Wave of opposition to possible Fisheries Act changes

Ashley Fitzpatrick
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Internal federal document reveals plans to remove habitat protections

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The federal government is considering changes to the federal Fisheries Act, changes hundreds of scientists across the country feel will not only cripple the country’s environmental protections but also put species at risk.

Put in place in the late 1860s, the Fisheries Act has been amended many times over the years. It is the addition, in 1986, of measures to protect fish habitat (Section 35(1)) that are now at issue.

The Act states: “No person shall carry on any work or undertaking that results in the harmful alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat.”

It is typically what trigger an in-depth environmental assessment in the case of a proposed industrial development — as large projects typically involve some impact on a lake, river, stream, oceanfront or open water where fish reside. 

Enter: Otto Langer.

See the documents here.

The former Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) scientist was apparently leaked internal documents on proposed changes to the habitat provisions in the Act. He relayed the information with a public statement on March 12, condemning the changes being considered.

“The existing effective and essential piece of legislation is to be changed to apparently just protect fish — something that the Act already does,” Langer noted. 

“The lack of mention of ‘habitat’ in the proposed draft law and the number of subjective and ambiguous words inserted into this major amendment will make any enforcement of this new law very difficult. For instance what is a fish of economic, cultural or ecological value? If is has no economic value, can it now be needlessly destroyed? This newly drafted provision is not intended to protect fish habitat in any manner whatsoever.” 

Now, the federal government has confirmed it is considering changes to the Act but, according to Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Keith Ashfield, nothing has been decided yet.

Opposition explosion

The mere suggestion of the changes as per that release has prompted a flurry of response, including a letter sent this morning from a collection of 625 scientists to Ashfield and Prime Minister Stephen Harper. 

The names attached to the letter include “Canada's most senior ecologists and aquatic scientists,” the letter notes. They include 18 Fellows of the Royal Society of Canada and more than 30 holders of endowed research chairs.

They include three currently assistant or associate professors from Memorial University of Newfoundland — Evan Edinger, Julie Sircon and Rudolphe Devillers — and Bruce Atkinson, formerly with DFO in Newfoundland and Labrador, now retired.

“All species, including humans, require functioning ecosystems based on healthy habitats,” said David Schindler, the lead author of the letter and the Killam Memorial Professor of Ecology, University of Alberta. 

“It is the explicit role of government to find the balance between protecting this habitat and encouraging sustainable economic growth – not to pit them against one another.”

The letter states “industrial activities already pose significant risks to fish habitat” and Canada’s environmental laws, including the Fisheries Act habitat provisions, the Species at Risk Act and the Migratory Birds Convention Act, should be strengthened.

The letter sent today follows one released Monday, wherein the President of the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution (CSEE), an organization of more than 1,000 ecologists and evolutionary biologists opposed the suggested changes to the Fisheries Act.

“Firstly, there is no evidence to suggest that the proposed revision to the Fisheries Act was based on an appropriate level of consultation with, and advice received from, DFO’s Science Sector,” that letter states.

It later continues: “Based on the assumption that your decision was not made in violation of departmental or government policy, the proposed revisions to Section 35(1) of the Fisheries Act must have been informed by advice received by DFO’s Science Sector. In the interests of transparency and accountability, and in the interests of Canadian society, we respectfully request that the science advice received in this regard be made publicly available without delay.”

The CSEE have warned the elimination of habitat provisions from the Act will “severely impair” the country’s ability to protect aquatic species.

Fisheries Act changes not only ones being considered

Meanwhile, changes believed to be on the table for the Fisheries Act come as a report from a review of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act has been released. That review can be read here.

The federal government has already indicated Canadians should expect changes to that Act as it attempts to streamline the environmental assessment process for industrial projects — projects akin to the Hebron, Long Harbour or Lower Churchill developments.

Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver has said changes to the assessment process would also be of benefit to smaller projects by avoiding what he has characterized as unreasonable delays caused by objections from environmental groups “gaming” the assessment process.

The Telegram contacted the office of the provincial Minister of Environment and Conservation, Terry French, to see if the minister is both aware of the issue and has discussed the changes with any federal representatives, as the changes would potentially download additional responsibilities on the provincial government. The minister is expected to respond later today.

The Telegram is following up with locals and the federal government and will have more in tomorrow’s edition.


This article has been updated.



Organizations: Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Royal Society of Canada, Memorial University of Newfoundland University of Alberta Migratory Birds Convention Canadian Society for Ecology

Geographic location: Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador, Hebron Long Harbour

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Recent comments

  • rog
    March 25, 2012 - 09:39

    it is time to change the prime minister's habitate and see how he will like it. and i dont just mean his job his living accommodations and spending also...

    March 22, 2012 - 18:50


  • PaulSt.John's
    March 22, 2012 - 12:49

    In the minds of conservatives like Harper, Canada is too green and too peace loving. So they are setting about changing that. If we try harder than other countries do to protect our natural environment, as Canadians want, we will not be able to "compete" with those other countries. If a corporation cannot spew its toxic effluent into a lake or river in Canada, then it will simply do business elsewhere. We cannot allow that to happen. The economy is too important. The point that these people miss is that an economy like that is a cancer and is not sustainable. We live in an era of corporate greed and our governments have been bought out.

  • Thank You to the Six Hundred and Twenty Five Scientists and others who are speaking up against changes to the Fisheries Act
    March 22, 2012 - 12:18

    Thank God that 625 Scientists and others have lent their voice of reason to opposing the idiocracy being proposed by the Canadian Government in its move to allow changes to the Federal Fisheries Act, an Act that protects fish habitats. If we let this present Conservative Government in Ottawa do as it wishes in a few short years there will not be one square mile of Canada and its Oceans that won't be contaminated. For God's sake Ottawa wake up and do some accounting of those of us now suffering with Cancer and other diseases most likely caused by the lack of controls over our Environment. Besides Ottawa has been the cause of the catastrophic destruction of the fish bio-mass, where it is presently less than 10% of its former self.

  • mainlander
    March 22, 2012 - 11:33

    surely the pm knows more about the environment than a bunch of educated elites.what do the oil companies say? that's the most important thing.

    • John Gibson
      March 22, 2012 - 15:42

      "Mainlander" may prefer to side with the uneducated clods, but it doesn't take a scientist to realise that the PM could not care less about our natural environment, but rather subsidise corporate destruction of our natural heritage. They get it "free', we lose priceless resources.

  • Fred Penner
    March 22, 2012 - 10:45

    This is indicative of "issues" with the way government works on many levels but one thing is clear....a government should not be empowered to permit the willful destrruction of the planet or the ecosystem. There should be some laws (relating to the air, the water, the soil, etc - items necessary to sustain human life) which cannot be changed by the government using their standard processes. I don't know if there is anything like this in the Charter of Rights and Frredoms? For example, a country's obligation to provide air to breathe or water to drink.

  • let the inquisition begin
    March 22, 2012 - 09:13

    "... a collection of 625 scientists..." Whaaa? The Harper government hasn't arrested the scientists yet? It’s fine to ignore or denounce the educated infidels, but let’s start getting tough on crime and get some (egg)heads on stakes!