Alarms ring over budget bill

If alarm bells weren’t ringing before, they should be ringing now. Tucked away, inexplicably, in the 400-plus pages of the federal budget are a series of changes to Canada’s fisheries legislation.

If alarm bells weren’t ringing before, they should be ringing now. Tucked away, inexplicably, in the 400-plus pages of the federal budget are a series of changes to Canada’s fisheries legislation.

Fisheries scientists and environmentalists raised the alarms first — why, they asked, would the budget be an appropriate place to reduce the protection for inland species and reduce the strictures of the environmental review process?

Canadian scientists have already pointed out that 80 per cent of the 71 freshwater species at risk of extinction would lose their legislated protection as a result of the budget bill changes.

“This revision will remove habitat protection for most of Canada’s freshwater fish,” Dalhousie University Prof. Jefferey Hutchings wrote on behalf of 1,000 scientists.

“The revision will also impair Canada’s ability to fulfil its legislated obligations to prevent the extinction of aquatic species.”

Fish and wildlife groups also had questions, pointing out that the fisheries provisions in the budget interfere with a right to public access in the fishery that dates back to Queen Victoria.

They point out that the changes will let the federal fisheries minister give special fishing rights or quotas to particular groups or friends.

The budget changes would also allow the government to finance fisheries operations, using sales of fish or fish quotas to raise funds.

As B.C. commercial fisherman Phil Eidsvik wrote in an op-ed piece that appeared in several Canadian newspapers last week,

“If the budget bill becomes law, Canada’s fisheries will be in the hands of DFO bureaucrats and ministers who want to use fish to reward friends or punish enemies.”

Now opposition to the bill is coming from a strange group of bedfellows: four former federal fisheries ministers, two of them Liberals, and two, Progressive Conservatives.

The four are Tom Siddon and John Fraser from the former Mulroney administration and Chretien-era Liberals Herb Dhaliwal and David Anderson. The four wrote a joint letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper asking where the changes are coming from, and why.

“Quite frankly, Canadians are entitled to know whether these changes were written, or insisted upon, by the minister of fisheries or by interest groups outside the government. If the latter is true, exactly who are they?” the letter says.

“We find it troubling that the government is proposing to amend the Fisheries Act via omnibus budget legislation in a manner that we believe will inevitably reduce and weaken the habitat protection provisions.”

One of the former ministers, Siddon, went further before a federal committee, saying the changes make “Swiss cheese” out of existing environmental rules.

The Harper government counters that it is making “common sense” changes to the legislation.

Common sense also says that Fisheries Act changes should be dealt with in a fisheries bill, with full fisheries committee hearings.

The federal government makes no apologies for bundling the changes into what is meant to be a financial roadmap for the year ahead.

The alarm bells are ringing very loud indeed — and for those who care about fisheries, the ringing may be something of a death knell.

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