06/07/2012 02:59 EDT | Updated 08/07/2012 05:12 EDT

Canada's Enviro Policy is Sleeping With the Fishes

The government is actively gutting both the Fisheries Act and environmental protection legislation. One has to wonder what is happening to our democratic governments. Are they working for us, or for the anti-environmental corporations? The question is rhetorical, of course. We already know the answer.

This is an East Coast fish story. It started with a tour of the newly rebuilt biological station in tiny little St. Andrews, NB. We, by that I mean the people of Canada, have invested $71 million in the station and the results are pretty impressive. But there's a dark downside: while we've got a new facility, we're losing key people -- and a hundred-year-old science legacy.

My tour ended with the actual ending: in the new library. It's a wonderfully spacious room, long and climate controlled, filled with natural light from skylights high above, and banks of rolling bookcases, each at a cost of $15,000 or so, and filled with a collection of science books and research that dates back to the origins of the station (the first of it's kind in Canada, founded at the turn of the last century). As I said, impressive.

There, we were told that the two full-time librarian positions were being terminated, as is a project to digitize the entire library, and the 100-year-old collection is to be packed off to a central library at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Dartmouth, NS. The boxing and shipping alone seemed to be a massive job, not to mention that a great deal of the material is archivally-sensitive and in many cases rare. Some documents are original documents and irreplaceable.

This is also a loss for the students at the Huntsman Marine Science Centre located next to the biological station, and for nearby UNB and New England researchers and students who regularly use this unique library--and visit the attached archive of North Atlantic marine specimens, the world's largest collection, which will not be moving.

Great Canadian ocean science pioneers -- men you probably haven't heard about -- such as A.G. Huntsman, Alfred Needler and Bev Scott (now in his 90s) would be horrified. While I can't speak for Huntsman and Needler, Scott was recently quoted on the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) website.

"Overfishing is a problem created by governments," Scott declared, and advised the federal government to limit access to fish stocks to "reduce pressure on fisheries to produce more protein." And on climate change he went on to say, "By the next century, the sea will be two feet or more higher than it is now... New Orleans shows what can happen... Most intriguing is why so many people seem to be ignoring it -- especially politicians."

But the current federal government is doing the exactly that. And more. Not only is it ignoring the situation, critics say that under the new omnibus finance bill, C-38, the government is actively gutting both the Fisheries Act and environmental protection legislation.

Lawrence Macauley, Fisheries and Oceans critic for the Liberal Party writes,

"changes to the federal Fisheries Act include: severely weakening federal protection of fish habitat; downloading federal responsibilities to the provinces or third parties; allowing the deposit of deleterious substances authorized by the minister; allowing fish to be killed by means other than fishing when authorized by the minister; allowing the minister to decide which fish will be protected and which will not; giving cabinet the power to exempt any Canadian fisheries waters from the environmental provisions of the Fisheries Act; and allowing the minister to take fish quota and equipment away from fishers and use it to fund scientific activities, all while the minister guts the Department of Fisheries and Oceans' (DFO) science and habitat management by millions of dollars."

Add this to the actions of the provinces, like B.C.'s current (and disturbingly perverse) legislation to make it a crime for journalists and scientists to report diseases in farmed fish populations -- ostensibly to protect the aquaculture industry from public criticism, and one has to wonder what is happening to our democratic governments. Are they working for us, or for the anti-environmental corporations? The question is rhetorical, of course. We already know the answer.

But back to the St. Andrews Biological Station -- what do these changes mean for the scientists there, or for us? In a word: confusion. For example, a lot of the new infrastructure was designed to support aquaculture research. But the government has recently shifted its focus from developing new fish farming techniques to climate change (not that studying climate change is a bad thing). So the new equipment has to be repurposed, just weeks after the new facility opened its doors.

In light of the developments in St. Andrews, it's apparent that Canada has no coherent, long-term ocean science and environmental strategy beyond rejiggering it and cutting it back. This becomes painfully obvious on the business front, too. Plans are in the works to move some 60 DFO finance jobs to New Brunswick, but not to the St. Andrews site. Word has it that the jobs may go to Fredericton to the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, Keith Ashfield's riding, instead.

So rather than enhancing the existing marine-science economy in St. Andrews, the government is simply rearranging the deck chairs or worse. Nothing about these moves makes any sense -- unless one is adhering to a "government is business" ideology. While these changes may look good on a federal balance sheet, they don't make good business sense, let alone protect either us or our environment -- which was why the biological station was built in the first place, and then rebuilt last year.

But one has to wonder, where are all those politicians who made the initial announcements or showed up to cut the ribbons on these new facilities? Where's the local outrage about these changes? Where's the desire to not only make our communities healthier, but our economies and environments, too?

Perhaps it's time to reintroduce the word "conservation" back into the Conservative agenda. Even former (Progressive Conservative) Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, Tom Siddon, agrees. The party might, as the Germans have, find it's also good for business.

And if one doesn't think marine research is good for business, one should really watch the Huntsman video again.