Salmon advocate bypasses inquiry into sockeye run

Volunteer group will monitor, test wild fish along B.C. coast

One of British Columbia's most vocal advocates for the preservation of wild salmon says she's not waiting to find out from a government inquiry why the Fraser River sockeye run crashed in 2009.

Just hours after the Cohen Commission announced Tuesday it had received another extension to submit its written findings, Alexandra Morton said she has already set up her own volunteer group to test and monitor wild salmon along the coast.

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Morton has dubbed it the Department of Wild Salmon, a private sector organization.

"I'm not going to waste my time and energy praying and hoping and begging Mr. DFO [Department of Fisheries and Oceans] to do something right," she said.

"It's never going to happen. DFO is downsizing and my thought is: 'Right on. Bye, bye. Step out of the way. Step away from the fish. We can deal with this.' "

Morton said she made her decision while reading through commission documents and over issues like the importing of salmon eggs, and also because she said she's not allowed to present fish samples to DFO for testing.

She said her organization includes First Nations, fisheries managers, stream keepers and commercial fishermen. They will be taught how to take biological samples from salmon so they can be tested for diseases.

Eventually, she hopes to have her own lab, which Morton estimated would cost as much as $20 million over 10 years.

"What I see in DFO is a lot of really wonderful people who would like to do the right thing, but they can't," she said.

Last June, three scientists from Simon Fraser University in Burnaby published a letter in the journal Science that was critical of cutbacks at eco-toxicology labs and an aquatic research facility run by the federal government.

One estimate pegged the cuts at as high as $79.3 million over the next three years.

The Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River was formed by the federal government in November 2009 to investigate and report on the reasons for the fish's decline.

That previous summer, about 10 million fish were expected to return to B.C.'s rivers and streams, but only one million actually showed up.

Justice Bruce Cohen, who was appointed to lead the inquiry, was asked to make recommendations for improving the fishery's sustainability.

At the time, the federal government set a May 1, 2011 deadline for Cohen to submit his final report.

The inquiry began in August 2010 and ended in December 2011. It heard from 160 witnesses and compiled 14,000 pages of transcripts and 2,100 exhibits.

Deadlines were extended to June 30, 2012, then Sept. 30, 2012. On Tuesday, the commission announced it had been given another extension until Oct. 29, 2012.

Cohen's report must also be submitted in both official languages.

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