If the pen is truly mightier than the sword, a group of Simon Fraser University scientists are taking arms against the Conservative government.
PhD student Brett Favaro, marine ecology professor Isabelle Cote, and salmon research chair John Reynolds are speaking out against the Tories' moves to weaken protective measures for the environment and fish habitat.
The trio has collectively penned two letters recently published in international scientific journals, decrying the government's "alarming changes to environmental laws."
Favaro, who's working on his PhD in marine biology, took particular issue with the federal omnibus budget bill's changes to the Fisheries Act, weakening anti-pollution provisions and fish habitat protection. For Favaro, the government's justification for the changes, that the Fisheries Act was applied indiscriminately, doesn't correspond with the enforcement record.
"What we found, despite just under 1,300 (Fisheries Act violation) convictions in the past five years, there were only 21 convictions for destroying fish habitat," Favaro said.
According to Favaro, the numbers show the Fisheries Act habitat protection measures were not being applied in the first place, contrary to the government's claim they were being applied indiscriminately.
"Research has shown we're still losing fish habitat, so if anything, it's being under-enforced," Favaro said. "As a scientist, I can't imply what their motives are. - All I can really do is look at what they are saying and whether the data supports or refutes that. The data does not support their rationale."
The trio's latest letter published in Nature on July 12 comes on the heels of scientists protesting in Ottawa just two days earlier, something Favaro has never seen before. Hundreds of scientists descended on Parliament hill, holding a mock funeral, mourning the "death of evidence."
"It's definitely uncomfortable for a lot of us. A lot of us are firmly trying to stay in the science side on this. It's not a partisan issue for us," Favaro said. "There's a big difference between environmentalists and environmental scientists, and I think these protests are environmental scientists making a point about evidence."
Besides ignoring evidence, Favaro said the government is also making it harder to gather good evidence by cutting research funding.
"The message is very specific: We all believe you have to govern based on evidence. All these changes that have been occurring have been sidelining the evidence and making it harder to collect the evidence in the first place in terms of the funding cuts," he said.
The other branch is what people do know, he added.
"There's a lot of evidence (that) there's been unprecedented levels of control on what scientists have been allowed to say to the public and the media," he said.
For Favaro, no change is irreversible, (apart from species extinction), but there is a risk of losing expertise in Canada if funding is cut too much and people move abroad to find work.
"You do run the risk of a brain drain, and that's a lot harder to reverse," he said.
As for the low numbers of Fisheries violation convictions, Frank Stanek, a media relations manager with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, said that prosecution is generally used as a last resort except in serious cases.
"As such, the number of habitat-related convictions is not (an) accurate measure (of) compliance by project proponents.
"It does not take into account the numerous projects that Fisheries and Oceans Canada reviews each year and for which project proponents have to meet various requirements; nor does it take into account other compliance activities, such as mitigation measures implemented by proponents of projects and or the work of DFO habitat staff to communicate requirements for the protection of fish and their habitat," he wrote in an email to the NOW. "Changes to the Fisheries Act will focus the rules for fisheries protection to those projects that may impact the productivity of the commercial, recreational and aboriginal fishery. This practical, commonsense approach will provide for a broader, more flexible range of policy and regulatory approaches to manage threats to fisheries and better reflects the nature, scope and potential impact of different types projects."
The act now provides new enforcement tools to allow better compliance with conditions of ministerial authorizations and higher fines, Stanek added.
"This will lead to a new fisheries protection program that will be more focused and have a higher ratio of resources targeting monitoring and compliance," Stanek said. "Over the coming months, we will consult with a wide range of stakeholders - anglers, conservation groups, landowners, municipalities, commercial fishermen, resource industries and aboriginals."
To read the scientists' letters, go to Jennifer Moreau's blog at www. burnabynow.com.
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