Sockeye salmon spawning in the Adams River in B.C.'s Interior.

DFO cuts to hit fish habitat protection offices

Loss of one third of Pacific region fishery biologists spells new risk for salmon, critics warn

Fishery observers predict more trouble ahead for already struggling salmon runs in B.C. if Fisheries and Oceans Canada goes ahead with leaked plans to eliminate a third of its habitat biologists in the Pacific region.

DFO’s fisheries protection branch would be slashed from 90 to 60 workers, according to internal documents.

“A few years ago they had 120, so we’re looking at a 50 per cent reduction,” said Otto Langer, a former DFO biologist and habitat assessment manager.

The cuts are part of a broader move by Ottawa to balance the budget in part through reduced spending in the federal civil service.

But Langer said fewer front-line scientists will leave salmon in B.C. rivers and streams dangerously exposed to ecological damage from pollution, development and other threats, such as disease and overfishing.

“I think they’re trying to save industry from any hassles in getting approvals,” he said, calling it a reflection of the “anti-science, anti-environment” bent of the Harper government as new oil pipelines are pursued as a national priority.

Langer said the ability to protect the environment will be further hit because many senior biologists are to be offered buyouts or transfers and be replaced with more junior ones.

“You’re probably losing 33 per cent of your staff and probably 80 per cent of your experience.”

A large habitat protection office in New Westminster would be eliminated and other offices and staff would be cut upstream along the Fraser River, he said.

Plans to reduce DFO’s budget by approximately five per cent were leaked more than a year ago, but few observers expected the hit to be so heavily focused on habitat biologists.

Watershed Watch Salmon Society executive director Craig Orr said the cuts come after earlier federal moves this year to loosen environmental assessment rules and weaken the fish habitat protections contained in the Fisheries Act.

“There’s going to be far fewer people in the federal government to look after fish habitat,” Orr said. “It seems to be part of a larger mandate of government to downgrade environmental protection.”

DFO representatives could not be reached for comment Monday.

Federal staffing levels were raised as a concern at the Cohen Inquiry into the decline of Fraser River sockeye salmon.

Evidence from DFO memos showed some staff in Interior field offices had been warning for years they were unable to keep pace with proposed developments that could threaten habitat and they could no longer pursue lesser violations that would have previously been prosecuted.

One report on habitat enforcement tabled with the inquiry showed the number of patrols, sites checked and violations observed plunged at least 75 per cent each after previous DFO staff cuts were imposed in 2005.

The Cohen report is to be released Wednesday.