Mixed reaction to new fish habitat rules: ‘Would have preferred to see it go further’

The federal government will spend $284 million over the next five years to enforce new laws protecting habitat wherever fish are present, says Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc.

A number of amendments to the Fisheries Act were introduced Tuesday in the House of Commons to expand the reach of a prohibition against anything that alters or affects fish habitat to all waters where fish exist.

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Changes to the act in 2012 meant the protections were enforced only for fish listed in provincial registries as being part of commercial, recreational or Indigenous fisheries.

Officials with Fisheries and Oceans Canada said in Ottawa the 2012 changes resulted in a lot of confusion about exactly what projects would require a federal government assessment, because it wasn’t always clear which fish needed protecting and which didn’t.

Under the new law, only major projects will go through a federal assessment with more minor ones, such as smaller things being done on individual farms or in small municipalities, being given guidelines to follow.

B.C.’s First Nations Fisheries Council found some good points in what the government has planned, said vice-chairman Hugh Braker, a member of the Tseshaht First Nation near Port Alberni.

“Generally speaking, I’ve had a quick look at the legislation, there are a couple of things I like,” Braker said. “I like direction the act is going in; I would have preferred to see it go further.

“In British Columbia, we have a real problem with degradation of the ecosystems.”

The act requires the minister to take into account Indigenous knowledge and expertise when it is provided and all decisions must take into account the possible impacts on Indigenous rights. However, that knowledge will be protected from being revealed publicly, or even to a project’s proponents, without explicit permission from the Indigenous community or people who provided it.

Braker said First Nations in B.C. called for joint management of fisheries, but are happy that the legislation at least calls for consultation.

He said fish and fishways need stronger protection in B.C., adding that fish are in “desperate trouble” in some areas.

The new law requires the government to take cumulative effects into consideration when new projects are being considered.

Exactly which projects will require a federal assessment and ministerial permit to proceed, and which will not, will be spelled out in regulations that are in development now. Decisions made through assessments will be made public, something that is not required now.

Alexandra Morton, an independent biologist who lives in Sointula, said she has a largely positive response to the government announcement, a view shared by David Suzuki Foundation spokesman Jeffery Young.

“I like to hear that the rights of Indigenous people are going to be more carefully weighed, that [LeBlanc has] expanded the definition of fish habitat and that he’s going to protect depleted stocks,” Morton said, pointing out that she and LeBlanc are on opposing sides of a court case over farmed fish.

She said she is hopeful the steps announced Tuesday will be passed.

“They show an intent by this government and this minister that I think British Columbians can support,” she said.

Young, who is the David Suzuki Foundation’s senior science and policy analyst, said the government has answered the bulk of the questions his organization had.

“Our first priority was restoring habitat protection,” he said. “That was the big thing that was lost in 2012.”

The legislation also will make it illegal to capture whales, dolphins and porpoises in Canadian waters for the purpose of keeping them in captivity. Officials say existing permits for such activities will be honoured, but in the future only animals captured because they are in distress, injured or in need of care can be held in captivity in Canada.

The amendments to the Fisheries Act are part of a package of government changes to the federal environmental assessment process and fulfils a mandate item issued to LeBlanc when he became the minister.

The government has been studying bringing in changes since 2016, with online consultations, meetings with Indigenous communities and governments, and a study by the House of Commons fisheries committee.

The bill will be followed this week by another one that will overhaul the National Energy Board, as well as revise the Navigable Waters Protection Act.

jwbell@timescolonist.com

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