Harper Government Took Industry Advice, Ignored Environmental Groups, on Controversial Fisheries Act Changes

The Harper government followed the advice of industry associations when making controversial changes to the Fisheries Act in the 2012 omnibus budget bills, documents relased through access to information legislation reveal.

Gloria Galloway writes for the Globe and Mail that in 2010, "the High Park Group consulting firm was commissioned by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to gather industry and business observations about the habitat protection provisions of the Fisheries Act."

The released documents show that phrasing regarding changes to fisheries protections "suggest that wording was offered by industry associations," according to Galloway.

Negative feedback from the 23 organizations consulted, including the Canadian Electricity Association (CEA), the Canadian Hydropower Association (CHA) and the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce (SKCC), correlates with changes made to legislation protecting fish and their habitats.

For example, the consultant's report said that "CEA/CHA and SKCC call for modification of the act's definition of 'fishery' to clarify that it refers to 'commercial, recreational, subsistence or aboriginal use of fish as a resource."

One of the biggest changes made in Bill C-38 was, as Galloway points out, the removal of "broad protections that covered all fish habitats," narrowing the focus of the law to protect only fish "that are part of a commercial, recreational or aboriginal fisheries, or to fish that support such a fishery."

Incidentally, the High Park Group reportedly noted that there was a "lack of cogent and substantive documentation of industry positions on the issue" of concerns about the pre-2012 Fisheries Act, as well as a lack of evidence to back up claims including "that it was too unpredictable, that it caused considerable barriers to infrastructure investment, and that it increased regulatory costs and timelines."

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans didn't neglect to also consult with environmental groups about the Fisheries Act, having done so between 2006 and 2009. It appears feedback from environmental groups did not figure as heavily in the changes ultimately made.

In fact, another report released by the department under access to information said that environmental groups called the Fisheries Act "one of the strongest laws in Canada that can be used to protect our environment" and called for it to be strengthened and enforced.

Andrew Gage of West Coast Environmental Law, one of the environmental groups consulted by the DFO, said the Harper Conservatives are "a government listening only to industry concerns."

The DFO reportedly said in an e-mail that they're "still focusing on preserving fish habitat," but using a "common-sense approach that focuses on managing threats to Canada's recreational, commercial and aboriginal fisheries and the fish and fish habitat on which they depend."

Critics of the changes to the Fisheries Act include Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, who said the DFO created "a new definition for what a fishery is and completely [ignored] the comments from a wide consultation from people on the ground who are actually protecting the fishery."

This isn't the first time that the Harper government has proven its commitment to putting 'natural resources development' and industry interests ahead of environmental protection.

Other documents released through access to information requests have already revealed that the federal government solicited industry support for environmental reforms written into the Omnibus Budget Bill C-38. Additonal documents show the government made pipeline development a top priority for that bill, at the fossil fuel industry's request, and further colluded with the oil and gas industry when tweaking the bill's environmental legislation and industrial project review process.

Image Credit: Geoffrey Kehrig / Flickr

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