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Proposed Fisheries Act changes seen as positive step — 'on paper'

Ottawa commits to restoring protections slashed by Harper government

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Local fishery observers are lauding the recently proposed changes to Canada's Fisheries Act as a step in the right direction — with a note of caution.

Earlier this month, federal Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc announced the first in a series of long-awaited amendments to the act aimed at rolling back changes made under the previous government.

In 2012, the Stephen Harper-led Conservatives slashed regulations to protect only fish that were part of commercial, recreational or Indigenous fisheries. The government also removed language from the act that protected against the "harmful alteration, disruption or destruction" of vital fish habitat. Both those measures have now been restored, pending the updated act's approval.

But Ottawa is doing more than simply aligning with previous legislation: The Liberals have also promised to rebuild depleted fish stocks, strengthen the role of Indigenous peoples in fisheries monitoring and policy development, and improve transparency with a new online registry that would detail project decisions, among other commitments.

"We promised to not just return to the previous version of the Fisheries Act, but to make the law even better and more effective than before," LeBlanc told reporters in Vancouver at a Feb. 6 press conference.

Stan Proboszcz, science advisor with B.C.'s Watershed Watch Salmon Society, welcomed the announcement, but said there needs to be follow-up from Justin Trudeau's Liberals.

"This is a positive step on paper, don't get me wrong, but we need to see changes on the ground and we need to see, with a great Fisheries Act, that it is enforced."

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) endured major cuts to both budget and staffing levels during the Harper years, cuts that made on-the-ground enforcement challenging.

In the summer of 2015, a pink salmon fishery scheduled for Howe Sound was abruptly shut down after just two days. Initially, the DFO claimed the test fishery was closed when there wasn't "the abundance of fish" originally expected. However, it was later revealed through internal DFO documents, obtained by Watershed Watch and viewed by Pique, that the fishery was ended as a result of violations of the prescribed fishing boundaries and overfishing by commercial vessels. The incident pointed to a concerning lack of enforcement at DFO and the growing influence of industry over fisheries management, according to local conservationists.

"Right now, I know even down in Squamish there's too much stuff to keep track of and not enough staff down there to monitor it," said Sea to Sky Fisheries Roundtable member Dave Brown, who added that, overall, he's "really pleased" the Liberals are following up on a key campaign promise.

The government has committed $284 million over five years to enforce the new proposed regulations.

A glaring omission from the updated act, in Proboszcz's mind, was any mention of aquaculture and B.C.'s controversial fish farming industry. A recent study showed that large numbers of wild salmon along B.C.'s coast are being infected with a virus, the Piscine Reovirus (PRV), that stems from fish farms.

"We know that aquaculture and salmon farming, specifically, does have impacts on wild fish, and they need to cover that off in some form of legislation. Some people were hoping that would be included in the Fisheries Act," Proboszcz said.

There have been discussions around the creation of a standalone Aquaculture Act that would set clear standards for fish farming across the country — although some analysts are worried that the testing of farmed fish is beginning to shift from the DFO to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).

"There were some concerns with that because (the CFIA) is not really involved in protecting wild salmon, they're involved in agricultural products," Proboszcz said.

In 2015, a federal court ruled that the DFO must test farm salmon for PRV before the transfer of young fish from freshwater hatcheries into marine pens.

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