Federal Fisheries Act under Harper’s knife: NDP

The federal NDP says the Harper government has plans to "gut" one of the strongest and longest-standing environmental laws in the country - the Fisheries Act.

The federal NDP says the Harper government has plans to “gut” one of the strongest and longest-standing environmental laws in the country – the Fisheries Act.

And it thought it could do it without anyone noticing, said NDP fisheries critic Fin Donnelly.

The general plan is to take the words “habitat protection” out of the federal Fisheries Act, said Donnelly.

That’s according to a leaked document released by retired federal fisheries biologist Otto Langer, he said.

Langer’s leaked information disclosed that the plan is to tack this change onto a budget omnibus bill, said Donnelly.

“There’s always a risk to leaked information as to whether it’s true or not, but because it was Otto Langer, who was 32 years with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans – he’s a well-respected fisheries scientist – I absolutely trust Otto,” he said.

“I think he’s got an impeccable record as a solid scientist. When he got this information and said it was from a solid source, I believed him. I went and brought it up to the minister in question period in the House. And the response I got from the minister, Keith Ashfield was, essentially, he didn’t deny it.”

Donnelly issued a news release about the leaked information on March 13. Three days later, Ashfield’s office released an official statement.

“The government is reviewing fish and fish-habitat-protection policies to ensure they do not go beyond their intended conservation goals,” the four-sentence statement began.

“The government has been clear that the existing policies do not reflect the priorities of Canadians. We want to focus our activities on protecting natural waterways that are home to the fish Canadians value most, instead of on flooded fields and ditches.”

“I’d like to know what they think is inaccurate,” Donnelly said of Ashfield’s statement.

He called Ashfield’s claim and the attempt to distract the issue with “flooded fields and ditches” as simply “outrageous.”

The minister’s statement clarified that “no decision has been made.”

After more question periods and meetings of the standing committee on Fisheries and Oceans – of which Ashfield, Donnelly and the Yukon’s MP Ryan Leef are all members – Donnelly said he had even more confidence in the leaked information.

Since the issue was made public, two former Conservative fisheries ministers have spoken out about it.

John Fraser, and his successor, Tom Siddon – both from B.C. and both minister of Fisheries and Oceans under Brian Mulroney – have called the speculated change

“a very serious error.”

Both allege the people proposing the changes “aren’t Conservatives at all.” They suspect the pressure to make the change is coming from industry, citing Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline project, and others.

“Their agenda is pipelines, mines and major industrial projects that the country is about to embark on in the next 10 years or so,” said Donnelly.

“Those two words – habitat protection – are what they would call an annoyance or not in the best interest of Canadians. I think salmon and water fundamentally represent (Canada’s) way of life. Jobs are important. The economy is critical. But we need to have a healthy environment as well.”

Concerns for fish habitat are what trigger most regulations and environmental assessments, Donnelly said. But critics often say the process takes too much time and money.

In the territory, the much-lauded Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Act would lose a lot of its teeth if the fisheries act is watered down. Currently, when a project is being considered, federal fish biologists are called to do their own assessment to add to the information before the board.

Without the obligation under the federal act, federal workers wouldn’t be called in to do that work, Donnelly said.

The Yukon’s Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board didn’t want to talk about this possible change because it’s still just speculation.

If “habitat protection” were removed from the Fisheries Act, the protection of fish would still be law, but how could they separate the two? asked Donnelly.

Changes to fish habitat are obvious – a riverbed is destroyed, water is contaminated.

But it tends to take years to see changes in fish stocks and samples and it is even more difficult to prove the connection between human activity and changes in fish, Donnelly said. By then, it is usually much too late.

If (habitat protection) is out of the act, it will essentially render the act useless – neuter it, gut it, there’s a million terms you can use – but it will not be what it was designed to do,” said Donnelly.

“We should be looking at this in a big way. In my short career of three years as a member of Parliament and fisheries critic, I have never seen anything as fundamentally disastrous as this.”

Leef was not available for comment.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at