Gutting the Fisheries Act

by: Gus Van Harten

Among the Harper government’s latest environmental reforms – packed like sardines into the budget – Canada’s Fisheries Act will soon protect fish habitat only in designated waterways.

So long minister, and thanks for all the dead fish.

How did the federal budget come to this?

It used to be that fish habitat was protected in all the places where fish live. How innocently logical this was. The government has a new message for the fish: stay in your ponds or else.

It’s a matter of fish discrimination.

You might ask, aren’t all waterways vital for the fish that live there? Isn’t it hard for a fish to know if a pond is vital or merely a luxury?

Evidently not. Deep in Bill C-38 lies a brave new approach to fish habitat protection. Instead of barring destruction of ‘fish habitat’, the Fisheries Act will now protect only those fish that are part of “a commercial, recreational or aboriginal fishery”. Thus, the government will identify vital lakes and rivers, where fish may live subject to environmental protection, and then tweet instructions to the fish.

This is a terrific vote of confidence in the government, especially in our Conservative leaders. I can see them now. Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield dressed as a grizzly to scare the salmon from their usual spawning grounds. The prime minister’s chief of staff blaring into a megaphone, “Get back in the lake, or fish heads will roll!” Any fish that disobeys will be bulldozed or poisoned. Vital fish, take heed.

Behold the economist’s logic of deficit cum fish-habitat reduction: “Out of the pond Flipper.”

As Ashfield explained: “It makes good, common sense that the government should be able to minimize or eliminate restrictions on commonplace activities that pose little to no threat and, at the same time, maintain appropriate, reasonable, and responsible protection for Canada’s fisheries.”

Thankfully, this gibberish makes good sense to fish. If only Brian Tobin and other Liberals spoke fish, they could have told the cod to stay on Canada’s vital side of the line in the ocean, safe from Spanish trawlers.

Note to the Harper government: fish are smart, but not that smart. Like ministers, they have instincts that are hard to control. Unlike ministers, fish have a weird, not to say miraculous, ability to return to their natural spawning grounds after years of mysterious but glorious migrations.

Even if the fish could hear you, minister, they are stubborn. They are set in their waterways and not inclined to take orders from politicians. Give them freedom or give them death.

Also in the budget, besides amending the Fisheries Act in this way, the government guts the Environmental Assessment Act, revises the Species at Risk Act, repeals the Kyoto Implementation Act, and dumps the National Round Table on Environment and Economy. A film critic would say: too many plots.

The budget is, in fact, a disguised and brutal assault on Canadian environmental law. It is the mark of a regime that thinks it can make the fish swim on time. It is a budget in which nature is subjected to a finance minister’s eye for efficiency. Cut non-vital lakes, trim rivers, re-direct fish, let the provinces do the rest (or not; whatever).

Next year the government might want to pack all its legislation into the budget and shutter Parliament for the summer, fall, and winter. To cut costs, a single minister (of finance) could run the country.

If Ashfield really has learned fish-speak, perhaps he could try having a word with those pesky F-35s? Otherwise, he should stay in the piranha pool and leave the fish to their lakes and rivers. The rest of us appreciate fish habitat, too.

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Gus Van Harten is a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School. He studied Canadian environmental law in the days when it meant something.

Source: Julia Ko, Policy and Program Coordinator, Water Matters Society of Alberta

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A footnote added by a concerned Canadian who was born and raised in British Columbia, where from day one, fish and fishing co-existed in a simple, uncomplicated relationship where all parties involved took care of each other AND the environment…

It should be noted that, given the present approach of this government and offshore interests, we may not have to worry about the fish – particularly WILD fish of all manner of species and bodies of water, fresh or salt – IF the environment upon which these fish depend on to thrive and procreate is damaged beyond the point of no return that fish cannot and will not survive. It should also be noted that the reference to ‘environment’ is not exclusive to Mother Nature… another environment that ties into this case – consider it a ‘backgrounder’ – is that environment in which politicians and industrialists collude to make a buck at the expense of all that is WILD and CHERISHED in British Columbia.

Richard Mayer

The LOONS Flyfishing Club

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