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Feds to change focus of Fisheries Act

Fisheries, not fish, will be protected under changes to the federal Fisheries Act, announced Tuesday by Department of Fisheries and Oceans Minister Keith Ashfield.

Fisheries, not fish, will be protected under changes to the federal Fisheries Act, announced Tuesday by Department of Fisheries and Oceans Minister Keith Ashfield.

The announcement follows weeks of speculation that big changes were on the way.

The changes, while not actually outlined in the announcement, will “focus protection efforts on recreational, commercial and aboriginal fisheries,” said the department in a news release.

The Fisheries Act is one of Canada’s oldest pieces of legislation and is well-recognized as the country’s strongest law for environmental protection.

It currently does not distinguish “between the vital waterways, lakes and rivers that support Canada’s fisheries and small bodies of water that may not even be home to fish,” the release said.

“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 in the release.

While few details have been released, the changes will differentiate between vital waterways and “unproductive bodies of water, like man-made reservoirs, drainage ditches and irrigation channels,” the department says on its website.

The changes will also identify and manage “real threats” to fisheries “including direct impacts to fish, habitat destruction and aquatic invasive species.”

The changes will make way for specific, sensitive areas to be identified and for infractions under the act to face higher penalties under the Environmental Enforcement Act, said the department.

As well, “low-risk” water projects, like building a dock at the cottage, will have regulatory standards and guidelines, not environmental assessments, it said.

The federal department declined an interview with the News but it did offer its website’s “frequently asked questions” page for those wanting more information.

That page confirms that the term “fish habitat” will not be removed from the act, but that it will only apply to habitats that feed important fisheries.

Vital waterways will still be protected from pollution and the changes will provide “additional clarity around the management of deleterious substances,” it says.

“The Fisheries Act is about managing fisheries,” it says in response to the question of why the focus of the act is being changed. “We are moving away from reviewing all projects on all waters to focusing on those that may significantly impact Canada’s fisheries.”

There was no question or answer listed on the web page about how smaller projects in tributaries of those important waterways will be regulated and how their effects will be mitigated downstream.

There was no question or answer about how often “unproductive” waterways serve as nicely sheltered habitat and spawning grounds for fish that eventually make their way into the main waterways that do support fisheries.

And there was no question or answer about the benefit and worth of healthy aquatic life and ecosystems beyond their economic outputs.

The federal government will be consulting with regional governments, First Nations and stakeholders over the “coming weeks and months ... to develop the regulatory and policy framework to support the new and focused direction that is set out by these proposed changes,” says the department’s website.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at