Conservatives change law on protecting fish habitat

The federal Conservatives have gone ahead with a move scientists have feared: removing the term "habitat" from a key section of the Fisheries Act.

New Westminster MP and fisheries critic Fin Donnelly was not surprised.

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"They have done what we suspected. They are weakening the Fisheries Act substantially," Donnelly said. "I think this is going to have a huge impact on major projects in the country, certainly on the Enbridge pipeline, which crosses 800 to 1,000 streams."

The move was also no surprise to retired DFO biologist Otto Langer, who received leaked information in March that the Tories were secretly planning to remove habitat protection measures for fish. The proposed wording he received was almost identical to what appeared in Bill C-38.

"Basically, they've gutted the habitat section of the Fisheries Act, and it's going to be extremely difficult to protect fish habitat," Langer said. "If you don't protect the habitat, you don't have fish."

Langer said the government did not hold public consultations on the changes but buried them in the budget bill instead.

"It's not the way you change legislation, you don't sneak it on the end of another bill you need to pass to keep government functioning," Langer said. "This government is so arrogant."

In March, more than 625 scientists, including Canada's most senior ecologists and aquatic scientists, signed a letter urging Prime Minister Stephen Harper to back off from changing the Fisheries Act, and a society of Canadian biologists and ecologists also wrote the government, urging the Conservatives not to rewrite the laws.

The changes are outlined in Bill C-38, which was introduced in the House of Commons on April 26 and passed first reading, but with the Tories holding a majority, it is almost certain to become law. According to Bill C-38, the Jobs, Growth and Long-Term Prosperity Act, the Tories are proposing to change Section 35. 1 of the Fisheries Act, which states that no one can carry on work or undertaking that "results in the harmful alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat." The new wording reads: "No person shall carry on any work, undertaking or activity that results in serious harm to fish that are part of a commercial, recreational or Aboriginal fishery, or to fish that support such a fishery."

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