Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield came to Pitt Meadows Monday to defend his government’s changes to the Fisheries Act that remove general protection of fish habitat.
“I believe the times have changed and we have to move on,” Ashfield said following a short speech on one of the piers overlooking the fast-flowing Fraser River, not far from the new residences of the South Bonson area.
Ashfield and local Conservative MP Randy Kamp, parliamentary secretary to the minister, had lunch with Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows mayors and staff in the South Bonson Community Centre before briefly explaining the changes to the Fisheries Act that were part of the omnibus budget bill C-38 recently passed by the House of Commons.
The last substantial change to the Fisheries Act was in 1970, while clauses dealing with habitat protection were added in 1986.
The new bill removes protection from “harmful alteration, disruption destruction” of fish habitat, and instead says no one can cause “serious harm” to native, recreational or commercial fisheries.
Ashfield said over the years the act has expanded beyond that of just protecting fisheries.
“I think we have to come back to our core mandate and that’s fisheries and fish and that’s what we’re proposing with these changes.”
While the law defines the three types of fisheries, regulations and policies still have to be set following consultation with provinces, cities and environmental groups over the next few months.
The new law will allow the ministry to partner with conservation groups, something not possible under the existing legislation, he pointed out.
“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.”
He referred to a swale (shallow ditch) that one councillor showed him that hadn’t been cleaned in two years.
“It should make it a lot easier for the municipalities to do their business, at the same time recognizing we’re not walking away carte blanche,” from protecting fisheries.
Pitt Meadows Mayor Deb Walters wasn’t sure of how the new Fisheries Act will affect the city. “It’s my understanding, it will make it easier for us to clean the ditches,” she said.
Contacted after the speech, Fisheries and Oceans Canada couldn’t explain by deadline the ditch-cleaning requirements under the old or new acts.
Ashfield said municipal laws that protect local streams, requiring setbacks along the shorelines, won’t be affected by the new Fisheries Act.
“That’s perfectly within their purview. We’re not going to jeopardize that.”
He also hopes to form agreements with provinces so their laws can replace some of what was covered by the Fisheries Act.
“They would be the lead. It would eliminate a whole level of bureaucracy and red tape you have to go through to get some of these projects done.”
Ashfield said he made the stop to “dispel some of the rumours” that are taking place.
“Once people realize what we’re doing, they’ll understand it’s probably better for the fisheries overall.”
In his speech, Ashfield said the “sensible” approach will minimize the restrictions on “routine, everyday activities” that have little to do with fisheries productivity.
He said under the old act, farmers were prevented from clearing irrigation channels, municipalities were delayed in repairing bridge supports and drainage ditches and cottage owners can’t keep up their properties, ‘’all because of the existing rules.”
The new act makes a distinction between vital waters and “unproductive bodies” of water such as manmade ditches, reservoirs and irrigation channels.
Ashfield also said it will allow the government to focus on protecting fisheries and set new, clear guidelines for projects near water and establish standards for fish passage.
It makes sense to minimize or eliminate restrictions on every day activities that pose “little to no threat,” while maintaining protection for fisheries, he added.
His speech also noted that conservation groups have also said there’s a better way to protect the environment.
‘Was there a problem?’
While Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield said the new Fisheries Act will help farmers and cities by allowing easier cleaning of ditches, Geoff Clayton didn’t know there was a problem under the old act.
Clayton, of the Alouette River Management Society, said a system was worked out 15 years ago in Maple Ridge, in which any ditch cleaning would be done in the dry season, minimizing any impact on streams that are connected.
When the work begins, the ditches are blocked at one end, to allow the fish to escape out the other, then cleaning begins. When the job is done, the ditch is unblocked and water and fish flow resumes.
“The Fisheries Act has never appeared to very seriously compromise the farming … in the region.”
Clayton said he can’t think of one instance where Fisheries Act regulations affected ditch cleaning.
However, Leo Captein with the Pitt Meadows Farmers Institute, said the current act is “unworkable.”
Any cleaning of main ditches, such as Katzie Slough or Cranberry Slough, requires a two-year study, which can cost the municipality up to $100,000 to identify what fish are in the water before any work begins.
“So that is actually unworkable.”
And that’s required any time cleaning is required. “So that is officially how it is,” Captein said.
That can lead to reduced water available for irrigation, as well as interfere with drainage.
As a result, he had to put a new water-pump system on to his flower farm.
He hasn’t seen the changes to the Fisheries Act, “but in that way, it should be nice.”
He pointed out as long as you don’t clean an entire ditch, the fish will just avoid the area that’s being worked on. Farmers can clean the smaller, roadside ditches without those studies.
Ditches are also an issue for Baldev Dhuga, who has a berry farm in Pitt Meadows. He says they are now filling up with grass and “the city is doing nothing.”
Pitt Meadows did clean it 20 year ago, he said, but haven’t since.
For NDP supporter Bob Goos, who’s been at the recent protests in front of MP Randy Kamp’s office over the Fisheries Act, the definition of what is a ditch and what is a fish-bearing stream is a worry.
“The concern is, what’s defined as a ditch?
“The language is pretty loose,” he said, adding the new definitions could threaten small feeder streams. He cited Spencer Creek which flows through Albion flats. “That’s the issue, if suddenly we wanted to develop it.”
He added that problems concerning restrictions on working in ditches could be a result of over-zealous enforcement rather than the act itself.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada didn’t provide an explanation of general ditch-cleaning regulations, but said that during emergencies, it can give authorization for flood protection work and can respond quickly.