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Gutting of Fisheries Act a 'politically motivated abrogation': biologists

Two of Canada's most eminent fish biologists have described changes to the Fisheries Act by the Conservative government as a "politically motivated abrogation" with no basis in science or fact.

In the November edition of the journal Fisheries, the scientists added that changes to Canada's oldest environmental legislation "erases 40 years of enlightened and responsible legislation and diminishes Canada's ability to fulfill its national and international obligations to protect, conserve, and sustainably use aquatic biodiversity."

The article by University of Dalhousie biologist Jeffrey Hutchings and University of Calgary biologist John Post appears in a publication of the American Fisheries Society, one of the oldest and largest professional bodies serving fish biologists in the world. 

In the 2012 omnibus budget Bill C-38, the government introduced changes to the Fisheries Act as well as major amendments to most of the nation's major environmental legislation.

The government, which has centralized control over resource development in the Prime Minister's Office, made the changes after lobbying from pipeline companies that portrayed the fisheries law as "onerous."

The original law, one of Canada's strongest environmental regulations, read as follows: "No person shall carry on any work or undertaking that results in the harmful alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat."

In contrast, the government amendment offers only limited protection for certain kinds of fish: "No person shall carry on any work, undertaking or activity that results in serious harm to fish that are part of a commercial, recreational or Aboriginal fishery, or to fish that support such a fishery."

The change is a disaster for so-called non-commercial fish and other aquatic species that they feed on, argue the scientists.

"The near elimination of fish habitat protection represents a clear signal that protection of habitat -- the single greatest factor responsible for the decline and loss of commercial and noncommercial species on land and in water -- no longer merits explicit protection under Canadian fisheries management law," they write.

Last year, four previous Department of Fisheries and Oceans ministers (including two Conservatives) and more than 600 aquatic scientists opposed the changes. They described them as unscientific and without merit.

In addition to cutting climate change programs, the Conservative government has axed marine contamination research and killed the renowned Experimental Lakes Area, which had saved governments around the world billions of dollars in freshwater protection with policy-making research on acid rain and eutrophication. 

Changes to the Fisheries Act are, in particular, far-reaching and of global concern, say scientists, because Canada holds 20 per cent of the globe's fresh water, one-third of its boreal forests and the world's longest coastline.

In 2012, Tory MPs explained that revisions to the Fisheries Act were necessary because the old Act was causing unnecessary delays of resource projects. In their article, Hutchings and Post counter that's not true.

"Between 2006 and 2011, only one proposal among thousands was denied by the DFO [Department of Fisheries and Oceans], and only 1.6 per cent of 1,283 convictions under the FA between 2007 and 2011 pertained to the destruction of fish habitat (Favaro et al. 2012)."

The new Act removes protection of fish in pristine northern waters, add the scientists.  

"Under the revised Fisheries Act, fish that inhabit lakes, rivers, and streams that are not regularly visited by humans do not warrant protection," they write. "Humans are necessary to render a fish part of a fishery. No humans, no fishery, and no fish habitat protection. This can only be interpreted as meaning that the vast majority of Canada's freshwater fishes will be deemed to not warrant habitat protection under the revised [Act], even if those species are considered part of a fishery elsewhere in their range."

The scientists estimate that 80 per cent of 71 wildlife species of freshwater fish at risk of extinction in "would not be considered 'fish that are part of a commercial, recreational or aboriginal fishery, or fish that support such a fishery.'"

The scientists also argue the changes defeat government mandates to protect whole ecosystems.

"By selectively favouring some species over others, the revisions to the Fisheries Act contravene DFO's stated objective to adopt an ecosystem approach to the sustainable management of aquatic resources."

In conclusion, write the scientists, "Changes to the Fisheries Act were not supported by scientific advice (contrary to government policy) and are inconsistent with an ecosystem-based approach to management."

Calgary resident Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about the energy industry for two decades and is a contributing editor to The Tyee. Find his previous stories here.

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