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Maple Ridge, Pitt Meadows regularly clean their ditches

Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield at the pier in Osprey Village on Monday. - Contributed
Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield at the pier in Osprey Village on Monday.
— image credit: Contributed

Pitt Meadows has no problem cleaning out its roadside ditches to keep them free flowing and ready to handle storm surges.

Kim Grout, operations director for Pitt Meadows, said the city regularly cleans out its drainage channels and doesn’t require Fisheries and Oceans Canada authorization to do so.

What it can’t do by itself, however, is alter or clean out silt from larger creeks, such as Katzie or Cranberry slough, without fisheries authorization.

“The only way the Fisheries Act affects us from a ditch-cleaning perspective is we’ve never been able to clean out the big sloughs,” Grout said Thursday.

And right now it’s a matter of waiting and seeing if the new Fisheries Act will make it easier to do that, Grout said.

But with zero slopes throughout flat Pitt Meadows, Katzie Slough is silting up and the city has a “long-standing” interest in addressing that, she added.

Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield said last week in Pitt Meadows that the recently rewritten Fisheries Act should make it easier for cities to maintain their ditches.

“We’ve heard from a lot of municipalities talking about the fact they can’t clean their drainage ditches. It doesn’t, quite frankly make a lot of sense,” Ashfield told a small gathering of politicians and business people.

Pitt Meadows has just completed a study of the Katzie Slough which could be used as background in preparation to cleaning out the slough.

“So there’s a possibility these regulations will help.”

According to Fisheries spokesman Carrie Mishima, the Fisheries Act was changed because the old act applied the same rules to all ditches, fish-bearing or not.

Some ditches throughout the Lower Mainland provide spawning and rearing habitat for fish, while some low-risk ditches have been cleaned out without permits, she added.

Rules and regulations are now being worked out to implement the new act.

The rewritten Fisheries Act soon comes into effect and removes fisheries habitat protection and instead says that no one can do “serious harm” to recreational, native or commercial fisheries.

When ditch cleaning is required in Maple Ridge, an environmental consultant is contacted, explained district spokesman Fred Armstrong.

Work is scheduled, in consultation with the Ministry of Environment and Fisheries and Oceans Canada, during dry periods when it would have the least impact on fish habitat. The system seems to be working well.

While cities wait to see what, if anything will change, environmentalists are more fearful of the long-term effects of the new Fisheries Act on fish and habitat.

“There are a lot of grey areas,” said Andrew Gage, lawyer at the West Coast Environmental Law Society.

“There are so many unanswered questions.”

He says that under the new act, even salmon within a recreational, native or commercial fishery will have less protection under the serious harm test than under the previous act, which banned altering fish habitat.

“The thing that should be freaking everybody out … now anyone can do anything they want – but they violate [the act] once they get to the point of killing fish.

“Do we have to wait that long?”

It’s much harder to prove what has killed fish than to prove harmful alteration of fish habitat, Gage said.

“Salmon have much less protection under this than they do under the [previous] current law.”

While the Fisheries Act has changed, provincial and municipal laws aren’t affected, the lawyer said.

“They do still stand, it’s just that it would be nice to have extra teeth through the Fisheries Act.”

Mayor Ernie Daykin has said he wants the District of Maple Ridge to maintain its streamside protection regulations, which ban development within 15- and 30-metre setbacks from the top of a stream bank.

Gage said the Fisheries Act that made it illegal to destroy fish habitat was one of the drivers for provincial legislation. “So there may be some pressure for them [the provincial government] to move away from that.

But he hopes the federal changes will inspire cities to do otherwise.

“I would hope they would say the opposite, ‘the federal government is no longer protecting our fish, therefore it’s important that we do it.’ “

“One would hope that they would continue to protect fish even if the federal government is taking a less-active role in that regard.”

Gage said ether the government won’t enforce the new act or there will be major litigation as people try to hammer out the definitions.

“There are so many unanswered questions about this. There’s going to be major litigation.”

Gage said the cumulative effects of development can hurt fish.

“Very often, it’s not one big dramatic incident that results in permanent alteration to fish habitat, which is the only thing they’re talking about under the act now.”

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