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Enhancing the protection of fish and fish habitat in Canada: A critical opportunity to breathe new life into failing policy

Although fish and fisheries are an integral part of Canada’s history, culture, and economyprotection for fish and fish habitats has been declining in Canada for at least a decade. The Fisheries Act is Canada’s oldest environmental law and an important piece of legislation that gives the Government of Canada the authority to manage fisheries and protect fish habitat. However to be effective, the Fisheries Act must be modernized, include evidence-based approaches to protecting fish and fish habitat, and restore provisions that were removed in 2012.

In June, 2016 the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans were asked to lead a comprehensive review  of the Fisheries Act and solicit input from  the public and experts. WCS Canada’s freshwater scientists were among the many voices providing recommendations to the committee.  We were also signatories to a joint letter outlining common priorities for the Act’s revitalization to Minister LeBlanc, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard.

 The Committee’s report tabled on February 24 echoes the voices of many concerned Canadians. Its key recommendations are not only to reverse the 2012 changes to the Act, but to take the opportunity to incorporate numerous improvements to strengthen and enhance the original legislation, including a clear legal requirement to recover depleted fish stocks. However, we remain concerned that most of the language around novel considerations and enhancements remains vague and open to broad interpretation.  In addition, there is very little included in the report to guide the formation of a co-management structure between government and First Nations.

Going forward, Fisheries and Oceans Canada will need to continue to consult with experts to transform the following recommendations into a comprehensive law:

·         Restored protections for all fish in Canada. By way of repairing lost protection, the Committee calls for a return to protection of all fish in Canada, and not only those associated with a commercial, recreational or Aboriginal fishery.  The report recommends that any work, undertaking or activity that would result in the harmful alteration or disruption, or the destruction of fish habitat should be prohibited, and that a commitment to the “Net Gain” policies must be renewed in order to shift the agenda from preventing habitat loss and toward habitat creation and enhancement.

 ·         Enhanced considerations for marine and freshwater habitat protection.  Top among required functional enhancement, there is a need for an extended, holistic definition of what constitutes fish habitat, and the adoption of a whole-ecosystem approach for preserving and restoring the ecological integrity of the entire food web that supports fish production. The report promotes a precautionary approach, extending the scope of protections to prohibit not only habitat destruction and alteration associated with projects and land use, but also those resulting from destructive fishing practices and cumulative effects of multiple activities.

 ·         Increased capacity for monitoring and enforcement. In order to promote adequate monitoring of potential project effects and enable the analysis of cumulative impacts, the Committee recommended the implementation of consistent monitoring requirements and a public, accessible database system that will identify the location of different aquatic species, the location, status, and cumulative effects of projects and up-to-date monitoring of aquatic species at risk and their status. With this must come a commitment to the collection of comprehensive baseline data and long-term monitoring programs to allow the determination of habitat changes or harmful effects of activities.

 Fisheries and Oceans Canada is expected to produce a response to the committee’s report before the end of June, and WCS Canada will be working alongside other experts to support and advise the Ministry in that process in tandem with our work associated with the reform of Canadian Environmental Assessment Law.

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