Fishy Business- Budget bill rolls back protection for fish

The budget bill introduced in the House of Commons today is a blow against Canadian democracy.  Strangely, the bill devotes a lot of space to fish and pipelines, rather than deficit reduction as you’d expect. Buried in this lengthy tome are sweeping reforms to the way we now protect Canada’s irreplaceable natural capital-  our fish, forests, seas, and wildlife. At 431 pages in length, it’s not easy to read. But a few things jump out.

Thousands of Sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka) returning to spawn in the lower Adams River, BC © Andrew S. Wright  / WWF-Canada

The new law limits the rights of Canadians to speak up for nature and sustainable local economies. Ask a British Columbia family if they are directly affected by oil tankers plying the BC coast, and chances are you’ll get a resounding Yes. But the new law says that only the views of those with a direct economic stake should be allowed to participate in reviews like the Joint Review Panel currently underway for the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline and oil tanker project. In Alberta where this phrase is used to decide who can speak up on energy projects, private landowners and corporations with a property interest qualify. People with recreational or wilderness conservation interests are often cut out. Telling the record-setting numbers of Canadians who want to voice their opinion on saving the Great Bear Sea – one of the richest ecosystems on Earth – that they may not be allowed to speak is anti-democratic.  It could also drive concerned citizens away from the democratic process, to instead take to the courts or to the streets to get their voices heard. This is hardly the way to increase certainty for business.
The bill grants scary new powers to regulators to shut down hearings and terminate environmental assessments.
Changes to the National Energy Board Act will allow regulators to impose new statutory time limits on reviews. And if it seems like the time limit may not be met, the law allows some unprecedented actions.  Extremely wide new powers would allow the Chairperson of the National Energy Board to speed the process up – or even to shut it down. In fact the law says that if the Chairperson thinks the time limit won’t be met, he or she can remove other Panel members or simply “take any measure that the Chairperson considers appropriate to ensure the time limit is met”.  Any measure?  Simply put, if the NEB Chair does not like the way a particular hearing is going, he or she would have full power to kill the review process entirely. So much for consultation.
Bill C38 allows politicians to decide if some fish, and some rivers and streams, just aren’t worth protecting.
Fish and fish habitat will be big losers, an unlikely consequence of a budget bill.  Submerged in the bill’s reams of pages are the federal government’s plans to radically rewrite the Fisheries Act. If the bill becomes law, the only government in Canada with the constitutional mandate to protect fish can cut back on its duties: it will now only oversee waters supporting major fisheries of commercial, recreational or aboriginal value.
What will this change mean?
Look again at the proposed Enbridge pipeline, which crosses 996 streams and rivers in northern Alberta and BC, waterways that are home to 41 fish species , six of serious conservation concern : the Arctic grayling, bull trout, Dolly Varden, coastal cutthroat trout, white sturgeon and pearl dace.  They’re also home to BC’s famous steelhead,, and all five species of salmon.
It’s possible that, since many of these waters and these fish are in remote areas and are not part of a fishery, the new Fisheries Act could exempt the pipeline construction and operation impacts from scrutiny by DFO. Or regulations could be passed so that these waters are formally exempted from the Fisheries Act to allow construction of the pipeline to go ahead with minimal delay, and without any requirement to protect habitat values.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Rio Earth Summit, at which another Canadian Conservative Prime Minister enthusiastically embraced global agreements to conserve nature and expand public participation rights in environmental decision-making. For much of those 20 years, Canada has been seen as a leader in truly sustainable development that treats a healthy environment as an essential base for a healthy society and economy. It’s disturbing to see how we’re marking this anniversary – by going backwards.