Territory unworried by gutted Fisheries Act

Territorial officials say they're unconcerned by sweeping changes proposed for the federal Fisheries Act. The changes would protect fisheries, rather than fish.

Territorial officials say they’re unconcerned by sweeping changes proposed for the federal Fisheries Act.

The changes would protect fisheries, rather than fish. Conservationists fear this may weaken protection of the territory’s fish, including the Yukon River’s majestic salmon.

“But there are really very few areas in the Yukon that aren’t strongly linked to a commercial, aboriginal or recreational fishery,” said Robert Thomson, director of client services and inspections for the Yukon’s Department of Energy, Mines and Resources.

His branch enforces rules established by the now-defunct Yukon Placer Secretariat. It crafted a plan to manage placer mining and fish habitat protection in 1993, with input from First Nations, the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the placer mining industry and local fish and game associations and renewable resource councils.

Placer miners dig up the same stream beds used by fish to spawn. So the secretariat created an atlas of the territory’s waterways to help avoid these conflicts.

And these rules won’t change, no matter what happens to federal law, said Thomson.

“My feeling is that the watershed authorizations will remain completely valid and will remain in full force and effect for a long period of time,” he said.

Even if certain fish and their habitats are not included in a recognized fishery, chances are they are linked to one that is, he added.

The main responsibility for Thomson’s branch is annual water monitoring.

There are as many as 28 automatic water samplers in up to two dozen different sites each year, he said. It works out to anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 samples annually, including samples staff take downstream from placer operations to enforce the miners’ obligations under territorial and federal laws.

Thomson’s staff also take stream flow measurements and samples from the mouths of the Yukon and Stewart rivers a few times a year and consider aquatic health monitoring done by the territory’s Department of Environment and the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Thomson’s confidence in the setup here in the Yukon is unwavering.

“Quite frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if this becomes a model for how things are done in other parts of the nation in the future,” he said.

It’s a model that considers downstream effects no matter where the placer operation is, and includes things like traditional knowledge from local First Nations, he said.

But whether or not the Yukon government predicts changes, Alaska still wants to be kept in the loop.

The state has signed international treaties with Canada for the conservation and management of fish, predominately Yukon River salmon and those in shared waterways farther south, like the Taku River.

Habitat protection is included in those treaties, said Gordon Williams, special assistant to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner.

Williams’ specific job is to co-ordinate those international treaties and he knows them well.

The agreements are secondary to local laws and don’t have any specifics on how habitat should be maintained and protected, but there are protection and restoration commitments included within them, he said.

That’s exactly why Alaska has kept abreast of any development plans and mining activity on the Canadian side of the border.

“The salmon treaty process provides a forum where you can talk about these kinds of issues,” said Williams. “If there are significant changes proposed to the habitat or Fisheries Act laws in Canada, I would suspect that we would be interested in hearing a report on what they might be.

“There’s just a lot of people that are really concerned about their rivers and want to be assured by the government that the right kind of protections are in place as development goes forward.”

In Ottawa, the Conservatives continue to reject requests to split up the omnibus budget bill, while the NDP Opposition are trying to find ways to stall the bill to allow for longer discussion.

The bill is more than 400 pages long and changes more than 60 federal laws, including the Fisheries Act. Yukon MP Ryan Leef voted with his Conservative colleagues on Monday to pass the budget bill on to the finance committee. Critics assert the committee isn’t used to seeing legislation that deals with the environment, fisheries, oil and gas, nuclear safety, or any of the other ranging issues the bill addresses.

On Tuesday, the Conservatives agreed to allow a special sub-committee to look at changes affecting the environment.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at