Though last week’s Cohen Commission report placed the responsibility for wild salmon squarely where it should be: on the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, it also emphasized the vital role of the province.
Among the 75 recommendations aimed primarily at the federal government, Mr. Justice Cohen encouraged DFO to talk to the province about two key provincial legal tools on habitat.
Sockeye salmon, also known as red salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka), line up behind one another as they swim through shallow water in the Adams River, British Columbia, Canada. © Paul Nicklen/National Geographic Stock / WWF-Canada
No habitat, no fish.
First, the Commission asked DFO to encourage the Province to complete modernization of the BC Water Act. The issues most in need of reform, according to Cohen, are regulation of groundwater extraction in a manner that addresses the needs of Fraser River sockeye; increased reporting and monitoring of water use; and allocation of sufficient resources to complete the modernization process.
This is a top priority of WWF, too. Our briefs to the Minister emphasize the urgent need for a new Water Act. We’ve been part of the province’s Technical Advisory Group for Water Act Modernization for the past two years.
It’s time for BC to end the dubious distinction of being the last place in North America without groundwater permitting. Groundwater regulation is sorely needed for sockeye and other fish.
A new Act should also ensure that when a regulator grants a new licence for water use, enough water is left in the system to protect environmental flows. We’ve been researching and writing on best practices on e-flows for several years, including publishing a comprehensive legal journal article, and holding a joint WWF- BC government workshop last fall.
Second, BC needs to step up its riparian protection. (Riparian comes from the Latin word, ripa, the banks of a river.) As Cohen said: “It is not possible to maintain a healthy fish-bearing stream without a healthy riparian zone.” He noted that compliance with BC’s Riparian Area Regulation is low, and that “DFO has no proactive input into the development process, even though it is responsible for the protection of fish habitat and has extensive experience in this issue.” Recommendations 43-46 of the Commission report concern this topic.
We’re working on this priority too. Over the past year we’ve advocated for better riparian protection through our participation in recovery plans for endangered freshwater fish like the Salish Sucker and eulachon, and we’re developing on the ground riparian protection projects in the lower Fraser River region. We’re taking another look at the proposed new BC Water Sustainability Act to see if it can fill some of the gaps left by the diminished federal role in fish habitat protection.
We applaud the report, and will keep working with the province to pass a new BC Water Act. Stay tuned for our new video featuring WWF’s Freshwater Ambassador Scott Niedemayer.
WWF is also one of many groups working to keep strong habitat protection in the federal Fisheries Act since recent changes to the Act will likely impede sockeye protection, as Cohen pointed out: “I find it difficult to avoid the conclusion that the legislative amendments in Bill C-38 lower the standard of protection for Fraser River sockeye salmon.”
Next up in this blog series: warming waters, the elephant in the room we can’t ignore. ( Mr. Justice Cohen’s words).