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Gutting habitat protection may cost Campbell River

Campbell River’s habitat protection office may be on the chopping block as the federal government redesigns the program protecting Canada’s fisheries.

The warning comes after Stephen Harper’s Conservative government announced in April it was making changes to the Fisheries Act and altering its approach to fishery laws, giving priority to vital waterways that are home to important species.

Otto Langer, a retired senior Fisheries and Oceans Canada scientist and manager who blew the whistle on changes to the act, said he has learned several habitat protection offices across the country will be shut down to accommodate what he said is the gutting of the Fisheries Act.

“All habitat office locations in the Pacific region are to be closed down with the exception of Whitehorse, Prince Rupert, Kamloops, Vancouver and Nanaimo,” Langer wrote in a news release. “That means offices such as those in Mission, Campbell River, Prince George, Nelson, Williams Lake, Smithers, Port Hardy, etc. are to be shut down.”

Peter Woods, a director with local conservation organization Greenways Land Trust, said Campbell River’s only Fisheries and Oceans habitat biologist had his last day last week.

“The public has lost local professional knowledge of our rivers and streams,” Woods said. “Invaluable knowledge that takes years to acquire. The closure of habitat offices and the loss of habitat biologists throughout the province...will occur all at once. It’s a concern to all of us who care about our aquatic ecosystems.”

But the federal government said it hasn’t yet confirmed which habitat protection offices will be shut down.

“As departmental planning to redesign the habitat program is ongoing, no final decisions about office closures have been made at this time,” said Tom Robbins, senior communications officer for Fisheries and Oceans. “We will ensure that we have the resources and capacity needed under the new, re-designed program.”

Robbins confirmed the government will reduce its offices from 63 nation-wide to just 15 and will cut 130 positions across the country, maintaining 75 per cent of the current habitat management staff across Canada. However, Robbins said he could not provide a regional breakdown as the program is still being developed.

Langer said that is a major step backwards for Canada.

“This puts DFO (Department of Fisheries and Oceans) back where it was in the early 1980s – five offices in B.C. and the same number of staff they had in about 1978,” he said. “They now have the staff they had in 1978 to deal with many giant projects such as Enbridge, gas lines, gas liquification plants, New Prosperity Gold Mine, Site C Dam on the Peace River...all projects that will now be quickly reviewed and approved by the feds.”

Jim Van Tine, chair of the Haig Brown Institute in Campbell River, said the local habitat protection officer left on his own free will, and took another job with the province. Still, he said habitat staffing cuts are a concern.

“I don’t see how you can download the whole habitat protection portfolio onto others in the fisheries department who already have their own workload,” Van Tine said. “The alarming thing is about 10-15 years ago there were about 30 people on Vancouver Island looking at habitat issues. I don’t know what exactly the number is now, but it’s way down.”

Van Tine also said government’s changes to the Fisheries Act are confusing.

“It’s very messy, very complicated,” he said. “It’s hard to understand where they (government) want to go. It leaves you kind of baffled or bewildered.”

Fisheries and Oceans Minister Keith Ashfield said in April the changes are meant to manage real threats to fisheries and minimize the restrictions on routine, everyday activities that have little to no impact on Canada’s fisheries.

Ashfield pointed to cases where the rules prohibited farmers from cleaning out their irrigation channels, municipalities from repairing bridge supports, businesses from clearing flooded fields and campsites, and cottage owners from keeping their properties.

“Under the new system, we will have the tools to identify ecologically sensitive areas that require enhanced protection,” Ashfield said after changes to the Fisheries Act were announced.

But Langer doesn’t buy it.

“They will protect less habitat despite the incredulous claims of DFO Minister Ashfield and many Conservative MPs that DFO will provide the fishery with better-focused protection,” he said while noting the future looks bleak for the fisheries department. “More staff (and) budget cuts have been outlined for 2013 and 2014.”

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