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Experts protest 'gutting' of Fisheries Act

Canada's revised Fisheries Act came into force today, removing protection from over 70 freshwater species currently at risk of extinction. The change has drawn criticism from both Canadian and international scientists.

On November 9, the journal Fisheries published an article by Jeffrey A. Hutchings of Dalhousie University and John R. Post of the University of Calgary. Titled "Gutting Canada's Fisheries Act: No Fishery, No Fish Habitat Protection," the report detailed the implications. While the article itself is behind a paywall, the abstract makes some key points:

Revisions to Canada's national fisheries legislation have eviscerated the country's ability and responsibility to protect most fish habitat. Changes to the Fisheries Act, passed by Parliament in 2012 and supported by new regulations in 2013, stipulate that habitat will now be protected only for fish that are considered part of a fishery or that support a fishery. The habitats of most freshwater fish species in Canada, including the majority of threatened and endangered fishes, will no longer be protected.

Contrary to responsible management practices for the protection of native fishes, the act now inadvertently prioritizes habitat protection for some nonnative species -- even hatchery-produced hybrids -- as long as they are part of a fishery. 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.

Politically motivated dismantling of habitat protection provisions in the Fisheries Act 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.

Today an article in the prestigious journal Nature brought the problem to worldwide attention. In part, it said:

That the law removes protection for fish habitats strikes many biologists as especially short-sighted. "The one thing that fish need to persist is a safeguarding of the place they live, and that is no longer an explicit part of the fisheries act," says Eric Taylor, who studies fish evolution and conservation at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.

A 1989 study of North American fish extinctions found that almost three-quarters of extinctions in a 100-year period were caused by habitat alteration. Another study has shown that in Canada, habitat loss and degradation is the predominant threat faced by endangered freshwater fish.

... Meanwhile, the new Canadian policies could have downstream consequences for the United States, as roughly 300 lakes and 15 major transboundary water basins span the two countries' shared 8,891 kilometre border. Canada's fisheries law now leaves headwaters that are crucial to downstream water quality with fewer protections, as such areas normally lack fishing activity.

In a statement, Fisheries and Oceans Canada addressed some of those concerns. The agency says that Canada's Species At Risk Act (SARA) offers habitat protection to fish. But Taylor says that it may not be enough, because SARA is designed for animals that are already in trouble, whereas the previous version of the Fisheries Act offered blanket protection for all fish habitats. "This change is going to create a gap now where things are only going to be protected when they're already in trouble," Taylor adds. "It's going to cost us way more money in the long run."

Other responses to the changes have come from West Coast Environmental Law, Business in Vancouver, and Canadian Lawyer.

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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