Farm groups and municipalities complain current federal protection of fish and their habitat is often “over the top” and hinders even simple ditch and culvert maintenance
Ottawa says new legislation will mean less meddling in Prairie affairs by fisheries officials.
While the announcement was welcomed by municipalities and farmers fed up with red tape for simple drainage and other waterway projects, environmental groups say the proposals declare open season on all non-commercial fish habitat.
The Conservative government wants to take “a more sensible and practical approach to protecting Canada’s fisheries,” said Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield. The new legislation will draw a distinction between “vital waterways that support fisheries” and “unproductive bodies of water like man-made reservoirs, drainage ditches and irrigation channels,” he said.
This means Department of Fishery and Oceans oversight won’t be required if work is being done on a waterway not connected to an established “commercial, recreational or Aboriginal fishery,” even if fish or their habitat are at risk.
Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz called it “a common-sense approach,” but an aquatic habitat specialist with the David Suzuki Foundation said the move will end protection for the majority of fish habitat in Canada.
“It’s taking away the environmental provisions and protections that we have to preserve and protect fish and fish habitat in Canada and limiting it in scope to only those areas where people actually fish, which is the southern part of the country for the most part,” said John Werring.
Many small creeks and drainage channels support fish, and fisheries officials frequently require steps be taken to protect them. For example, if a culvert is being placed in a stream where fish spawn, an alternative might be to use a curved culvert, locate it elsewhere or even build a bridge. When a drain is to be cleaned, the work could be delayed until after fish spawning is complete. New drains built to reduce erosion also come under scrutiny, as they can hurt water quality and downstream fish habitat.
But Ritz said federal efforts to protect fish habitat sometimes border on the bizarre. He charged that fisheries officials attempted to shut down the Craven Country Jamboree, Saskatchewan’s biggest music event, last June by declaring a flooded stubble field used for camping as fish habitat.
However, CBC reported at the time that flood waters, penned by dikes around the area, trapped a large number of fish in the field. Some wildlife advocates said thousands of walleye, northern pike and other species were in the field, and a CBC report said federal officials intervened because pumps used by event organizers could have destroyed the fish. Event organizers found another campsite and the event was held.
The government claims incidents like Craven along with inconveniences to farmers and municipalities are behind the policy, but that’s a red herring, according to Werring. The real motivation is to make things easier for big industrial development such as pipelines, mining and forestry, he charged.
“The farmer is only a small part of that and really not the reason or the rationale for changing the act,” he said.
But Keystone Agricultural Producers president Doug Chorney welcomed the changes.
“It sounds like they’re trying to bring some common sense to the regulations,” he said. “We had a lot of members complain to us in the past that they felt the application of regulations for the work being done was a little over the top, so to speak.”
The Canadian Federation of Agriculture also supports the changes. Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship Minister Gord Mackintosh said Ottawa’s “overreaching approach” has produced overregulation and needless delays. However, fish or fish habitat can’t be put at risk by the move, he said.
Municipalities have no problem with protecting fish, said Doug Dobrowolski, president of the Association of Manitoba Municipalities.
“But when you’re in the middle of prairie Manitoba or Saskatchewan and nowhere near a lake, let’s be realistic,” he said.