The Newfoundland and Lab-rador Environmental Network (NLEN) — a collective of about 40 groups operating across the province under environment-related mandates — has been buzzing with news the federal government is planning changes to environmental protections within the federal Fisheries Act.
Specifically, it has been suggested the government will limit protection of fish habitat.
Over the course of the last week, hundreds of scientists across the country have come forward to say that kind of a change will not only cripple the country’s environmental protections, but also put species at risk.
“As these rumors have been coming out, there’s been a lot of emails and phone calls and concern,” NLEN executive director Chris Hogan told The Telegram.
Put in place in the late 1860s, the Fisheries Act has been amended many times over the years. In 1986 the government of Brian Mulroney introduced the measures to protect fish habitat (Section 35(1)).
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 triggers 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 the changes being considered to the habitat provisions in the Act. He relayed the information with a public statement March 12, condemning what he had seen.
“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,” he wrote.
The federal government has confirmed it is considering changes to the act. However, according to Fisheries and Oceans Minister Keith Ashfield, nothing has been decided yet.
“The government is reviewing fish and fish habitat protection policies to ensure they do not go beyond their intended conservation goals,” Ashfield has stated.
He has also said existing policies “do not reflect the priorities of Canadians.”
When asked about the review, the minister has referenced cases where legislation has caused difficulty for individuals and community organizations across the country. For example, flooding in South Montreal that resulted in a farmer being forced to buy a fishing licence in order to remove carp from his flooded fields.
Then, there was the case of the Craven Country Jamboree in Saskatchewan, where a campsite relied upon by festival-goers was flooded. Organizers could not immediately drain the area because fish had migrated in.
“I don’t imagine the current government is suggesting changes to the Fisheries Act because of Scouts camping on a farmers’ field or something. It comes from the Tar Sands issues and all the other issues,” Queen’s University biologist John Smol told The Telegram.
“You have to wonder — if this is actually happening — where are they getting their advice? It can’t be scientists.”
Smol is one of a collection of 625 scientists who put their name to a letter sent Thursday morning to Ashfield and Prime Minister Stephen Harper regarding the Fisheries Act review.
The names attached to the letter — part of a flurry of response — include 18 Fellows of the Royal Society of Canada and more than 30 holders of endowed research chairs.
They include three current 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 at the 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.” It adds Canada’s environmental laws, including the Fisheries Act habitat provisions, the Species at Risk Act and the Migratory Birds Convention Act, should be strengthened.
It follows a separate letter, 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.
“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,” it states.
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 come as a report from a review of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act has been released.
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.
Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver has said changes to the assessment process would be of benefit to small and large projects, by avoiding what he has characterized as unreasonable delays caused by objections from environmental groups “gaming” the process.