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COLUMN: Salmon mystery needs a complete answer

The battle of the scientists is over. More than 170 witnesses testified. Nearly 2,000 reports and documents were entered as evidence.

The battle of the scientists is over. More than 170 witnesses testified. Nearly 2,000 reports and documents were entered as evidence.

Now, the Cohen Commission is preparing to decide why the Fraser River's sockeye salmon have been in a dangerous downward spiral.

Opponents of net-pen aquaculture have relentlessly spun the hearings as an open-shut case against salmon farms and stepped up campaigns to shut them down.

It's not quite that simple.

Duelling researchers gave contradictory evidence on whether diseases or parasites from fish farms may be killing off wild sockeye.

That doesn't mean fish farms aren't bad for salmon.

The farms may, as critics claim, act as a breeding ground for pathogens, transmitting them to passing wild salmon at a critically vulnerable stage in their migration. Much of the evidence before the inquiry, however, points to multiple different culprits, from ocean predators to changing water temperatures.

The commission has also looked at everything from urban sewage and industrial pollution along the lower Fraser to the impacts of logging and mining upriver.

A death-by-a-thousand-cuts verdict would admittedly be less satisfying than simply lynching one perceived bogeyman - one that we could definitely do something about. But B.C. needs the most complete answer to this fishy mystery it can get.

It would be tragic if an eco-war succeeds in stamping out fish farms only to see B.C.'s wild sockeye continue to decline because we weren't vigilant enough in uncovering other threats and trying to address them.

Inquiry head Judge Bruce Cohen will hear final submissions from all sides in November before preparing his final report, due by next June.

As the inquiry moves into its final phase, it's important to remember that the loss of B.C.'s wild sockeye stocks would have far-reaching repercussions beyond our dining choices. With the sockeye may go many of the orcas, bears, birds and even freshwater fish in parts of B.C.

That's because salmon are, in many ways, the lifeblood of our watersheds. They act like a pipeline, bringing ocean nutrients far upstream.

Wildlife from tiny insects to the biggest predators feast on their spawned-out carcasses and even trees are fertilized.

Research has proven salmon act as an extension of the forest's root system, allowing trees to draw nourishment not just from the immediate soil but from the krill of the North Pacific.

The loss of wild salmon, some people fear, may loosen habitat-protection laws, opening B.C. not just to more fish farms and hatcheries but, also, hydro dams, offshore oil drilling and more industrial pollution.

For First Nations, whose heritage, culture, traditional diet and social customs are so deeply interwoven with the salmon, their loss is unfathomable.

Even if Judge Cohen fails to come up with a single suspect, we need his best assessment of what's gone wrong and how we can keep this marvel of nature for generations to come.

Jeff Nagel is a reporter covering Lower Mainland regional issues for Black Press newspapers, including The Tri-City News.

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