Scientists say new fisheries law “guts” protection for habitat
By Tom Spears OTTAWA CITIZEN November 1, 2013
OTTAWA — Three of Canada’s leading fish scientists say Canada’s rewritten Fisheries Act protect the fish species that people eat, while dropping protection for huge numbers of other fish.
In particular it does not protect endangered fish species, Jeffrey Hutchings and John Post write in an international science journal called Fisheries.
Until this year, the federal Fisheries Act banned development that would damage fish habitat. The new version bans work that would damage the habitat of fish species that are part of a commercial, sport or aboriginal fishery, as well as the smaller fish that they eat.
In other words, if humans don’t fish in a given place, the habitat isn’t protected there.
Conspicuously absent is protection for most species at risk — because people don’t catch and eat them.
Hutchings and Post estimate that 80 per cent of the 71 fish species at risk in Canada will no longer have habitat covered by the new law, although the old law did protect them.
“Under the revised FA (Fisheries Act), fish that inhabit lakes, rivers, and streams that are not regularly visited by humans do not warrant protection,” they write. This means a vast area of Canadian wilderness will fall outside the law.
So would some small bodies of water near Ottawa — such as the many small creeks in the city and surrounding farm country. These don’t have a human fishery, but Hutchings says they are vital to the health of larger rivers, “like capillaries feeding into large arteries.”
Hutchings says creeks in Newfoundland where he studies brook trout are untouched by humans, and therefore unprotected too.
“You don’t have to go north of 60 (i.e. far north) to find aquatic habitat where fish simply won’t be protected because there are no fisheries,” he said in an interview.
Hutchings teaches at Dalhousie University and Post is at the University of Calgary. Freshwater scientist David Schindler, past winner of the Gerhard Herzberg medal as Canada’s top scientist, calls them “two of Canada’s most eminent fisheries scientists” and says their analysis “is right on.”
Hutchings and Post say destroying fish habitat is now easy and legal: “By applying the ‘no humans, no fishery’ criterion, the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans will have an easy time expediting applications for fish habitat destruction resulting from all manner of development.”
They conclude that Canada has 20 per cent of the world’s fresh water, which brings “a responsibility to be internationally respected stewards of this vast environment. Politically motivated abrogation of the country’s national and international responsibilities to protect fish and fish habitat suggests to us that Canada might no longer be up to the task.”
Their article is titled Gutting Canada’s Fisheries Act: No Fishery, No Fish Habitat Protection.
Schindler, at the University of Alberta, says the law currently has a “vague” section protecting fish that are part of the food chain in a fishery. The problem, he says, is that we don’t always know what those are.
In the 1980s and 1990s Schindler did experiments simulating acid rain to see why trout were dying in many lakes. It identified previously unknown parts of the food chain.
“No one could have predicted that in our acid experiments, wiping out one minnow and one crustacean would put lake trout on the road to extirpation,” he said. “It (the new law) is senseless.”
He added the new law could protect invasive Asian carp.
A spokeswoman for Fisheries and Oceans says the law was changed under the federal Economic Action Plan to “protect our environment, while streamlining administrative processes.”
She confirmed that the new act has little protection for endangered species, but said these are covered under the Species At Risk Act.
She said provincial laws on pollution and environmental protection will help protect fish. In addition, the department says “Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s highest priority will now be the protection of recreational, commercial and Aboriginal fisheries and the fish habitat on which they depend.”
“DFO will continue to conduct reviews of projects that pose risk of serious harm to fisheries and the habitat that supports them, while allowing low risk projects to proceed without a time-consuming and costly departmental review or intervention.”