Changes to the Fisheries Act Will Have Far Reaching Implications

Published in the Telegraph-Journal 23rd March 2012

The federal government plans to rewrite a critical section of the Fisheries Act to remove references to protecting habitat.  The change in wording appears innocuous enough, from the current “no person shall carry on any work or undertaking that results in the harmful alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat” to the proposed “no person shall carry on any work, undertaking or activity, other than fishing, that results in an adverse effect on a fish of economic, cultural or ecological value.”

Even the federal government’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans makes it clear that the protection of habitat is critical to the survival of fish species, stating that “it is important that we protect the habitat that provides fish with clean water, spawning and rearing grounds, an adequate food supply and clear migration routes because habitat requirements typically change for each stage in a fish’s life cycle; from egg to adult. If the various life cycle requirements are not met due to loss of habitat, fish numbers drop, and over time the entire population may even die out.”

Currently, any commercial or industrial projects that would interfere with fish habitat must undergo an environmental assessment to obtain the government’s authorization and must also compensate for loss of habitat. Conservation advocates say that if only fish of economic, ecological or cultural importance will be considered for protection, the change in the Fisheries Act could lead to protracted legal challenges and increased uncertainty as definitions of economic, ecological or cultural importance are proved in the courts.

Such revisions would have dire consequences for the protection of wild Atlantic salmon habitat.  In Eastern Canada, the proposed changes could place at risk a natural resource that is valued at $150 million in annual revenue and has created 3,900 full-time equivalent jobs according to a recent Gardner Pinfold study.  The study estimates that in New Brunswick alone, recreational fisheries for wild Atlantic salmon and related spending contributed more than $50 million to provincial revenue in 2010. Further, wild Atlantic salmon are culturally critical to New Brunswick’s First Nations people, providing them with food and fish for ceremonial purposes.

Department of Fisheries and Oceans Minister Keith Ashfield has not denied that changes to the Fisheries Act were being proposed. He has instead defended the plans stating that “current fisheries policies go well beyond what is required to protect fish and fish habitat”.

Environment Minister Peter Kent goes further to outline the government’s position. Appearing recently as a conference keynote speaker in Vancouver, he repeatedly underscored the importance of efficiency in the government’s efforts to bring Canadian environmental assessment processes up to date.

“The government of Canada is determined to do what it can to create a greater degree of certainty for business, and to establish realistic timelines to help make conditions that encourage competitiveness and investment, and all the jobs that in turn are created by that investment. But all that can only come to pass if we create a modern, predictable and rigorous regulatory system. A system that’s streamlined and transparent, and a system that is effective and efficient,” said Kent.

This is playing out on a large canvas. On the face of it, increasing the efficiency of government regulations is a laudable goal. But questions are emerging over whether far-reaching changes to the federal government’s position on the vital relationship between the economy and the environment should be enacted in Parliament without first making Canadians aware of these proposals and giving them an opportunity to voice their concern. And if the federal government has decided that prescriptive regulations are unnecessary impediments to economic growth and prosperity, it must expect that there will be substantial resistance to diminishing such a critical policy tool. The health of our democracy demands that we court the views of all Canadians, not ignore those with differing points of view.

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Filed under Environment policy, New Brunswick, Social contract

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