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  • Feds' Fisheries Act changes cut habitat red tape

    Mixed in with all the other changes under the heading Jobs, Growth and Long Term Prosperity Act are changes to the federal Fisheries Act that has many people up-in-arms. The fish habitat provisions currently in the Fisheries Act are going to be changed to protect fish of commercial, aboriginal and recreational value only. No longer will a study need to be conducted on the environmental impact of clearing drainage ditches, or changing municipal drains.

    The argument from the Harper government is that the costly process of seeking approval from the department of fisheries because a few fish have settled in a man-made waterway needs to be eliminated. The changes, or, according to some, a weakening of the fish habitat protection, will only require studies if the proposed work threatens the habitats of fish that are deemed to be for commercial, recreational or aboriginal use.

    An article in the Vancouver Sun points out that while existing legislation went too far in imposing regulatory hurdles, this is proposing an abandonment of species and waterways deemed not important to humans, and that should be further examined before it becomes policy.

    While it is understood that the intent is to exempt small projects like building a dock, it also allows for incentives to drain a lake killing all the fish if the lake is not used for commercial fishing, recreational fishing or for aboriginal use.

    The current Section 35 of the Fisheries Act states that "No person shall carry on any work or undertaking that results in the harmful alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat." The proposed change reads: "No person shall carry on any work, undertaking or activity, other than fishing, that results in an adverse affect on a fish of economic, cultural or ecological value."

    On a national level, the changes could make it easier for projects like the Enbridge pipeline that would cross hundreds of streams and rivers because of the loosening of federal legislation.

    It has been argued that the new legislation puts Canada back to pre-1976 when the current Fisheries Act came into being. Back then, there was no protection for fish habitats, and after these changes come into effect, there will again be no protection.

    A letter from Liberal House Leader Marc Garneau said, "By gutting 50 years of environmental protections, the government has given itself the unilateral power to green-light major and potentially harmful resource development projects without adequate scrutiny. This bill makes changes to the Fisheries Act that could endanger many fish populations, including the migratory salmon, a timeless presence on the Canadian landscape, not to mention a staple of the economy."

    From scientists in British Columbia to four former fisheries ministers, the government is getting a lot of negative feedback over these amendments. Scientists are claiming that the reasoning behind the changes is not supported by the facts and the former ministers

    Locally, South Nation Conservation Fish Habitat Assessment Biologist Michelle Scheerder said it will remain "status quo."

    "For us it's not really going to change how we do our business," said Scheerder, "We're still going to be doing the same thing. We are still going to be protecting the watercourses, the fisheries. It's part of our core business, it's what we do."

    Scheerder said the Ontario Stream Assessment Protocol is used throughout the summer where SNC goes to watercourses and looks at the habitat that is there and samples for fish.

    As for the local farmer wanting to work on his drainage ditch, or the cottager wanting to build a dock, they still have to go through the Conservation Authorities Act. As part of that review, a fisheries review is conducted as well. However, Scheerder said, "We don't ask people to do habitat studies." She added that locally, they have always worked with landowners without issue.

    Lawrence MacAulay, Liberal Fisheries critic, called the changes very dangerous. "The Federation of Canadian Municipalities asked for Bill C-38 to be broken up so that at least it could be evaluated at committee," he said.

    "When you have four former Minister of Fisheries, two of which were Conservative, indicating that this is a very dangerous way to proceed, then it's time to take a look. It's time to evaluate the situation."

    MacAulay said that the discussions on the proposed changes were limited to a couple of hours with three or four ministers speaking and the chance to ask maybe only one question.

    "That's no way to evaluate legislation," he said. MacAulay added that the people involved who would be affected most by this change were not consulted.

    "I believe that ministers need to have say, but I think it very important when you are talking about the environment that you be a little cautious. And it's obvious there was no caution taken here at all. It's just straight ahead for big business."

    The Act was passed in the House of Commons on June 15 and will now proceed to the Senate.

    The main explanation the government offers for the Fisheries Act changes is that farmers will no longer have to navigate a sea of red tape to clear out drainage ditches or alter what they consider insignificant bodies of water.

    The law, as it's written now, protects all bodies of water with fish in them regardless of size or whether they are natural or man-made. In the new act, it's unclear what will happen to smaller streams, municipal drains and drainage ditches.

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