OTTAWA — The federal government will spend $284 million over the next five years to enforce new laws protecting habitat wherever fish are present, Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc says.
A number of amendments to the Fisheries Act were introduced in the House of Commons on Tuesday to expand the reach of a prohibition against anything that alters or impacts fish habitat to all waters where fish exist.
Changes to the act in 2012 meant the protections were enforced only for fish listed in provincial registries as being part of commercial, recreational or Indigenous fisheries.
Officials with Fisheries and Oceans Canada said in Ottawa the 2012 changes resulted in a lot of confusion about exactly what projects would require a federal government assessment, because it wasn't always clear which fish needed protecting and which didn't.
Under the new law, only major projects will go through a federal assessment with more minor ones, such as smaller things being done on individual farms or in small municipalities, being given guidelines to follow.
Martin Olszynski, a University of Calgary law professor who worked as a lawyer for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans between 2007 and 2013, said it makes sense to allocate the funds available to the biggest projects to be assessed, as long as the government requires all small projects to be tracked and registered so the cumulative effects within a specific ecosystem or watershed can be considered.
The new law does require the government to take cumulative effects into consideration when new projects are being considered.
Exactly which projects will require a federal assessment and ministerial permit to proceed and which will not will be spelled out in regulations which are in development now. Decisions made through assessments will be made public, something that is not required now.
Susanna Fuller, senior marine co-ordinator at the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax said this overhaul was badly needed and the act now provides a clear mandate for conservation of fisheries and fish habitat as well as protection from pollution. However, Fuller said important details have yet to be sorted out when it comes to rebuilding depleted fish stocks.
Conservative Environment Critic Ed Fast was not impressed that the changes the former government made in 2012 have been torn up.
"I expect it's going to make it harder to build everything from pipelines to much needed transportation infrastructure. This basically undoes all of the improvements and streamlining that our former Conservative government introduced. It's really a sad day."
The new act also gives the minister legislated authority to take emergency action to respond to unexpected events or threats to fish or marine mammals. LeBlanc said the change was inspired by the incidents in the Gulf of St. Lawrence last summer when a dozen endangered North Atlantic Right Whales were killed.
The government had regulatory authority to act before — and did put restrictions on the crab fishery to protect the whales — but he said enshrining the right in legislation allows for more rigorous and clear actions.
The act also will require the minister to take into account Indigenous knowledge and expertise when it is provided and all decisions must take into account the possible impacts on Indigenous rights. However that knowledge will be protected from being revealed publicly or even to a project's proponents without explicit permission from the Indigenous community or people who provided it.
The $284 million will be allocated to help implement and enforce the new law, largely designated to hire new fisheries officers, habitat protections officers and staff to create and monitor the registry to keep track of cumulative effects.
The legislation also will make it illegal to capture whales, dolphins and porpoises in Canadian waters for the purpose of keeping them in captivity. Officials say existing permits for such activities will be honoured, but in the future only animals captured because they are in distress, injured or in need of care can be held in captivity in Canada.
LeBlanc said Canadians "public acceptance of keeping these majestic creatures has changed" so the government is moving to phase it out. Marineland amusement park in Niagara Falls, Ont., is the only place left in Canada which still has cetaceans in captivity after the Vancouver Aquarium decided last year it would no longer keep them.
The amendments to the Fisheries Act are part of a package of government changes to the federal environmental assessment process and fulfills a mandate item issued to LeBlanc when he became the minister.
The bill will be followed later this week by another one that will overhaul the National Energy Board, as well as revise the Navigable Waters Protection Act. LeBlanc said when that bill is made public it will become clear how it and the new Fisheries Act will work together to protect the environment and prevent duplication of assessments.
— with files from Michael MacDonald in Halifax.
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