The Root Word: ForestEthics Blog

Top reasons to oppose changes to the Fisheries Act

Jun 5, 2012

Salmon need clean habitats to thrive1. These massive changes are undemocratic.
2. Protection for fish habitat is greatly weakened.
3. Only lakes and rivers supporting commercial, recreational or aboriginal fisheries will be protected.
4. The Feds are off-loading responsibilities to provinces and industry.
5. Dept. of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) cuts undermine public and fish safety.
6. Changes are being made to facilitate projects such as Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline and tanker proposal.

1. Off the Hook

The Fisheries Act changes are couched within 450-pages of the “Budget Implementation Act” (Bill C-38). Despite assurances by DFO1, the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Keith Ashfield has failed to consult with fisheries stakeholders and the public about the proposed changes to policies on fish habitat. They are moving forward with massive changes without knowing where Canadian priorities and concerns lie. The Federal Government has attempted to hide major changes in an Omnibus bill that it hoped would go unnoticed by the Canadian public. Despite calls by the Opposition Parties to pull these changes out of the Budget Bill, to date the Harper Government has refused.

Former Conservative Fisheries minister Tom Siddon on CBC’s The Current: “This is a covert attempt to gut the Fisheries Act, and it’s appalling that they should be attempting to do this under the radar.”

“How many people in the Finance Committee know anything about steelhead and salmon on the West Coast of British Columbia? I’ll bet you can’t find any,” former Conservative Fisheries Minister John Fraser said. “I might or might not (support the amendments if it were its own bill) but that’s not the point. Part of Parliamentary system is process. And, process has to respect the fact that we’re operating in a democracy. We’re not operating in a corporate system where orders have to be carried out no matter what you think of them.”2

2. Fish Habitat

In the existing Fisheries Act, habitat is defined as: “the spawning grounds and nursery, rearing, food supply and migration areas on which fish depend directly or indirectly in order to carry out their life processes”. As one of our strongest environmental laws, the Act prohibits what’s known as “the harmful alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat” (HADD). This prohibition is a key tool for protecting our watersheds and fish stocks. Despite this, the bill proposes that the Government may pass an Order replacing this HADD prohibition with a much weaker prohibition. This new prohibition against “serious harm to fish” would only prohibit the outright death of fish or the “permanent” alteration or destruction of their habitat3. In other words, this would make it legal to seriously harm Canada's lakes, rivers and streams, provided the harm is not for all eternity.

3. “Fish Habitat Protection” is being changed in the Act to “Fisheries Protection”

A healthy ecosystem isn’t just about fisheries. There are important aquatic species to ecosystems that are not directly part of a “commercial, recreational or aboriginal fisheries”, but essential to its overall health. Entire bodies of water are not even going to be reviewed under the new Act. Some fairly major developments that harm fish habitat could proceed without any environmental or regulatory review because they don’t outright destroy fish habitat, because they are specifically exempt from review through Ministerial discretion, or because they are offloaded to the provinces.

4. Offloading

Under the new law, the federal government could pass responsibility for protecting fish and fish habitat to provinces and change the rules as to what type of industrial or development work is allowed to cause destruction to fish habitat. Not only will the Minister or his officials have the ability to grant authorizations to harm fish habitat, but the Government could also delegate to industry, developers or provinces the right to authorize adverse effects on fish and fish habitat. Given constitutional limitations, most provinces also do not have laws that make it an offence for industry or developers to harm fish habitat. New provisions in the Act would allow the federal government to devolve some fisheries management responsibilities, as well as essentially suspend federal fisheries law for some projects.

5. Dept. of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) cuts

Despite calling for higher maximum penalties, the weaker provisions in the Act and the ever-decreasing capacity of DFO would make a conviction under the Fisheries Act near impossible, practically speaking. DFO ironically tabled a report in May that acknowledges that: “recent budget cuts and changes to legislation put the department’s reputation and capacity to protect the nation’s water at risk4. The Minister’s recommended solution? A marketing campaign “to maintain public trust”.

At the same time, the entire DFO contaminants program nationally and regionally is being shut down. Canada has been doing scientific research alongside First Nations on the coast on the identification of emerging contaminants that would affect traditional foods and bioaccumulation. It was about taking preventive measures for safer foods, wildlife, and aquatic biodiversity. The health of Canadians and our marine life could be jeopardized.

“It is with apprehension that I ponder a Canada without any research or monitoring capacity for pollution in our three oceans, or any ability to manage its impacts on commercial fish stocks, traditional foods to over 300,000 aboriginal people, and marine wildlife,” [Expert Killer Whale and marine toxicologist Peter] Ross said5.

6. In Who’s Interest?

The Fisheries Act is being changed to accommodate industry, such as Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipelines that proposes to cross nearly 800 rivers and streams. As Minister Ashfield has acknowledged to the media, the federal government’s planned overhaul of the Fisheries Act may reduce the regulatory constraints faced by energy companies like Enbridge, thus expediting project approvals6. The budget cuts to scientific research, including nearly all scientists monitoring ocean pollution across Canada, as well as the shutting down of Environment Canada’s oil spill response staff in BC, comes at the same time that Enbridge proposes to introduce over 225 oil tankers a year to the north coast, and Kinder Morgan plans to expand its TransMountain pipeline, resulting in increased oil tanker traffic out of Burrard Inlet. The timing of these changes say more than many Conservative politicians are willing to admit.



1. Cohen Commission of Inquiry, Testimony of Patrice Leblanc, April 4, 2011, p.8, l.8-p.9, l.21.
2. From Hill Times, May 28, 2012. “Feds trying to gut Fisheries Act under the radar, say two former federal Conservative fisheries ministers”. Read full article.
3. For more detailed information, download EcoJustice's pdf: pdf file
4. “Federal government could be sued over fisheries reform, minister admits”, May 22, 2012, Mike de Souza. Read full article.
5. “Ottawa sinks pollution checks: Cuts at Institute for Ocean Sciences; some work will go to private sector”, Cindy E. Harnett, Times Colonist, May 20, 2012. Read full article.
6. Vancouver Sun, April 25, 2012. “Minister admits Fisheries Act changes could help speed project approvals”. Peter O’Neil. Read full article.

Nikki Skuce of ForestEthics Advocacy

By Nikki Skuce, Senior Energy Campaigner, ForestEthics Advocacy

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