Fisheries Act changes welcomed by scientists, while industry groups say they'll wait and see
The federal Liberals tabled a number of amendments to the Fisheries Act, intended to roll back changes made by the former Conservative government
February 6, 2018
7:26 PM EST
OTTAWA — Scientists and environmentalists are hailing the first of a series of long-awaited overhauls to Canada’s environmental legislation as a step in the right direction, while industry groups are taking a more cautious tone.
On Tuesday, the federal government tabled a number of amendments to the Fisheries Act in the House of Commons, intended to roll back changes made by the former Conservative government.
In 2012, the Harper government scaled back protections to only fish that were part of commercial, recreational or Indigenous fisheries, and lifted a prohibition against the “harmful alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat.” Those protections have now been restored.
But the Liberal legislation goes beyond what was in place before 2012, with a new requirement for an online registry with information about project decisions, and more emphasis on rebuilding depleted fish stocks and restoring habitat.
It would also give the government the power to establish long-term fishing restrictions and to quickly enforce short-term pauses in fishing activity to respond to unforeseen threats. The Liberals have promised $284 million over five years to enforce the new rules.
“We promised to not just return to the previous version of the Fisheries Act, but to make the law even better and more effective than before,” Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc told reporters in Vancouver on Tuesday.
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Brett Favaro, a research scientist at Memorial University of Newfoundland’s Marine Institute, said the new legislation has “been a long time coming,” adding that the public registry could be a big win for transparency. “This is really a starting point,” he said. “I would say it’s an encouraging step.”
In a statement, Green party Leader Elizabeth May said she was “delighted to see this government deliver on its commitment to restore protections to fish habitats across the country.”
The changes will have an impact on the approval process for some projects. Senior officials with Fisheries and Oceans said they expect the number of development projects referred to the department for review will go up under the legislation, but couldn’t say by how many. Currently, between 80 and 400 reviews are conducted each year.
In a statement on Tuesday, Conservative Fisheries critic Todd Doherty and deputy critic Mel Arnold said the Harper-era changes “improved fisheries conservation, prioritized fish productivity, protected significant fisheries, and streamlined an overly bureaucratic process.
“We are very concerned that the changes announced today will have a chilling effect on much-needed development projects, especially in rural areas,” they said.
But Martin Olszynski, an assistant professor in the University of Calgary’s law faculty who used to work as a lawyer for the Fisheries Department, said the number of reviews is “plainly way too low.”
“There’s definitely more activity in the watershed that’s having an impact on fish and fish habitat,” he said. “I guess it’s a question of asking what is the right number.”
This is really a starting point
Industry groups have so far given a muted response to the amendments as they await the government’s reforms to the environmental assessment process and the National Energy Board, expected this week.
Ron Bennett, president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, said the pre-2012 Fisheries Act was “really cumbersome,” and created major delays for farmers seeking to do minor work like clearing drainage systems on their land. He’s encouraged that the proposed changes would clarify codes of practice for small projects, but said the devil’s in the details.
The Mining Association of Canada said it would “need time to review the proposed amendments to understand the implications for the mining sector and future projects.” The Canadian Energy Pipeline Association said it will hold off on commenting until it sees “the full scope of changes.
The legislation also places greater emphasis on Indigenous rights. One amendment would require that the fisheries minister consider any traditional knowledge provided by Indigenous communities when making decisions, but that knowledge would not be revealed to the public or to project proponents without written consent from the Indigenous group.
Jeff Langlois, a Vancouver-based lawyer who represented several First Nations during the consultation on the government’s environmental reforms, said many Indigenous groups are concerned about “sharing traditional knowledge in the public sphere.” For instance, information about hunting spots is often closely guarded, he said.
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