News Room

Part 3: Stakeholders wary of slippery slope that comes with changes to Fisheries Act

Jun 07. 12

Larri Woodrow stands outside his former property in Walnut Grove area of Langley, which he sold in 2011 for townhouse development. The avid fisherman and hunter said the fisheries setback requirements eroded the value of his property, and that the Fisheries Act should be more flexible for special cases. He now fears Bill C-38 is going too far in gutting the Fisheries Act. n with Larry Pynn’s story, “fish concerns” as part of series on Bill C-38.

Larri Woodrow stands outside his former property in Walnut Grove area of Langley, which he sold in 2011 for townhouse development. The avid fisherman and hunter said the fisheries setback requirements eroded the value of his property, and that the Fisheries Act should be more flexible for special cases. He now fears Bill C-38 is going too far in gutting the Fisheries Act. n with Larry Pynn’s story, “fish concerns” as part of series on Bill C-38.
Photograph by: Kathy Woodrow , Vancouver Sun

A seasonal stream flowed through Larri Woodrow's one hectare hobby farm in the north Langley neighbourhood of Walnut Grove.

Although the property, purchased in 1970, was outside the agricultural land reserve, Woodrow personally favoured the area remaining rural. But that's not what happened.

Over time he found himself surrounded by townhouses and compact single-family homes. Woodrow accepted his fate and decided to sell his property for development, too. At least that was the idea.

Salmon never reached his property and the stream dried up in summer. But, as a tributary of coho-bearing Yorkson Creek, a 15-metre setback applied under the Streamside Protection Regulation of 2001. The provincial legislation was meant to complement the federal Fisheries Act - the subject of controversial changes pending under Bill C-38.

Combined with a BC Hydro easement, that left just .37 hectares on Woodrow's property that could be developed.

He tried to be creative, hiring a consultant to propose relocating the tributary and building new habitat in the hydro easement, thereby allowing for more developable property to attract a buyer.

Government officials rejected the idea.

In 2011, local developer Lanstone Homes finally bought the property and built 13 townhouses - marketed as Woodrow Lane, a relatively modest project for that area.

Woodrow has since bought a 1991-built single-family home in Walnut Grove.

"When people think of landowners' property going to development, they think of windfall profit," he said.

"We couldn't get enough money to buy another similar hobby farm anywhere in this area."

Woodrow understands the need for rules and regulations, but wishes there could have been a way to appeal his case and reach a compromise.

Unlike some property owners who quietly cut down trees and fill in wetlands to enhance their chances of development, he said he planted firs and cedars to enhance his property's streamside habitat.

"There has to be some means of fairness applied to these regulations," he said.

Despite his experience, Woodrow remains a strong believer in fish habitat protection and is concerned that the federal government is watering down protection under the Fisheries Act.

"It's sad," said the hunter and fisherman, a regional representative to the B.C. Wildlife Federation.

"We need protection for the fish, we have to have habitat, and we're losing it every which way."

Threats from agriculture

Section 35 of the Fisheries Act makes it an offence to harmfully alter, disrupt or destroy fish habitat.

That sort of sweeping protection would be eliminated under Bill C-38, the Conservatives' Budget Implementation Bill, which has received second reading in the House of Commons. A vote on the bill is expected in June.

Ottawa instead plans to prohibit "serious harm to fish that are part of a commercial, recreational or aboriginal fishery or fish that support such a fishery."

Serious harm is defined as the death of fish or any permanent alteration to, or destruction of, fish habitat.

The government's plans have people asking: how much habitat protection is enough, should there be greater flexibility in applying protection, and who should bear the costs?

Mike Makara is a third-generation Abbotsford blueberry farmer and chair of the B.C. Blueberry Council, who says farmers are supportive of saving fish provided it doesn't affect their bottom line.

"If they want to stop farmers from fully using their land just because of the Salish sucker ... if they lose productivity, that's taking money out of their pockets," he said.

"They're not against any of these aquatic species being saved, they don't want to pay for it. They think the rest of the world or society should pay for it."

Makara said farmers want the Fisheries Act to provide for a graduated hazard level for different types of habitat.

