Last week, a retired federal fisheries biologist leaked federal documents that purport to show proposed changes to the act that would water down existing legislation. Existing Fisheries Act legislation prohibits any activity that could harm fish habitat. The documents show plans to replace that with a lesser restriction prohibiting “adverse effects” on fish of “economic, cultural or ecological value.”
Critics are also concerned with a possible move to shift enforcement responsibility to the provinces.
Last week, 625 scientists signed a letter opposing the changes. They included some of the most eminent scientists in Canada.
“Habitat destruction is the most common reason for species decline. All ecologists and fisheries scientists around the world agree on these fundamental points, and the Fisheries Act has been essential to protecting fish habitats and the fisheries they support in Canada. Weakening habitat protections will make Canada look irresponsible internationally,” they wrote. “In the case of fisheries, siltation of spawning beds and contamination of fish rearing areas are two of the most common impacts of human activities. We should therefore be strengthening, not weakening the habitat protection provisions of the Fisheries Act (and other environmental laws, including the Species at Risk Act and the Migratory Birds Convention Act), in order to protect our dwindling fisheries and species at risk.”
Columbia River – Revelstoke MLA Norm Macdonald said that any move to shift responsibility to provincial authorities would be a mistake. He said B.C. environmental assessments are “weak,” inadequate and lack effective enforcement.
“To lose the federal environmental rules is really hugely problematic,” Macdonald said. “It means that it’s open season and the results are predictable when you go down this path. It is a conscious decision to degrade the environment and we that live in these areas and have an attachment to the land [and] depend on it for all sorts of things [and] bear the consequences of those conscious decisions.” He gave the example of the Glacier-Howser independent power project near Kaslo, saying federal legislation eventually stalled the project. Macdonald believes it would have gone ahead if left only to a B.C. environmental assessment.
BC Southern Interior MP Alex Atamanenko (NDP) also joined the chorus of opponents. “In the current climate of the Enbridge pipeline, increased mining proposals and private power projects on B.C. rivers, these proposed changes to fish habitat protection make you wonder just what interests are they choosing to protect?” asked Atamanenko. “I find it very interesting that two former Progressive Conservative cabinet ministers have lashed out at the federal government as ‘foolish,’ saying the Harper government has ‘very, very limited understanding, intelligence or wisdom’ on this subject,” he said.
“As they put it, you can’t protect fish if you don’t protect their habitat,” Atamanenko added.
Wildsight executive director John Bergenske said the changes would impact local citizens’ ability to comment on proposals that would affect them directly. “What’s being suggested now is [to] drastically drop the number of assessments that would limit the ability for people who are being affected to have any say so,” Bergenske said.
Bergenske also echoed MLA Macdonald’s criticism of the B.C. environmental assessment process. “The provincial process, we have very little confidence in it because of how discretionary it is.”
“We don’t have solid criteria. It’s really at the discretion of the ministry based on the policies of the day,” Bergenske said. “That’s where the planning lowers the bar into a political decision of the moment rather than having some sound principles of environmental sustainability behind it.”