Justice Bruce Cohen will get until June 2012 to deliver the findings of his commission into the decline of Fraser River sockeye salmon.

Cohen salmon probe extension criticized

Delay affects First Nations aiming to sign treaties

Justice Bruce Cohen will have an extra 14 months to get to the bottom of the mystery of the dwindling Fraser River sockeye salmon.

His inquiry into the downturn has been granted an extension, with a final report now due by June 30, 2012 instead of this spring.

Cohen cited the complexity of the commission’s work, the difficult and time-consuming document disclosure process and large number of participants in obtaining more time.

The commission’s budget is also increasing, from $14 million to an estimated $25 million.

Hearings are now slated to run until at least September.

The commissioner is to make recommendations on improving the future sustainability of the sockeye fishery, including potential changes in policies, practices and procedures of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO).

The delay has caused anger among First Nations that are close to treaties that can’t be concluded until the federal government signs off on guaranteed shares of the salmon fishery.

Six treaty tables where agreements-in-principle are close are in limbo because Ottawa won’t finalize treaty fishing rights until it receives Cohen’s findings, according to Sophie Pierre, chief commissioner of the B.C. Treaty Commission.

“Because of the delay, what we’re concerned about is the growing debt First Nations are facing,” she said, referring to the loans aboriginal groups must incur to cover their negotiating costs.

“We have First Nations negotiating tables that are fast approaching the tipping point where what they’re going to get in terms of a cash offer for self-government is going to be less than what they owe for going through these negotiations. So what’s the point?”

The BCTC says aboriginal groups facing treaty completion delays as a result of Cohen include the Te’Mexw, Tla-o-qui-aht and K’okoks (Vancouver Island); the Namgis and Oweekeno (Central Coast), the Tsimshian (North Coast) and Yekooche (North).

Also critical of the delay is Conservative MP John Cummins (Richmond-Delta East), who argues Cohen is devoting too much money to his own staff and scientific studies without probing DFO’s management of the fishery hard enough.

“I see it as throwing good money after bad,” he said.

Testimony this month is concentrating on harvest management issues.

The judicial inquiry was called after the collapse of the 2009 sockeye run, when just over a million fish returned, about a tenth the expected number.

A huge return in 2010 of around 30 million Fraser sockeye is thought by most experts to be an anomaly, possibly due to an Alaskan volcano fertilizing the ocean and supercharging the food supply for juvenile salmon.

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