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.
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.
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.