An opportunity to speak out

The downside of receiving a Canada’s Recreational Fishing Award (plaque and medal) by mail instead of being able to get to a ceremony where Department of Fisheries and Oceans Minister Gail Shea, herself, might even be making the presentation, is that you don’t get to make a speech.

The downside of receiving a Canada’s Recreational Fishing Award (plaque and medal) by mail instead of being able to get to a ceremony where Department of Fisheries and Oceans Minister Gail Shea, herself, might even be making the presentation, is that you don’t get to make a speech.

But part of the reason for my award is almost 50 years of these weekly columns, so here goes: a speech in a column and vice versa.

The minister’s citation on the plaque reads: “In recognition of an outstanding contribution to the conservation and enhancement of the recreational fisheries, (you have) received this award from the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans on behalf of the people of Canada.”

Excuse me, Madam Minister, but if the contribution was so outstanding, why are so many informed people, respected non-government biologists, e.g., saying that Alberta’s recreational fisheries are now in a state of near total collapse, compared to what they were 50 years ago?

In the last 30 years, most of Alberta’s native fish populations have run into serious trouble through mismanagement, yes, but mostly from mindless habitat destruction by big oil, gas, forestry and mining. The arctic grayling, Alberta’s only native rainbow trout, the Athabasca rainbow, the west slope cutthroat, and Alberta’s provincial fish, the bull trout, are all threatened, endangered and hell-bent for extinction. Even the northern pike’s numbers are down, mainly through the egregious management error of targeting the biggest and best breeders for harvest and then planting too many walleye, Alberta’s favourite fish, because it, too, is in trouble, into pike waters.

Alberta’s formerly top bull trout habitat, the Muskeg River, was “fished out” by native poaching that nobody did anything about, and is now being destroyed by uncontrolled surface practices by big oil, gas, forestry and mining, as is the Little Smoky River, North America’s first catch and release grayling fishery. Hidden Creek, a major cutthroat and bull trout spawning stream in the Oldman drainage, has been seriously damaged by nickel and dime clear-cutting operations on the slopes above it.

Thirty to 40 years ago, Alberta’s Fish and Wildlife Division was the envy of North American jurisdictions. Its fishery management was superb, science driven, and it protected habitat against the abuse of the resource extractors. That got it in trouble with the extractors and with our bad governments that survive only on what the resource exploiters are willing to pay, so successive bad governments commenced starving the F&W Division of money and manpower.

Gradually the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, with federal jurisdiction over Canada’s fisheries and navigable waters, assumed a greater protective and prosecutorial role in Alberta’s waters and fishery habitats. In 2009, it successfully prosecuted CN Railway for a huge spill of bunker oil into Wabamun Lake and the Alberta government for destroying fish habitat along the Elbow River. Most recently, DFO had a part in the successful prosecution of Plains Midstream Canada for its careless spill of oil into the Red Deer River in 2012.

Ironically, Premier Alison Redford arrived at the Red Deer spill site with Diana McQueen in tow, whom she had recently appointed as minister of the newly-combined cabinet portfolios of Environment — Sustainable Resource Development. The total destruction of Alberta’s F&W Division of SRD soon followed.

Tragically, the Alberta Conservative’s anti-conservation virus carried by Stephen Harper infected the federal PMO’s office so seriously that even the number of waters protected by the Navigable Waters Protection Act was greatly reduced. Worse, Section 35 of the Fisheries Act, arguably Canada’s best and most effective environmental protection legislation was gutted, removing from it the clear prohibition against “the harmful alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat,” and substituting loose pap, a prohibition against “serious harm to fish that are part of a commercial, recreational or aboriginal fishery, or that support such a fishery.”

Money is everything here, and the reason for the gutting: we must not interfere with the non-renewable resource exploiters as they get on with their business as usual of destroying the surface, the habitat of our fish and wildlife — and of us — to get at what lies below.

It will get worse under the new premier, Jim Prentice. SRD Minister Robin Campbell worked so hard for Prentice in the recent leadership campaign that he will have to be rewarded with a “more important” cabinet posting than SRD. Besides, Campbell has shown great promise in SRD, pledging to do great things with the habitat, the fishery, and recreational fishing, the kind of talk in Alberta that is guaranteed to get SRD ministers quickly “promoted” elsewhere, whether or not they campaigned for the premier.

Too soon in Alberta, the only angling will be for what a good friend calls “government fish,” pale, puny hatchery rainbows, stocked in soupy potholes. Kindly readers have congratulated me, and I have told many of them some of the above and that it made me consider turning down the award in protest. But then I realized that DFO is no more responsible for its gutting than Alberta Fish and Wildlife is to blame for its own outright murder. One reader I greatly respect wonders how bad things might be if the column and I had not been at it for 50 years and asks: “please keep speaking out with zeal and accurate interpretations of the mess this province is in,” and adds that the light might dawn even after we’re gone.

Bob Scammell is an award-winning columnist who lives in Red Deer. He can be reached at bscam@telusplanet.net.

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