Sockeye salmon spawning in the Adams River.

Salmon inquiry weighs risk from habitat protection reform

New focus of federal enforcement would be on threats to productive fisheries

The Cohen Inquiry into the Fraser River’s troubled sockeye salmon stocks is shifting gears to consider last-minute arguments about controversial proposed reforms to the federal Fisheries Act.

Participants at the inquiry have been given until May 14 to table their submissions on the impact of the changes that critics say will gut the law that protects fish habitat.

“What commission counsel has done is said if something wasn’t in your final submissions that this new bill impacts, you’re welcome to make another submission and we’ll look at those,” inquiry spokesperson Carla Shore said.

The Conservative government’s budget implementation bill includes the contentious amendments to the Fisheries Act.

If passed, the clause protecting fish habitat by banning “harmful alteration, disruption and destruction” of fish habitat will be removed and replaced with one that outlaws “serious harm” to stocks fished by commercial, recreational or aboriginal users.

Federal officials have described it as a more practical approach that focuses more on real threats to productive fisheries and less on blanket protection of riparian ecosystems.

No longer would authorization always be required to disrupt any fish habitat, for example, if the planned work doesn’t affect stocks used by any fisheries.

Watershed Watch Salmon Society executive director Craig Orr, who chairs a coalition of conservation groups with standing at the inquiry, said he and other participants will definitely file their concerns.

“It raises the threshold for what is considered to be serious harm to fish,” he said.

“Without a doubt we all think this really does strike at the heart of what Cohen should be considering. It has huge implications to our ability to protect salmon.”

Orr said he’s concerned the changes could mean that penalties would only be triggered if fish are killed or there is permanent harm to habitat.

The inquiry had already heard testimony that habitat protection laws aren’t well enough enforced as well as questions about the effectiveness of the no-net loss policy – now to be reviewed – that requires habitat lost to development be offset with improvements elsewhere.

Justice Bruce Cohen wrapped up commission hearings in late December and had been preparing his findings on how to reverse a long-term decline of sockeye, although a recent extension now gives him until the end of September to deliver them.

Ottawa say the changes won’t alter the ban on the dumping of chemicals or other dangerous pollutants into any water way.

Officials also say there are provisions to establish ecologically sensitive areas where higher levels of protection can be required.

Fraser Valley farmers recently staged a demonstration in support of reforms, saying they are too restricted in their ability to clean ditches that have been colonized by fish.

The NDP Opposition called the changes a sweeping and inappropriate narrowing of habitat protection.

West Coast fisheries critic Finn Donnelly said the Fisheries Act reforms and streamlining of environmental reviews for big projects show the federal Conservatives intend to force through new oil pipelines to carry Alberta oil to the Pacific.

ABOVE: Justice Bruce Cohen heads the Cohen Inquiry into the decline of Fraser River sockeye.