The Harper government puts a positive face on plans to amend the Fisheries Act — a cornerstone of Canadian environmental legislation — but those concerned about the future of B.C.’s salmon resource question their motives.
Minister of Fisheries Keith Ashfield said Tuesday that the changes will better protect the productivity of recreational, commercial and Aboriginal fisheries.
“We have been clear that the current rules governing the protection of fish habitat are indiscriminate and unfocused and do not reflect the priorities of Canadians,” Ashfield said.
The act makes no distinction between waterways vital to fisheries and small bodies of water that may not even be fish habitat, Ashfield said. Changes will identify and manage real threats to the fisheries, including impacts on fish and habitat, and aquatic invasive species.
A former Kamloops fishery officer said there have been discussions about amending the act for years.
“There are some outdated parts of the act,” said Randy Nelson, who retired six months ago after 35 years in the field. However, at the time of his leaving, no one had consulted the enforcers — the fishery officers — for their input. He said Ottawa’s intentions seem suspicious, though he hasn’t had a close look at what lies in store.
“If the changes they’re proposing are to simplify the regulations and approvals, and to put more onus on the companies to abide by the law, that’s doomed to failure,” Nelson said.
Corporations are mostly concerned with shareholder profits, he said.
Jim Cooperman of the Shuswap Environmental Action Society is certain the government plans to soften the act to clear the way for resource development and large corporations.
“It’s doublespeak to make it look like they’re improving things, but in reality they’re weakening the act,” Cooperman said. “The reason for doing this is to put the Northern Gateway project through. It would cross a number of salmon streams and they don’t want Fisheries in the way.”
MP Cathy McLeod was adamant that the amendments will not undermine the ability of fishery officers to protect habitat.
“I believe we need to focus on the management of important fisheries and protection of fish habitat while at the same time moving away from things that you hear so often about Fisheries,” she said.
There are many instances where the act is rigorously applied —adding to municipal costs, for example — but without protecting fisheries, she suggested.
McLeod said public consultations with stakeholders over the changes are set to take place in the coming months.