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Scientists, ex-ministers slam federal changes to Fisheries Act

May 29. 12

 

The federal government is sabotaging its own legislated requirement to protect endangered freshwater fish by weakening the Fisheries Act, four former federal fisheries ministers from B.C. and Canadian scientists say in separate letters to the Harper government.

The four former ministers - Conservatives Tom Siddon and John Fraser and Liberals David Anderson and Herb Dhaliwal - wrote in their letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper that they are concerned about the erosion of Ottawa's statutory responsibility to protect fish habitat.

"Migratory salmon and steelhead are icons of our home province," the former ministers from B.C. stated. "Our experience persuades us that their continued survival would be endangered without adequate federal regulation and enforcement, particularly in the area of habitat protection."

Proposed changes to the Fisheries Act in Bill C-38 "will inevitably reduce and weaken the habitat protection provisions," and the Conservative government has provided "no plausible, let alone a convincing, rationale for proceeding with the unusual process that has been adopted," they said.

The former ministers said the proposed changes amount to "using a sledgehammer to swat a fly" and reminded the Harper government that the fisheries are essential to coastal com-munities, especially those with many first nations people.

Their broadside against the Harper government came as the 1,000-member Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution (CSEE) warned Ottawa in a different letter - to be sent today - that the proposed revisions mean the majority of freshwater fish and up to 80 per cent of the 71 freshwater species at risk of extinction would lose protection.

That letter is signed by Dalhousie University professor Jeffrey Hutchings, a current member and former chairman of the federal government's main independent advisory body on species at risk, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). The letter also denounces the closure of a world-renowned experimental lakes area (ELA) in northwest-ern Ontario, a research facility and area that includes 58 small lakes and their watersheds.

The decision was described in the latest edition of the British magazine Nature as the equivalent of the U.S. shuttering the Los Alamos nuclear physics site.

University of Alberta fresh-water researcher David Schindler, who founded ELA in the late 1960s and ran it until 1989, said in an interview that research at the site has led to the removal of phosphorus from detergents and sewage. Work at the site was also critical in the development of tough acid rain rules.

"The financial implications of this alone are worth billions of dollars."

CSEE member Nick Dulvy, a Simon Fraser University professor who formerly worked as a fisheries scientist in the British government, said the moves add to his growing alarm about the Harper government's "misuse" of science.

"In my time working in the U.K. government, I never saw any sign that any of the behaviour, practice or actions of the Canadian government would be even remotely tolerated," Dulvy - who was recruited by SFU to be Canada Research Chair in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation - said in an email interview.

The proposed changes to the Fisheries Act are in Bill C-38, the omnibus budget implementation bill now being studied by two House of Commons committees. The legislation would eliminate one of the most powerful environmental components of federal law - the ban on any activity that results in "harmful" alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat.

It is being replaced by a prohibition against activity that results in "serious harm" to fish that are part of a commercial, recreational or aboriginal fishery, or any fish that supports one of those three fisheries.

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

"This revision will remove habitat protection for most of Canada's freshwater fish," Hutchings wrote on behalf of the 1,000 scientists.

 

By Doug Ward and Peter O'Neil And Larry Pynn -- Vancouver Sun

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