The federal government plans to change the Fisheries Act to strengthen protection for fish and fish habitat.
On Feb. 6, Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc announced a list of amendments to the Fisheries Act, as well as promising more than $284 million to bolster the ministry to enforce the new policies.
“We believe the Fisheries Act should ensure the protection of all fish habitat, something the previous government had removed from legislation,” LeBlanc said in a press conference on Tuesday.
In 2012, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government had altered the Fisheries Act. The new changes are meant to address urgent threats to species and the ecosystem. Under the current act, only fish and fish habitat related to commercial, recreational and Aboriginal fisheries are being protected. The amendments will add protections for all fish and cetaceans.
It will become illegal to capture whales, dolphins and porpoises from Canadian waters for captivity. Animals can only be captured if they are in distress, injured or need care.
Skeena-Bulkley Valley MP Nathan Cullen said he’s happy to see positive changes included in the amendments. However, with such a large bill, he said the devil will be in the details.
The government will strengthen the role of Indigenous people when projects are reviewed. Traditional Indigenous knowledge must also be considered when policy decisions are made.
“The Metlakatla First Nation, through the Metlakatla Stewardship Society and the First Nations Fisheries Council, provided input in the review of the Fisheries Act to the federal government. We are confident our recommendations had some impact on the revised act,” Shaun Thomas, communications manager for the Metlakatla First Nation, said in an email.
On the reconciliation ammendments, Cullen said: “I personally fought for the joint-decision making around fisheries, whether it was with Bella Bella or the Haida or other groups. I think this is a model that could work.”
But he said this will be the hardest test for the new bill.
“[It] gets more complicated when you get it to large systems with many nations at the table on the Skeena and the Fraser,” Cullen said on Feb. 8. “That’ll be the hardest test. How do you jointly manage a fishery when you have 15, 20 different First Nations?”
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Proposed amendments were tabled in the House of Commons on Tuesday. The changes will also affect the approval of projects. Information will also be released publicly on project decisions through an online registry.
“I think they did a good job of revising the act and restoring a lot of the protections,” said Greg Knox from SkeenaWild Conservation Trust.
“They also added some new pieces, one of them is to more carefully assess and protect areas that are particularly ecologically sensitive and to not allow activities that could affect these critical habitats.”
Critical habitats, he hopes, will include critical spawning and rearing habitats for salmon and areas of high productivity, such as Babine Lake or Flora Bank.
The government plans to add more enforcement and monitoring, meaning more fisheries officers will be hired.
Offences will be addressed and dealt with out of court through other means to reduce repeat offenders and costs.
Protecting independent fishers
The overhaul of the Fisheries Act includes support for independent fishers by enshrining inshore fishing policies into regulations. The changes would “ensure that only the licence holder personally fishes using that licence,” DFO states on its website. Currently, the owner-operator policy applies to Atlantic Canada and Quebec.
Also, certain types of corporations would be prohibited from holding licenses in the inshore sector through the Fleet Separation Policy.
“I’m very curious to see whether they’ll enforce this provision,” Cullen said. “It only makes sense and I think it does a better job of protecting our fisheries if we have this as a rule, because the people with the most to gain are also the ones with the most to lose. The idea of conservation and local benefit, local jobs, all of those things get a lot stronger when we have an owner-operator rule.”
Another test the new ammendment to the Fisheries Act will have to pass, Cullen added, is how well they work with new environmental assessment laws that were introduced on Thursday, Feb. 8.
“You’ll see in that act that pipelines are not considered a trigger for navigable waters protection. The government says they want to protect fisheries on one day, and then the next day come out with a new bill that says pipelines across navigable waters will not be a concern for this government. They give and then take away. You don’t know in the end whether you’re further ahead or not,” Cullen said.