Are conservation policies worth the paper they’re printed on?

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Canada’s Cohen Commission calls on government to implement the Wild Salmon Policy

By Julie Gardner, Dovetail Consulting, jgardner [at]

As an environmental policy and planning consultant, I have to accept that the fruits of my labors can end up sitting on shelves. It hurt when one policy into which I and many others had invested much effort didn’t gather the momentum it deserved: Canada’s Policy for Conservation of Wild Pacific Salmon (the Wild Salmon Policy). Recently, however, a federal Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of the Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River (the Cohen Commission, named for its commissioner, Justice Bruce Cohen of the British Columbia Supreme Court) felt my pain. A key recommendation calls on the federal government to fully implement and fund the 2005 Wild Salmon Policy.

Salmon – a flagship species

Salmon are iconic for the majority of British Columbians. The Wild Salmon Policy “gets” this at the outset by paying respect to the central place of salmon in the culture and economies of First Nations and then quoting the late Roderick Haig-Brown: “The salmon are a test of a healthy environment, a lesson in environmental needs. Their abundant presence on the spawning beds is a lesson of hope, of deep importance for the future….” And by the way, Haig-Brown didn’t need to say wild salmon because he was writing in 1974, before farmed salmon came to be seen as a threat… but that’s another blog.

I can confidently say “majority” of British Columbians because an opinion poll last year determined that 7 in 10 respondents agreed: “Wild salmon are as culturally important to the people of British Columbia as the French language is to the people of Quebec.” In Canada, that’s saying something! This contrasts vividly with my recollection of fishing industry representatives admonishing in a workshop about drafting the Wild Salmon Policy, “make it clear that salmon are food, not an icon.” I wonder if they might have softened up almost a decade later. A salmon farming representative (Vincent Erenst, the European director of Canadian operations for the world’s largest salmon farming company) recently showed some awareness as quoted in The Financial Post: “We understand that sockeye is iconic.” (Note that sockeye is rarely farmed.)

At any rate, if ever there was a flagship species (or five) for ecosystems in BC, it’s the salmon. Among the many strengths of the Wild Salmon Policy is its attention to the importance of ecosystems, including the influence of marine ecosystems on salmon survival.

Papers don’t save salmon, people do

Getting back to the value of a policy, I’m a glass half-full person: It’s a start – a good policy reflects good intentions. I don’t fool myself, though; impacts of policies “in the water” depend on implementation. And Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) employees have worked hard – within severe budget constraints – to operationalize the very ambitious Wild Salmon Policy. ENGOs pitched in too, with funding from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. I can’t be critical, having assisted DFO and the ENGOs with meetings and research to make it work, but I wonder if these are among my “deliverables” that sit on shelves.

Commissioner Cohen to the rescue! When the sockeye failed to return to the vast Fraser River basin in their forecasted bounty for the third year in a row in 2009, the Canadian government asked Cohen to look into the causes of a decline that had begun at least two decades earlier. One hundred and seventy-nine witnesses, 133 days of hearings and 892 submissions later, we have Cohen’s 1,000-page report. Glass half-full again: I am gratified to see half a dozen of my reports listed as exhibits, to know that these and hundreds more worthwhile documents got dusted off and read by people who care about salmon.

You can imagine the naysayers at this point, responding to the product of a $25-million process that found “no smoking gun,” that calls for more research, and that urges a recalcitrant federal government to protect fish habitat, promote biodiversity and adopt ecosystem-based management practices. There’s a lot of room for skepticism. Instead, for at least a while, I’m holding out hope that right-minded people will keep Commissioner Cohen’s message alive, dog-earing those 1,000 pages rather than shelving them.

In his message at the front of the Wild Salmon Policy, the then Minister of Fisheries and Oceans said the policy “will provide care and respect for the resource and its ecosystem, and for the people who rely on it for food and spiritual needs, for recreation, and for their livelihood.” He also said, in 2005, that DFO is fully committed to implementation, while knowing that success will depend on cooperation among all those with an interest in wild Pacific salmon.

While the government really does have to “show us the money” for implementation, I can’t argue with the cooperation imperative. I hope all of us in the Pacific Northwest and beyond have such a fervent interest in salmon that we will pull together. Author Douglas Todd, echoing Haig-Brown some 25 years later, argues for a “salmonic” vision, because “the future of the threatened salmon reflects the future of the natural world, and humans, on the Pacific Coast.”

Julie Gardner, Ph.D., is a Principal in Dovetail Consulting, based in Vancouver, BC, Canada. She works to bring calm, compassion and clarity to challenging environmental issues, through research and facilitation for governments, including First Nations, and ENGOs.