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Cohen inquiry to shed light on fish farm secrecy

Each fall millions of sockeye salmon return home to the mighty Fraser River to spawn. Over the next several months, the silvery fish will head upstream, slowly turning brilliant red as their bodies adjust to fresh water. After years at sea, they return to the very gravel, the very river in which they were born.

This year's estimate run totals are close to four million fish. This may be a far cry from the 33 million sockeye that returned last year, but it is a return to the new normal for our salmon runs. The Fraser used to teem with wild salmon returns every fall. Over the last 20 years, productivity rates of the Fraser sockeye have been declining, with fewer and fewer fish returning every year. In 2009, this trend culminated in the mysterious disappearance of almost 90 per cent of the anticipated run.

The tale behind the fate of the missing fish has puzzled scientists, government officials and activists alike. The federal government struck a task force to investigate this issue. The Cohen Inquiry into the Decline of the Fraser River Sockeye has spent more than a year gathering evidence, examining witnesses and exploring topics ranging from habitat destruction to fisheries policy.

Next week, Judge Cohen will turn his attention to what may be the most controversial and anticipated topic of the inquiry: disease and aquaculture. It is fair to say that the two-week period could be a game changer for the campaign to get open net fish farms off our coast.

Environmentalists such as Alexandra Morton have argued for years that open-net salmon farms have a devastating impact on wild salmon stocks. Similar to most factory farm operations, thousands of salmon crammed into a small area has an amplifier effect on potential pathogens like sea lice and other diseases.

There are indications that a serious disease is impacting wild salmon in B.C., though evidence has been kept under wraps by the federal government.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has been muzzling staff scientists who have important information about diseases impacting salmon. Doctor Kristi Miller, a staff scientist at DFO, made headlines with her discovery of indicators that sockeye salmon had been showing signs of fighting a serious viral infection. Dr. Miller made even more headlines when it was reported that the federal government has refused to allow her to talk about her findings.

Dr. Miller is just one of the key witnesses who will be testifying at the hearing, her first public appearance where she is allowed to talk about her findings.

Her testimony is just one reasons why the Cohen Commission is an incredible opportunity to get the truth our about what is going on in fish farms. The veil of secrecy around activities on fish farms needs to be lived. Their operations are putting our oceans at risk, our salmon at risk, and our future at risk.

There are 130 seats in the courtroom. We need to be there to make sure the truth gets out and that the salmon farm industry is held accountable. If you are in Vancouver and can attend, even just for a day, please do. Industry and government needs to know that people are watching and demanding the truth.

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