Made in Ottawa: decisions on fish and water
Special to The Record
As someone born and raised on the West Coast, Ottawa has always seemed far away. I’ve never been there, and while I vote and follow the news, Ottawa hasn’t held much interest for me. That is, until now.
My colleagues and I recently prepared a presentation for a parliamentary committee considering changes to the federal Fisheries Act. Then, from the comfort of my home, I watched our team speak live on Parliamentary TV, in front of MPs from the three main parties. The committee of MPs has been listening to various conservation groups and experts, as well as representatives from the mining, cattle ranching, and oil industries. Independent fishermen also spoke.
I saw firsthand how politically-charged the process of policy-making is, and I have a new appreciation for how decisions are made. It’s now easier to understand how these far-away choices and personalities affect our local waters. While a meeting room in Ottawa appears to be disconnected from our reality in BC, pending updates to federal legislation will play a big role in our efforts to protect and restore wild salmon.
The Fisheries Act was the strongest piece of environmental legislation in Canada until the Conservatives made changes to it in 2012. The strongest wording was watered-down and made hard to enforce, while at the same time there was a lack of government support for the conservation and science aspects of Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s mandate.
The industry representatives in front of the committee appeared to like the changes the Conservatives had made, while everyone else was in total agreement that the lost protections of the Fisheries Act need to be restored.
Other environmental laws were also weakened in 2012, so the committee that we participated in is part of a bigger Liberal initiative to see what needs to be fixed. It also opens up a discussion about the Fisheries Act as a whole, including improving on what we had before 2012, and modernizing how Fisheries and Oceans Canada operates.
After the Harper years, Fisheries and Oceans Canada has been rebuilding their capacity for science, including hiring new personnel to make up for years of budget cuts. However, simply replacing staff lost under Harper is not enough. More resources are needed. Even prior to the 2012 changes, First Nations, scientists, and conservationists agreed that there was a real need to improve monitoring and enforcement. My colleagues and I hope that after the review, government will choose not only to restore lost legal protections for fish habitat, but also to allocate more resources to monitor and protect habitat, and to enforce the law. Because even the best laws don’t mean anything if no-one is checking for compliance.
In our submission to Ottawa we built a case for assessing and protecting fish habitat from activities that might cause harm, and we urged the government to keep a public database of authorizations to alter fish habitat, as a first step in managing the cumulative effects of various developments. We also made a strong case for the management of formerly prime fish habitat that is now alienated behind dikes and floodgates.
Our Fisheries Act is 150 years old. Important changes were added in 1977 to protect habitat, but were partially reversed in 2012. Now we are on the cusp of a major update to the Act. Conservationists everywhere, including myself, want to make sure that the Act meets its full potential. Let’s wish our Ottawa representatives a good holiday break, so that in the new year they can get down to the important work of protecting our oceans, clean water, and fish habitat.
Tanis Gower has been working to restore aquatic ecosystems and advocate for good water policies for the last 20 years. She is a Registered Professional Biologist from the Comox Valley who works with Watershed Watch Salmon Society, local government, and others.