Federal NDP Fisheries Critic Fin Donnelly took the Harper Government to task in Question Period earlier today over its plan to slip significant changes to the Fisheries Act into its omnibus bill. The changes - leaked yesterday to retired senior DFO scientist and manager Otto Langer - would water down key habitat protections contained in section 35 of the Act.
Donnelly raised the matter in Ottawa today, stating, "It appears the Conservatives are planning to bury sweeping changes to the Fisheries Act in the upcoming budget. The Minister uses the word 'modernize'. But removing habitat protection from the Fisheries Act will set Canada back decades. The Minister must come clean. Is the Minister planning to change Section 35 of the Fisheries Act in the next budget? Is the plan to eliminate the protection of fish habitat in Canada and effectively gut the law? Yes or no?"
Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Keith Ashfield responded, "Of course, there’s been absolutely no decision made with regard to this issue. I’ll note that Canada is blessed with an abundant array of natural resources, of which we should be proud and which we take seriously and responsibly to conserve and protect."
In a statement published earlier today by The Common Sense Canadian, veteran fisheries scientist Otto Langer - who first raised alarm bells over the proposed changes - explained:
I have just been leaked a confidential copy of proposed changes to the habitat provisions of the Fisheries Act as directed by the political levels within the Harper Government. The government is totally re-writing the habitat protection provisions of Section 35(1) so as to remove habitat protection out of the Fisheries Act. This is a serious situation and will put Canada back to where we were in the pre 1976 period where Canada had no laws to protect fish habitat and no way to monitor the great industrial expansion that occurred in Canada with the consequential loss of major fish habitat all across Canada.
The amendments to section 35 revolve around two key policy changes. The first seeks to divide fish into two separate classes - those which are "important" and deserving of protection and those which are not. The new act would read, "No person shall carry on any work, undertaking or activity, other than fishing, that results in an adverse effect on a fish of economic, cultural or ecological value." (emphasis added).
Mr. Langer expressed his concerns about this important change: "What is a fish of economic, cultural or ecological value? If is has no economic value, can it now be needlessly destroyed? This newly drafted provision is not intended to protect fish habitat in any manner whatsoever."
The second key change is the removal of the word habitat from this section of the Act altogether. Mr. Langer notes, "The lack of mention of ‘habitat’ in the proposed draft law and the number of subjective and ambiguous words inserted into this major amendment will make any enforcement of this new law very difficult."
Fisheries Critic Donnelly is concerned these changes are designed to clear the way for industrial projects favoured the Harper Government. In a press release following the above exchange in the House, he stated, “The Conservative government is systematically dismantling environmental protection and regulation. By eliminating provisions to protect fish habitat, they can push through their agenda of pipelines, oil super tankers, mega mines and other projects that harm the environment.”
The issue has attracted significant attention in the media and environmental community today, adding yet another controversy to the Harper Government's omnibus bill.