Thursday, November 04, 2004

Where's the concern for the threatened wild salmon

VICTORIA - The salmon are scrabble their way up Goldstream Creek near here, a spectacle I find mostly sad. Half-blind, exhausted, they fight for a space to spawn, doing all they can to keep the species alive. The last fish make their way past greying, tattered bodies, eyes gone to the sharp beaks of seagulls.
It's surprising how easily British Columbians have come to accept that the wild salmon may soon be just a memory.
B.C.'s Auditor General Wayne Strelioff has just released an audit on the future of wild salmon, part of a joint project with his counterparts in Ottawa and New Brunswick.
The report is bleak reading, warning that after a consistent effort through the '90s to protect and rebuild wild salmon stocks B.C. has lost its way.
The future of wild salmon is at risk.
Species come and go, and I'm no extremist. It seems questionable to spend huge amounts of money to preserve the last few dozen Vancouver Island marmots, a species with few chances of survival.
But the fight to save the salmon seems worth the cost.
Practically, the salmon fishery is still a significant source of jobs and economic activity, worth some $600 million a year, mainly through sport fishing. The potential, with assured stocks and better marketing, is much greater.
The salmon is a spectacular creature, capable of amazing feats in making its way out into the ocean before returning and working its way sometimes hundreds of kilometres up-river to spawn. British Columbians have always valued the fish; it would seem wrong that we become the generation that just didn't care enough to protect the salmon.
It's also a useful indicator species, showing how committed - or cavalier - we are about the environment. Salmon need clean, unaltered rivers and creeks, and protection from pollution and over-fishing. If they vanish, it is because wild rivers are vanishing.
Strelioff is an auditor, a branch of the accouting world that makes the rest of the accountants world seem like wild and crazy guys. His reports tend to be measured and understated.
His warnings on salmon are blunt. The B.C. government isn't doing enough to protect habitat, has no clear vision for the future of wild salmon and has left too many unanswered questions about the risks from salmon farms. "Strong leadership is lacking and there is no central co-ordination body to oversee provincial activities," he found.
Between 1994 and 2001 the government was spending about $50 million a year on watershed protection and habitat restoration. That's been cut by 80 per cent, Strelioff found.
So far the Liberals have not delivered on their New Era campaign promises to introduce a Living Rivers Act and a 10-year fish habitat restoration program.
The failure has left a large gap, Strelioff said. "Existing provincial legislation and regulations do not provide adequate protection for salmon habitat, because some key provisions are either not in force or not being acted on."
And then there is fish farming.
Strelioff doesn't find any evidence that salmon aquaculture is necessarily a threat to wild stocks, and he praises the work governments have done over the last decade to set out appropriate regulations. It's a conclusion consistent with most of the research done.
But there are still questions hanging over the aquaculture industry, around disease transfer, sea lice and the risk of competition from escaped Atlantic salmon. "Ongoing research is needed in these areas to ensure that salmon aquaculture does not pose an unacceptable risk to wild salmon and the environment," he warns.
It's a worrying report. More worrying was the government's bland assurances that things are really OK, without addressing in any substantial way the problems and threats raised by the auditor general.
And even more worrying is the lack of public reaction.
The government is drifting on protection of wild salmon, and failing to tackle key issues that threaten their survival. And British Columbians don't much seem to care.
Footnote: The Pearse-McRae federal-provincial report proposing radical change for the commercial salmon fishery is still under review six months after it was released. The report proposed creating long-term licences for fishermen, giving them a stake in management and enhancement of the stocks.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Liberals slow to learn from Surrey defeat

VICTORIA - Even if Gordon Campbell doesn't much care what the voters in Surrey Panorama-Ridge think, he could at least fake it.
Some voters who voted NDP, or stayed home, likely thought they were sending a message to the Liberals last week. But it doesn't look like the premier wasn't listening.
One news headline did say that 'Campbell sees lessons in byelection.' Interesting, I thought. What had Campbell taken from the fact that more than one-half the voters who backed the Liberal New Era in 2001 no longer support the party?
Then I read the story, and found the only lessons the premier had learned were that the election campaign would be difficult, and the big unions would be working hard against the Liberals.
Those are both accurate observations. But they are also both about process.
People weren't dragged to the polls by union workers and forced, against their will, to vote NDP. They considered all the candidates and parties, and by a wide margin said they preferred the NDP.
Campbell could have said that he accepted their verdict, and would learn from it. He could have said that he'd be sitting down with his caucus to talk about what the government could do to regain the trust and support of voters. He didn't.
Unions did work hard for NDP candidate Jagrup Brar, and Campbell can be expected to remind voters of the former NDP government's tendency to put the interests of public sector unions ahead of the public interest. (The New Democrats, among other initiatives, set out to force unionization on social service agencies by only allowing increases to cover higher wages if the staff was covered by a collective agreement. No union, no raise.)
But the Liberals and their business allies put a huge effort in as well, supported by taxpayer-paid advertising, government spending announcements and the sales tax cut. Campbell and cabinet ministers worked the riding heavily.
Some Liberals - including Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon, who was heavily involved in the effort - also blamed the loss on the party's failure to win support among IndoCanadian voters. The riding's population is about one-third IndoCanadian, and Liberals say those voters opted overwhelmingly for Brar. (As they voted overwhelmingly for Liberal Gulzmar Cheema in 2001.)
That's likely true, and it's arguable that community loyalty played a role. It's also likely that IndoCanadian voters had a range of reasons for rejecting the Liberal candidate.
Anyway, strip out the IndoCanadian vote entirely, and by my best calculation the Liberals would still have lost the byelection, although by a much narrower margin.
It's tough to take a byelection result and predict the outcome of a provincial election still six months away. But shuffle all the factors, and a good guess is that the byelection signals if the election was held today, the Liberals would end up with around 45 seats, and the NDP around 35.
Bad news for some 30 current Liberal MLAs. They should want the party to sit down and take a look at the Surrey byelection. The party had what it considered a strong contender in Mary Polak, so strong Campbell has already endorsed her as the candidate for next May. It ran a major effort, and threw big resources at the campaign. And lost.
It seems a matter of common sense for the Liberals to reflect on why people who once were supporters weren't prepared to vote for them. The public interest isn't well-served by a government that flips and flaps according to the public whim. But it also isn't served by a government that doesn't care about whether the public thinks it is doing a good job.
It's ironic. One of the complaints disaffected voters would likely offer is that the Liberal government was uncaring, and didn't listen. The response to the byelection defeat will just convince those voters that they were right.
Footnote: The Liberals still did a lot better than the NDP in their last byelection before the 2001 vote. In the 1999 Delta South byelection the New Democrat's human sacrifice attracted 433 votes, less than 2.5 per cent of the total. (Which, from a Liberal perspective, should make the NDP's recovery it all the more alarming.