Councillor John Van Laerhoven speaks to DFO representatives

‘Farmers are the endangered species’

Local farmers say that years ago, there were plenty of fish in the area.

They’ll tell you that you could sit at the edge of certain sloughs, drop a line in the water, and just wait for the coho to bite.

That was back when the farmers were left alone, given the freedom to be caretakers of their own land. They cleaned the waterways, including the streams, creeks and sloughs that cut through or lined their land. But times have changed.

Farmers are no longer allowed to clear those waterways. That job belongs to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, mainly because those waterways — even man-made, purpose-built drainage ditches — contain fish.

There are strict rules governing the cleaning of ditches, all meant to protect the fish — most notably the Salish sucker. And at a recent DFO open house held in Harrison Hot Springs, it was evident that local farmers are fearing even more regulations are coming, and soon.

“There was considerable tension in the room,” said District of Kent councillor John Van Laerhoven.

The open house was meant to discuss the draft recovery plan for the Salish sucker, written by biologist Mike Pearson for the DFO. The intent was to gather input, and historical local information.

But during the open house, Van Laerhoven asserted that they weren’t following the proper process to gather that information. He also stated that it was dubious whether anything anyone said during the open house, or at a workshop held the following day, would make an impact to the final draft.

“DFO has looked for input before,” Van Laerhoven told The Observer. “Farmers have clearly seen no evidence that they’ve been heard, and none of what (DFO is) doing seems to validate those comments.”

In an email to this paper, further detailing his thoughts on the open house, Van Laerhoven wrote that “the farmers clearly mistrust DFO and with good reason. A statement was made that local historical knowledge was an important element in moving forward. To date there is little evidence that any has been considered. As an example, farmers see everyday that hand cleaning doesn’t work but the ministry insists it does.”

Hand cleaning is thought to be better for the Salish sucker, which is protected by the Species at Risk Act. SARA was introduced in 2003 “to provide for the recovery of wildlife species that are extirpated, endangered or threatened as a result of human activity,” according to the draft.

The Salish sucker was added to the SARA in 2005.

The plan also states: “Recovery strategy development is a commitment of all provinces and territories and of three federal agencies — Environment Canada, Parks Canada Agency and Fisheries and Oceans Canada — under the Accord for the Protection of Species at Risk.”

But Environment Canada, Parks Canada, and a number of provincial ministries weren’t at the table on Wednesday night, Van Laerhoven pointed out.

And if a proper discussion is to take place, and the intent of the DFO was to collaborate, then more agencies should have been present, he said.

“The DFO was clearly there to consult, not to collaborate,” he said. “Consulting only gives stakeholders minimal voice because DFO gets to choose which ideas shared, get implemented, if any.  I think there is greater opportunity for success if the needs of all parties affected have an equal voice.  We should work at developing a plan together, that all can agree on.”

The Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Transportation, and even CP Rail, should both be closely involved with the entire discussion process, Van Laerhoven said.

Farmers agree, and at Monday night’s council meeting, Andy Bodnar informed Kent council he was rallying farmers to get together and meet with MLA Barry Penner and MP Chuck Strahl, along with council members.

“Let’s get our elected members up to speed,” he said. “I don’t think they know fully what’s going on, and impacts it’s having.”

Bodnar also thanked the council, Mayor Lorne Fisher, and staff for showing up at the open house in such good numbers.

Fisher says the farmers did their part to show up, too.

“They were there in full force,” he said.

He believes that maintenance ditches should be exempt from such strict DFO regulation.

“Forget about trying to make critical habitat for the Salish sucker out of our engineered ditches,” he said, a point he hopes he made during the workshop.

While most farmers who spoke during the open house clearly stated that they were in support of helping find a solution for the Salish sucker’s survival (some suggested relocating to less dangerous waters), they are very concerned about their land being called riparian areas.

And they’re concerned that riparian setbacks may be increased to 30 metres, drastically decreasing the land use for their current farming practices.

Van Laerhoven summed up their feelings, at Monday’s council meeting.

“It seems that those who have the smallest impact are being asked to make the greatest sacrifice,” he said. “It seems to me, that farmers are the endangered species.”

The DFO said they met their goals at the open house.

“We did receive a lot of feedback,” said Karen Calla, regional manager for SARA. “That was our intent, to hear the views and responses to what was proposed.”

She told The Observer that they will work now to record all the feedback, determine how to address each concern, and then address them in the revision to the draft recovery strategy.

“We do have to take it all into consideration,” she said. “Some things we are able to reflect better than others.”

A “record of consultation” will be available, and those who feel they weren’t heard, or reflected in the revised strategy, are welcome to work with DFO to be heard, she added.

On riparian widths, she said: “I think there was a lot of confusion at the meeting.

“We aren’t taking the provincial legislation and applying it on land that it hasn’t already been applied to,” she said. “It doesn’t change what they’re already doing within that 30 metres.”

She says the 30 metres is what has been identified as “ecologically important for the Salish sucker.”

“We are committed to protecting and conserving the Salish sucker, and interested in working with land owners,” she added. And while that consultation with land owners is often public, work consulting with other government bodies may not be.

“Often, we’re involving agency to agency type meetings,” she said, “where they can go into the details of how legislation works and what it means. They aren’t necessarily represented at public meetings, like the one we had (in Harrison).”