Don’t Gut the Fisheries Act

Story by Mark Hume

Sockeye battle on the spawning grounds - Nick Didlick Photography

When the Canadian government introduced an omnibus bill this year it was supposed to clean up and make minor changes to 60 different pieces of legislation. But tucked into Bill C-38 were profound amendments to the Fisheries Act, a powerful piece of legislation that has been around since 1868 and which is considered by many to contain the strongest environmental laws in the country.

The Fisheries Act is depended on by the department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), as well as by Parks Canada and Environment Canada to protect fish habitat. Provincial and regional governments rely on it too.

But Bill C-38 would gut the Fisheries Act, making it so broadly worded that it couldn’t be used to protect fish habitat anywhere. The proposed changes have widely been condemned by environmentalists, native groups, scientists and academics , who are calling on the government to remove the offending clauses.

A stong sign of just how offensive the amendments are came when four former federal fisheries ministers – two of them Conservatives, two Liberals – banded together to write an open letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The federal government responded by saying a special advisory committee, made up of hunting and fishing groups across Canada, would be called on to give the government input.

That hardly seems adequate. The government should have asked for input before it decided to destroy the most important environmental bill in Canada. And now that it knows how people feel, it should pull the amendments.

In the open letter below, the four former ministers have their say.

Dear Prime Minister:

As privy councillors from British Columbia who have served as Ministers of Fisheries and Oceans in past federal Governments, we wish to inform you of our serious concern regarding both the content of Bill C-38 and the process being used to bring it into force.

We have had lengthy and varied political experience, and have represented it in both Progressive Conservative and Liberal Governments in the federal Cabinet. We believe we have a fair understanding of the views of a cross-section of Canadians. Moreover, we believe that there is genuine public concern over the perceived threat this legislation poses to the health of Canada’s environment, and in particular to the wellbeing of its fisheries resources. We are especially alarmed about any possible diminution of the statutory protection of their related habitat, which we feel could result if the provisions of Bill C-38 are brought into force. Migratory salmon and steelhead are icons of our home province. Our experience persuades us that their continued survival would be endangered without adequate federal regulation and enforcement, particularly in the area of habitat protection.

With respect to process, we find it troubling that the Government is proposing to amend the Fisheries Act via omnibus Budget legislation in a manner that we believe will inevitably reduce and weaken the habitat protection provisions. Regrettably, despite the significance of the legislation, to date the responsible ministers have provided no plausible, let alone a convincing, rationale for proceeding with the unusual process that has been adopted. Quite frankly, Canadians are entitled to know whether these changes were written, or insisted upon, by the Minister of Fisheries, or by interest groups outside the Government. If the latter is true, exactly who are they?

May we remind you that this country’s fisheries are vital to our coastal communities, particularly First Nations communities. In turn, a strong and effective Fisheries Act, supported by a robust scientific research capacity and enforcement personnel, is critical to maintaining healthy fish stocks. Major changes to such critical legislation surely warrant extensive and factual discussion, and a broad consultation process. What we strongly recommend is a full examination of the proposed Fisheries Act amendments, and of the proposed staff reductions, by the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans (not the Finance Committee) of the House of Commons. That examination must include appropriate testimony from industry and First Nations representatives, academic experts, as well as experienced present and past personnel of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Furthermore, greater clarification of the purpose of these proposed changes is needed from the Fisheries and Oceans Minister and the Environment Minister. To date, they have provided only vague and general descriptions of the problems that they wish to address through these amendments. This lack of information has made it impossible for us to determine whether or not their concerns are well-founded, or whether the proposed changes will have appreciable, beneficial effect on those problems and concerns. Without such information we can only judge by our own experience, which suggests that the shortcomings of the current legislation have been greatly overstated, and that the remedial action proposed is well out of any proportion to the issues they have referred-to, but only vaguely. In short, we have the impression that the ministers are using a sledge hammer to swat a fly.

Collectively we have spent many years in government attempting to maintain fish stocks and protecting fish habitat. A strong Fisheries Act, a competent science establishment and vigorous enforcement programs are essential to protect both fish stocks and the habitat on which such stocks depend.

Hon. Tom Siddon, P.C., Ph.D. Progressive Conservative Fisheries & Oceans Minister (1985‐1990).

Hon. David Anderson, P.C., O.C. Liberal Fisheries & Oceans Minister (1997‐1999).

Hon. John Fraser, P.C., O.C., O.B.C., C.D., Q.C., LL.D. (Hon.) Progressive Conservative Fisheries & Oceans Minister (1984‐1985).

Hon. Herb Dhaliwal, P.C., J.D. (Hon.) Liberal Fisheries & Oceans Minister (1999‐2002).