Conservative government eyes changes to fish habitat protection

Critics balk at Tory proposal, but Chilliwack-Fraser Canyon MP Mark Strahl says government 'not abandoning' fish habitat protection

A leaked document that alleges the Conservative government is looking at removing fish habitat protection from the Fisheries Act is raising the alarm among Fraser Valley fishermen.

Frank Kwak, president of the Fraser Valley Salmon Society, although clearly concerned about the report, said he didn’t want to comment publicly on allegations made in a leaked document until it’s discussed by the society executive.

But Fin Donnelly, the NDP’s fisheries critic in Ottawa, said the response of the fisheries minister during question period left him no doubt the government is seriously considering stripping fish habitat from the wording of the act.

“He didn’t say, ‘No, we’re not doing that,'” Donnelly said, in a telephone interview after Tuesday’s question period. “He just said, ‘No decision has been made.'”

But Chilliwack-Fraser Canyon MP Mark Strahl made no bones about confirming the government is reviewing the fisheries act “which (is) outdated and unfocused in terms of balancing environmental and economic concerns.”

“We’re certainly not abandoning environmental fisheries protection, but we also want to bring balance to the system,” he said.

“Right now, the legislation doesn’t allow for that.”

Strahl agreed the proposed changes “do have repercussions, good and bad,” but he repeated the minister’s point in question period that no decisions have been made.

Donnelly said the document leaked by a former DFO employee suggested that the Conservative government wants to remove all references to harming fish habitat, which is the “key mechanism” that triggers an environmental review before any kind of in-stream activity is approved.

“You wouldn’t have to convince a judge (the project) is harmful to fish,  which is already extremely difficult to do,” he said.

If approved, Donnelly said the changes could ease such activities as gravel removal operations, pipelines crossing waterways, logging and mining projects — and the clearing of ditches in farmers’ fields.

The Enbridge pipeline twinning project, opposed by many B.C. First Nations, would cross some 1,000 streams and rivers in northern B.C. as it carries tar sands crude oil from Edmonton to Kitimat, B.C. for shipment to refineries around the world.

Donnelly agreed such a fundamental change to the act would be a radical move by the government, but “not out of the line” with what he called the Conservatives’ anti-environmental agenda.

The proposed Fisheries Act changes will be attached to an omnibus  budget bill at the end of the month, so it can’t be killed without defeating the budget.

Donnelly said it’s the same method the Conservatives used to change the Navigable Waters Protection Act in 2009 to deregulate protection requirements.

Otto Langer, a retired DFO scientist to whom the document was leaked, said his reaction to the proposed changes is “disillusionment” with the agency that has come so far in protecting Canada’s fish habitat.

He said fisheries officers once had a hard time getting a bulldozer out of a salmon-spawning stream.

Now, he fears the country is moving back to those times.

“It’s as though I wasted most of my life,” he said.

Langer said the document was leaked to him from “a very reliable person” in a “fairly-high level” position in government.

“I’d like to have released more, but somebody would lose their job in government quite quickly,” he said.