Leaked info alleges Tories removing habitat protection from Fisheries Act

New Westminster MP Fin Donnelly is raising questions in Ottawa about leaked information that alleges the Conservatives are proposing to remove habitat protection measures from the Fisheries Act.

Donnelly asked Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield about the proposed change on Tuesday.

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"Essentially, his response was, 'No decision has been made,'" Donnelly said. "They are obviously keeping this secret. ... This is huge. This is one of the biggest things that I've seen. ... Now they are removing a key element of the Fisheries Act that protects the fishery and the marine ecosystem. They are doing it without consultation and without consulting their own departments involved. As far as I know, many of the departmental scientists and bureaucrats are unaware of this."

Donnelly, the NDP fisheries critic, was acting on information from Otto Langer, a retired biologist who used to work for

Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Langer said he received leaked information that the Conservatives are proposing to remove the term "habitat" from the Fisheries Act.

Section 35(1) of the act currently states that no one can carry on work or undertaking that "results in the harmful alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat."

According to Langer, the change would read: "no person shall carry on any work, undertaking or activity other than fishing, that results in an adverse effect on a fish of economic, cultural or ecological value."

"The government is totally rewriting the habitat protection provisions of Section 35(1) so as to remove habitat protection out of the Fisheries Act," Langer said in a media statement. "This is a serious situation and will put Canada back to where we were in the pre-1976 period, where Canada had no laws to protect fish habitat and no way to monitor the great industrial expansion that occurred in Canada with the consequential loss of major fish habitat all across Canada."

Frank Williams, vice-president of Burnaby's Byrne Creek Streamkeepers said the proposed changes could have local and broader implications.

"As I read it, essentially it would take the federal government out of the business of protecting the habitat. You could argue they still have to protect the fish, but not the area the fish live in," he said.

Williams also said there's some feeling that these changes may be tied in with pipeline expansions because they cross a lot of watersheds. Locally, it may make streamkeeping work more difficult.

"In Byrne Creek, we have spills on an almost regular basis," he said, adding it's already difficult to get government to enforce existing protection measures.

Fish habitat includes lakes, rivers, oceans and their water flows. According to Langer, it will be difficult to protect habitat if the term is removed from the act.

"What is a fish of economic, cultural and ecological value?" he asked. "If it has no economic value, can it be needlessly destroyed?"

Langer worked for the federal fisheries department and Environment Canada for 32 years in habitat and water quality protection. He has also qualified as an expert witness in more than 100 pollution and habitat destruction cases in Canada.

When asked to verify and explain the proposed changes, a spokesperson from Minister Ashfield's office reiterated that "no decision has been taken."

"Federal fisheries policies designed to protect fish are outdated and unfocused in terms of balancing environmental and economic realities," she wrote, in an emailed response to the Burnaby NOW.

"As the minister indicated in the House today, 'Canada is blessed with an abundant array of natural resources of which we should be proud and which we take seriously in our responsibility to conserve and protect.'"

Langer is alleging that the Tories will try to include these Fisheries Act changes in the omnibus budget bill. Minister Ashfield's office did not respond to the NOW's question about when and where the proposed changes would be discussed in Parliament.

To read biologist Otto Langer's full, three-page letter, go to Jennifer Moreau's blog.

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