Local environmental groups say sweeping changes to the federal Fisheries Act will destroy fish habitat, making it vulnerable to development.
“This would be a serious and regrettable backwards step in Canada’s ability to protect species and their habitat,” reads an open letter from Campbell River’s Haig Brown Institute to Fisheries and Oceans Minister Keith Ashfield.
“The Institute remains strongly opposed to changing or altering (the act).”
Ashfield announced Tuesday the Conservative government intends to alter its approach to fishery laws, giving priority to vital waterways that are home to important species.
The announcement comes after weeks of speculation that changes were coming.
“We want to adopt a sensible and practical approach to managing real and significant threats to fisheries and the habitat that supports them while minimizing the restrictions on routine, everyday activities that have little to no impact on the productivity of Canada’s fisheries,” Ashfield said in a press release.
“Current rules protecting fish and fish habitat go beyond their intended conservation goals.”
Ashfield said the laws are “indiscriminate” and place the same amount of importance on all bodies of water that bear fish, regardless of size, environment or contribution to a fishery.
He said due to the existing rules, there have been cases where farmers were unable to clean out their irrigation channels, municipalities were delayed in repairing bridge supports, businesses were prevented from clearing flooded fields and campsites, and cottage owners prohibited from keeping their properties.
But Peter Woods, director for Greenways Land Trust, said he is concerned the changes will weaken the “strongest environmental legislation” in the country.
He said the section of the act that protects habitat was added in 1986 under the Brian Mulroney government, but before that protection for fish habitat was nearly non-existent.
“For example, the entire foreshore, intertidal area near Shoppers Row was filled in to accommodate parking lots, malls and roadways,” Woods said. “If habitat provisions were in place at that time, Campbell River would have one of the most scenic downtown areas in British Columbia while still maintaining its foreshore habitat.”
Woods said that changing the act could open the door for developments into areas that have been protected for 26 years.
The NDP said the changes will allow the Conservatives to fast-track major development projects, such as those involving oil and gas.
“We know that these changes will have major implications for our coastal communities and the livelihoods of people who depend on the fishery,” said NDP MP Fin Donnelly, deputy fisheries and oceans critic.
“Weakening provisions to protect fish habitat will also weaken environmental reviews – and that means it will be easier for the Conservatives to fast-track projects like pipelines without strong environmental oversight.”
Ashfield said the changes are reasonable and will make the Fisheries Act more practical.
“It makes good, common sense that the government should be able to minimize or eliminate restrictions on commonplace activities that pose little to no threat,”Ashfield said.
“Under the new system, we will have the tools to identify ecologically sensitive areas that require enhanced protection.”