On the flip side, agriculture has proven to be a major threat to fish around the world, through run-off of pollutants, removal of water for irrigation and damage to shoreline habitat.

"There are many kilometres of streams in the Fraser Valley that are dead in late summer due to lack of oxygen," confirmed consulting biologist Mike Pearson of Pearson Ecological in Agassiz. "In most cases, I attribute that directly to bad farming practices - too much nutrients going on the land and not a stitch of shade over the creeks."

He said that compared with, say, urban development and forestry, farming has relatively few restrictions pertaining to protection of fish habitat.

Farm setback rules vary, but apply only to new buildings; structures that existed as of February 2011 are exempt.

Facilities considered at high risk of causing pollution, including larger confined livestock areas and solid waste storage areas with greater than two weeks' storage, are required to keep 30 metres from any watercourse, reduced to 15 metres for activities such as engineered manure pits, compost and wood waste.

For structures such as barns, livestock and poultry shelters, hatcheries and milking facilities, the setback is 15 metres from natural streams and channels and five metres from constructed channels and ditches.

There are no setbacks for crops, raising the risk of manure, fertilizers and pesticides entering waterways.

"I have pictures of manure running into creeks," Pearson said. "I've seen pesticides sprayed over them."


In 2006 - the same year Stephen Harper was sworn in as prime minister - several of B.C.'s major business and industrial organizations released a joint position paper on the Fisheries Act.

It recommended, in part, that Section 35 provide for: greater opportunities for certain projects to proceed despite harming habitat, reduced application of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and greater delegation of decision-making to the provinces.

The paper was endorsed by the B.C. Business Council, B.C. Chamber of Commerce, Association for Mineral Exploration B.C., Council of Forest Industries, Mining Association of B.C., and B.C. Agriculture Council.

"If fish are in danger, they should be looked after," commented John Winter, president of the B.C. Chamber of Commerce. "But the reality is, there must be a balance struck between protecting habitat and wildlife of all kinds and economic growth and development."

At the municipal level, the Union of B.C. Municipalities says it seeks a balanced "efficient and effective" Fisheries Act.

In 1998, the UBCM asked Ottawa to ensure that municipal and agricultural drainage and flood control maintenance not constitute harmful alteration of fish habitat. In 1994, it asked that local governments and their employees not be prosecuted for "accidentally damaging fish habitat" provided remedial work is undertaken.


Although he has not consulted member municipalities for a formal response to Bill C-38, UBCM president Heath Slee says there are concerns that the Conservative government is going too far in limiting federal protection of fish habitat.

"That is quite unfortunate," said the director of the Regional District of East Kootenay. "We need to be very cognizant of all aspects of our fisheries and habitat and need to ensure they are protected. Our membership is strongly supportive of protection for aquatic habitat and fish in general."

He added that municipalities and regional districts do not have the resources to pick up any slack in fish habitat protection and enforcement.

"We're always concerned about government downloads and taking on more responsibilities than we have the ability to cope with. Dollars are spread thin and we don't have the staff resources."

Concerns are even more acute in Metro Vancouver, an urban region that has already lost most of its fish-bearing streams.

The metro regional board in April unanimously endorsed a resolution "strongly opposing changes to the Canada Fisheries Act which would weaken fish habitat protection."

As chair of Metro Vancouver's environment and parks committee, Vancouver Coun. Heather Deal noted that the federal changes would also allow for exemptions, nullifying what limited protection is still afforded fish habitat. "It is deeply concerning," said Deal, a biologist.


How the Harper government became an unabashed adversary of the environmental movement

TUESDAY: The politics behind the Harper government's dramatic shift from its brief "green crusader" phase in early 2007 to its role today - at odds with environmentalists.

WEDNESDAY: Changes to federal fish habitat regulations are being decried by environmentalists as a blow to conservation.

TODAY: Why farmers and municipal administrators believe existing federal environmental regulations unduly impede development.

FRIDAY: Charities feel they are under attack by the federal government, but say they will not be silenced.

By Larry Pynn -- Vancouver Sun

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