Fisheries changes make waves

The list of those speaking out to oppose the current plan by the federal government to weaken the Fisheries Act grows daily.

The list of those speaking out to oppose the current plan by the federal government to weaken the Fisheries Act through its massive omnibus budget bill grows daily.

In addition to the fishing community, conservationists, former Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) directors and hundreds of scientists, the former conservative Minister of Fisheries, Tom Siddon, has now spoken out for the need to scrap the plans to gut this important law that helps protect fish habitat. If the bill is passed, the changes will have huge consequences throughout Canada, including the Shuswap.

Within the bill are amendments that will change the focus of a section of the Fisheries Act from habitat protection to fisheries protection.

The changes will occur in two steps.

Once the bill is passed, the prohibition against works that pose harm to fish habitat will be weakened to only apply to permanent alteration or destruction through an order of cabinet.

As well, the amendments will expand the government’s ability to authorize harm to fish habitat or allow for pollution to occur and DFO staff will no longer be required to review proposed works. Essentially, it will be open season for industry to do whatever they want regardless of the impacts to fish habitat.

There are DFO staff stationed in Salmon Arm and Kamloops that have played a key role in protecting and restoring salmon habitat through a wide variety of activities.

Perhaps the greatest benefit to the community has been the efforts that DFO staff have made to help bring groups together to achieve significant results.

For example, the Salmon River Roundtable has made great strides in rehabilitating riparian vegetation and improving farm practices, as well as improving understanding of the need to protect fish habitat.

Much of the work that the Salmon Arm DFO staff do is behind the scenes, including reviewing development plans, helping groups apply for funding to do restoration and mapping and restoring the foreshore of Shuswap and Mara Lakes.

For situations where development has caused significant harm, such as the riparian clearing alongside the Eagle River near Old Town Bay, DFO was able to prosecute the offending developer. As a result, the developer was fined and had to fund the reclamation efforts.

Another example of where DFO has protected key habitat is in the North Shuswap near Roderick Haig-Brown Park where a developer began to fill in a lagoon that floods in the spring.

Because this seasonal body of water provides habitat for salmon fry and other species, the developer had to remove the fill and now this area is protected, although the adjacent RV park residents remove the riparian trees and bushes to get a view of the lake.

The federal government claims that under the existing legislation that was established in 1977, DFO has caused unnecessary delays to developers and has prevented development in floodplains and ditches, which they claim is not important habitat. However, in most cases the proponents, who have not provided the information needed in a timely manner, have caused the delays. And, for many parts of Canada, especially the Shuswap, ditches and floodplains provide key rearing habitat for salmon.

In addition to the legislative changes, DFO faced significant budget cuts last year and deeper cuts are planned for this year. Most of these cuts are to staff that work on habitat protection.

It is entirely possible, that the local office of DFO could be closed and most of the jobs lost.  The federal government’s primary concern is to ease the restrictions on industrial development, particularly the proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline that would cross over 800 streams and rivers.

Most Shuswap residents support efforts to protect habitat for our iconic salmon.

If we lose DFO, we will see threats to the viability of salmon increase.

Environmental protection has long been the cornerstone of our democratic society, as most of us know that a healthy economy is dependent on a healthy environment.

The plan to gut the fisheries act and weaken the environmental assessment process threatens our democracy and will, in the long term, weaken our economy.