Fisheries Act changes under fire

Proposals will ‘set Canada back decades,’ says land trust director

Campbell River’s fish habitat will be vulnerable to industrial development if the federal government goes ahead with a proposal to “water down” the Fisheries Act, says a director of  a local conservation organization.

“It’s a very significant change,” said Peter Woods, a director with Greenways Land Trust. “You’re going to have one of the most powerful pieces of legislation in Canada reduced.”

The change was revealed early last week when a former federal fisheries officer released information to the media and environmental groups. The Conservatives plan amendments to the Federal Fisheries Act that would essentially remove protection of fish habitat from the legislation.

Otto Langer wrote in a letter that he was leaked a document from Premier Stephen Harper’s government “that indicates that Cabinet is planning to water down the habitat protection provisions of the Canada Fisheries Act by deleting ‘habitat’ from Section 35 (1) of the Act, i.e. the section dedicated to protect fish habitat across Canada.”

Langer also said he had been informed the amendment to the Fisheries Act would not be available for consultation and that it “is to be slipped through Parliament by tagging it onto the Budget Omnibus Bill that is due by the end of the month.”

Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield has not confirmed that changes to the act are coming, but said the Conservatives are looking at the wording of the legislation.

During question period in the House of Commons last week, Ashfield said the Act is restricting activities and events that in no way harm fish.

“Current fisheries policies go well beyond what is required to protect fish and fish habitat. I can give some examples of that,” Ashfield said in the House. “Last year in Saskatchewan, a long-running country jamboree was nearly cancelled after newly flooded fields were deemed fish habitat by fisheries officials.

“In Richelieu, the application of rules blocked a farmer from draining his flooded field.”

NDP Fisheries and Oceans critic Fin Donnelly sees things differently and said proposed changes will set Canada back decades.

“The Conservative government is systematically dismantling environmental protection and regulation,” Donnelly said in a release. “By eliminating provisions to protect fish habitat, they can push through their agenda of pipelines, oil super tankers, mega mines and other projects that harm the environment. With the stroke of a pen, this government could wipe out decades of progress and condemn future generations to clean up the mess they’re making.”

Woods said scratching habitat from the Fisheries Act would effectively be “gutting that Act and making it much less powerful.”

He acknowledged there is an incredible amount of fish in the Campbell River area living in streams that would become vulnerable to development.

“The consequences will allow industry to expand into habitat areas that are currently protected by this section,” Woods said. “The new version of the section eliminates the term habitat and refers only to ‘harming fish of economic, cultural or ecological value.’”