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West Coast reacts: Amended Fisheries Act meets the mark

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

VANCOUVER, BC, Coast Salish Territories – Six years after the habitat provisions of the federal Fisheries Act were gutted, West Coast Environmental Law Association is pleased to see full habitat protection finally restored for all fish across Canada.

In a bill tabled this morning, Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc introduced a number of key amendments to the Fisheries Act, including the restoration of important habitat safeguards, stronger enforcement measures and clearer provisions for authorizing projects or proposals that may damage habitat.

“We are very glad to see the return of HADD, the prohibition on altering, damaging or destroying fish habitat, and congratulate the government on repairing this hole in the torn legal safety net for Canadian fish,” said Staff Lawyer Linda Nowlan. “Whether it’s salmon, cod, lobster or crab, all fish need healthy waters free from excessive human influence. The amendments announced today show that the government is reaffirming the importance of not only protecting fish, but the habitat they rely on.”

Today's announcement that HADD is back is welcome news to conservation and fishing groups, as well as former federal Fisheries Ministers, numerous First Nations, hundreds of scientists and thousands of citizens across Canada who protested the removal of this key provision in 2012.

The definition of “fish habitat” is slightly improved by referring to the water fish need for survival. However, the proposed amendments do not include explicit legal protection for “environmental flows,” the amount and type of water needed for aquatic ecosystems to flourish.

“The government's pledge to more strictly scrutinize areas of habitat that are particularly ecologically sensitive and not allow activities that could affect them is also a positive step. The government could take this protection even further and pass regulations for 'no-go' areas,” Nowlan said.

In addition to commitments to “restore lost protections,” the federal government has made good on its promise to modernize the Act. New “fisheries management orders” will expand the regulatory toolbox and broaden the government’s ability to limit harmful fishing practices. New long-term area-based fisheries closures will better protect marine biodiversity and protect vulnerable stocks of fish. New whale protection provisions are another laudable addition.

The proposed new public registry, which will provide public access to a wide range of government decisions, will improve transparency and help stop the 'death by a thousand cuts' for fish habitat in a rapidly urbanizing world. This key modernization will allow scientists, citizen scientists and concerned community members to better track cumulative impacts on fish habitat.  A review of the Act every five years is another much needed transparency mechanism. 

Indigenous peoples and Indigenous governing bodies are now defined by the Act. And the Minister’s power to enter into agreements with those bodies is increased. A new section addresses the use of traditional Indigenous knowledge. There’s a new legal requirement to consider the adverse effects of decisions on fisheries and fish habitat on the rights of Indigenous peoples.

West Coast notes that increased inspection and enforcement for fisheries offences must occur, particularly given the dramatic drop in enforcement following the 2012 amendments. Under the current Fisheries Act, there were zero prosecutions for fish habitat damage between 2012 and 2016.

The proposed updated Act does well in meeting many of the government’s commitments, and responding to the extensive public consultations.

“Twenty-five years after the Atlantic cod collapse, at a time when more and more salmon populations are being proposed as species at risk, Canada's fisheries law sorely needed an overhaul – and this government has acted,” said Nowlan.

“We’ll be watching closely in the coming weeks and months, and look forward to engaging in the process to pass the bill into law,” Nowlan added. “Fish will breathe easier today knowing their homes will soon be better protected when the law is passed.”

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For more information, please contact:

Linda Nowlan | Staff Lawyer
604-684-7378 ext. 217 (office), 778-875-5333 (cell)
lnowlan@wcel.org