathogens on farms, especially in the Discovery Islands, located northeast of Campbell River, B.C., between Vancouver Island and the province's mainland.

MacAulay said what Cohen has to say is also important because of the amount of time the inquiry took and its estimated cost of $26 million.

"He needs to come here and indicate clearly how important it is that these recommendations are implemented," said MacAulay in an interview. "That's what I want to have happen."

Fin Donnelly, the NDP's West Coast fisheries's critic and MP for New Westminster-Coquitlam, said he doesn't want to see the report sit on a shelf, collecting dust.

Donnelly said sockeye salmon are at the heart of the province's culture and economy, something that's often overlooked in Central Canada.

"I think you can give credit to the prime minister for calling that inquiry, but we need to have a clear commitment from the minister that they will enact these recommendations, and we're definitely not hearing that," he said. "The actions go the opposite way."

In the House, Fisheries Minister Gail Shea said the government wants to look over the report carefully, considering the amount of time Cohen spent investigation the disappearance of the salmon.

"We must do our due diligence and read the report carefully, speak with our stakeholders and our partners about the next step," she said, noting the federal government has been "supporting, building and conserving" the province's salmon for several years.

Cohen focuses 11 of his 75 recommendations on the province's salmon-farming industry, addressing issues like government management, the locations of open net-pen farms and the need for more research.

He said the recommendations even though little scientific research exists related to the interaction between wild sockeye and farmed salmon, noting farms can potentially introduce exotic diseases and make other diseases worse.

"Disease can cause significant population declines, and, in some situations — for example, if a disease were to wipe out a vulnerable stock of Fraser River sockeye — such effects could be irreversible," wrote Cohen.

"I therefore conclude that the potential harm posed by salmon farms to Fraser River sockeye salmon is serious or irreversible."

The BC Salmon Farmers Association responded to the report Thursday, noting the issue of warming water temperatures was called the "elephant in the room" by Cohen.

"These recommendations are all about protecting wild salmon, which is central to the work that we do each day on our farms," said Clare Backman, an association spokesman, in a statement. "We’re confident that our farms are not a risk to wild salmon and support more research to confirm that."

Cohen said the minister should prohibit open net-pen farms in the Discovery Islands, on the central B.C. coast, unless he or she is satisfied those farms pose at most a minimal risk to migrating sockeye, the report said.

The inquiry was called by the government in November 2009, when only 1.4 million of an estimated 10 million sockeye returned to B.C.'s rivers and streams.

The final report spans 1,191 pages in English and 1,378 pages in French, in which Cohen makes 75 recommendations, 11 of which focused on the province's salmon-farming industry.