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New Federal Regulations Allow Fisheries and Environment Ministers to Authorize Pollution in Fish-Bearing Waters

Fish-bearing waters are less protected from pollution after regulations passed by the federal government give Fisheries and Environmental Ministers the ability to grant blanket-authorizations to pollute if the polluting activity is related to fish-farming, research, or falls under other federal or provincial regulations or guidelines, which are not legally binding.

“Deregulating pollution in fish-bearing waters is short-sighted and irresponsible. They represent yet another attempt by the federal government to abdicate its responsibility to Canadians to protect fish and fish habitat,” Jessica Clogg, executive director and senior counsel at the West Coast Environmental Law Association said.

Dumping pollutants, such as drugs, aquatic pesticides and biochemical oxygen-demanding matter, into fish-bearing waters is prohibited in Section 36(3) of the Fisheries Act, except with a permit. The new regulations bypass permits and exempt pollution in a wide-range of circumstances, including aquaculture.

The Harper government quietly made way for a major expansion of fish-farming in British Columbia in January after opening the entire coast, excluding the Discovery Islands region, to aquaculture. Critics say the decision to scale up the fish-farming sector ignores the conclusions of the 2012 Cohen Commission report, the result of a three-year inquiry into the 2009 collapse of the Fraser River sockeye salmon fishery.

The Cohen Commission's final report made 75 recommendations which have yet to be implemented by the federal government. In February conservation groups filed petitions with the auditor general of Canada, requesting the Harper government report back to the public on the fate of the Cohen Commission’s recommendations.

Critics with the Watershed Watch Salmon Society fear the decision to expand fish farming on the B.C. coast is putting wild fish stocks at risk.

“The decision to expand destructive aquaculture practices anywhere along B.C.’s coast is a huge betrayal of the concerns raised in the Cohen inquiry,” Craig Orr with the society said.

The 2012 omnibus budget bills C-38 and C-45 eliminated several pieces of environmental legislation in Canada and revised both the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and the Fisheries Act. As a result aquaculture projects, among many other kinds of projects, are no longer assessed for environmental impacts by the federal government. 

The Regulatory Impact Analysis Statement that accompanied the federal government’s new pollution regulations states the new rules will bring greater certainty to the industry.

According to the West Coast Environmental Law Association members of the public are concerned the new rules will limit oversight of potentially harmful pollution.

“What we really need is certainty that our rivers, lakes, and oceans are protected," Anna Johnston, staff counsel at the West Coast Environmental Law Association said.

“Requiring permits for pollution ensures that the regulators are aware of the pollution, allows site-specific considerations to be taken into account and allows for adjustments if any unwanted harms happen. What these regulations really enable is the government’s ability to turn a blind eye.”

Image Credit: lipseyhimsley via Flickr

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