OTTAWA — The Harper government took another axe to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in Thursday’s budget, chopping roughly $100 million over three years starting in 2015-16.
DFO was one of the main targets of the latest cuts, even though the fisheries department has already faced several previous rounds, including a one-third reduction in habitat-management staff in B.C. and across Canada in 2012.
Ottawa is once again sparing the politically sensitive aquaculture sector, even though the 2012 Cohen Commission report into missing Fraser River sockeye urged the department to withdraw from promotion of the controversial sector.
The Harper government, like the previous Liberal government, has continued to nurture the fish-farming industry on both coasts, despite warnings from environmentalists that the spread of sea lice and water-borne diseases from pens threaten wild species.
The federal government extended for another year a program launched in 2008 aimed at enhancing “regulatory certainty” and “improving the conditions for a sustainable aquaculture sector.”
Seafood is increasingly popular around the world, and products from fish farms make up half of global consumption of seafood, according to the budget. The price tag for aquaculture renewal is $57.5 million over five years, starting in 2013-14.
“It does not sound like they heard a single word in the Cohen report,” said Green party leader Elizabeth May, who fears the enabling legislation for the budget could contain even deeper cuts for DFO than what’s been announced so far. “I think there’s worse to come.”
The budget indicated the government plans to impose major staff reductions at its Ottawa headquarters. Officials indicated front-line staff in the regions wouldn’t be affected.
The cuts start at a modest $4 million for the coming year and $5 million in 2014-15, then soar to $33 million a year for the next three years.
DFO’s operating expenditures for the entire department totalled just under $1.4 billion in 2011-12.
The government, heavily criticized after the 2012 budget for watering down habitat-protection legislation, announced that the Pacific Salmon Foundation — a grassroots organization launched in 1987 to protect salmon habitat — would get the entire proceeds from the cost of conservation “stamps” fishermen pay to the government when they purchase licences.
Previously, the foundation received $300,000 a year from stamp sales, with the rest going into general DFO revenues. That amount will now rise to roughly $1 million.
Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca NDP MP Randall Garrison applauded the increased revenues to the stamp program, which he helped fight for in the House of Commons. “It’s small but important,” he said.
Victoria NDP MP Murray Rankin said he is suspicious of a budget line noting $10 million will be used over two years to improve conservation of fisheries habitat by supporting partnerships with local groups.
“It sounds great until people remember the last budget took the Fisheries Act and gutted it,” Rankin said. “The Fisheries Act used to have habitat-protection provisions in it.”
May called the habitat funding “pathetic.”