Acting Fishy: Proposed Amendments to The Fisheries Act

OTTAWA – On Feb. 6, 2018, the Liberal government announced its proposed amendments to the Fisheries Act, previously altered by the Harper government. The proposed amendments include a shift in emphasized protection from industry to fish habitat, a focus on aquatic habitat restoration, an acknowledgment of Indigenous traditional knowledge and clearer permissions for development projects. The bill outlining these amendments are open to public discussion and must now pass the parliamentary process before becoming law.

“There is this provision that basically prohibits harmful alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat,” says Brett Favaro, a research scientist at the Memorial University of Newfoundland’s Fisheries and Marine Institute. “That had been in place since the 1970s, and it was put in place because fish need all these muddy, gross places that make your boots dirty. That is home to them. That is where they get a lot of their food and other things they need to survive.”

In 2012, Favaro and colleagues published a study entitled “Canada’s Weakening Aquatic Protection” in the Journal of Science, which assessed the Harper government’s records in weakening the protections on Canada’s marine and aquatic ecosystems. The journal article’s abstract includes a key finding: “A survey we conducted of 285 press releases, concerning 1,283 convictions by the federal government for violations of the Fisheries Act between 2007 and 2011, showed that only 21 pertained to destruction of fish habitat.”

“The perception of why the Fisheries Act had to change in the first place – in other words, why we had to weaken it – was not backed up by the evidence,” says Favaro. “The government, at the time, said all these things about how it was overly protective, overly burdensome, but no one’s ever really made the economic case of why exactly it was too burdensome.”

Besides, Favaro acknowledges that those that wish to impact fish habitat for commercial purposes will be able to do so by following the right protocol. An organization must request the Fisheries Minister’s permission to impact a specific fish habitat. Favaro adds that after the Minister’s permission has been granted, the organization must then offset the damage by restoring a predetermined amount of fish habitat elsewhere.

The Liberal government’s efforts to improve the Fisheries Act also include a plan to make a registry of data associated with the act available online, at every Canadian’s fingertips. Favaro believes that this will help Canadians reach data-rich conclusions regarding habitat protection, while limiting unsubstantiated claims regarding its effects on industry.

“People that want to impact habitat should be happy about that too, because if they feel this new law is overprotecting, having all the data there will allow them to prove that it’s overprotecting.”

Green Party leader Elizabeth May seemed quite happy about the restored protections.

While industry groups were fairly silent at first, their voices are starting to be heard as they come together to discuss the current realities of Canadian fisheries and the implications of the proposed amendments.

“Fisheries are the gift that can keep giving. If you do them right, you can fish them for generations, and they provide wealth, culture and all the benefits we get from having healthy marine and aquatic ecosystems in perpetuity,” says Favaro. “But to enjoy those benefits, we have to take care of the fundamentals of the ecosystem.”

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