“The revised section 35 (habitat protection) of the Fisheries Act will come to haunt us in the next decade.”
– Otto Langer, retired DFO officer.
Right – except for the timeline.
A Maple Ridge ad hoc Committee charged with assessing local implications of those changes thinks they’re already frightening. “The Act’s amendments,” it concludes, “shift responsibilities for environmental protection, management, and enforcement associated with aquatic ecosystems down to the province and municipalities, where there is currently a lack of resources for dealing with many of those issues.” This “will have economic, social and environmental implications for the District of Maple Ridge.”
The pre-Halloween bogeyman here is the deletion of words that banned “harmful alteration, disruption, or destruction of fish habitat.” The “ecological linkages” – wetlands, streams, headwaters, and even urban ditches with few fish in them (vital components of the ecology – are intricately connected to any fishery.
Renowned environmentalist John Muir put it this way: “When you try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything in the universe.”
Replacement language that only protects fisheries of “economic, cultural, or aboriginal value,” is an example. The DFO now limits its role to that small sub-group of fish.
It’s bad news for the District. Rodney Stott, environmental planner, who sat on the committee, notes our town has “an appreciative and informed community of citizens, business owners, land owners and stewardship groups that for decades have noted in public polls that they place a high value on the natural environment.”
Says Stott: “We have an abundance of watercourses [more than 600 kilometres] and wetlands within our administrative boundaries.” They “intrinsically contribute towards healthy fish populations, habitat for a wide range of aquatic species, significant ecological processes such as groundwater recharge and stormwater/rainwater management, and quality of life for the Maple Ridge residents. There have been quite a few streams where salmon, trout, and species at risk have returned thanks to the restoration efforts of the district and the stewardship community.”
Local councils have traditionally taken note. “Official Community Plan policies, regulations, and development guidelines” have supported “an attractive, healthy, and sustainable environment,” Stott says.
John Kelly, the committee chair, fears success “could unravel in a hurry” with changes to the act, and DFO’s potential departure from restorative and educational programs like those of committee members ARMS and KEEPS.
“We’ve had tremendous recovery of the fishery in the Alouette because of that broad approach,” says Kelly. “Rod will no longer have the number of DFO people to rely on to make sure development is properly assessed. If the district wants to continue that progressive approach, it will need more staff or raise more taxes. It’s like the federal government is dumping it all on you and me.”
The committee wants concerns addressed satisfactorily before Harper shuts down discussion this fall. It recommends “meaningful public involvement and dialogue” before that happens, “with public organizations, and the public at large.”
Further, the government should “retain the existing protection language for fish habitat and fisheries, rather than changing the act to limit protection to certain fisheries,” and maintain “appropriate levels of staffing support, and resources for community enhancement and restorative initiatives, habitat management, protection programs, and community education and outreach programs.”
To date, Ottawa has not responded to any suggestions, but has held mind-boggling “workshops” to enlist the public’s help in defining fuzzy terms like “permanent damage” and “serious harm” intended to replace the precise, original language of the act.
At the same time, Harper has made it clear the intent of the new words – to enable industry –will not change.
MP Randy Kamp – asked to appear before the ad hoc committee to shine light into these murky waters, failed to explain the scientific rationale for abandoning habitat protection, or to explain how Maple Ridge would be affected.
Coun. Al Hogarth, on the committee, indicated that queries to Kamp were frustrating. “He was reading from notes. I asked if we could have a copy of those and I was denied,” said Hogarth.
Kelly noted: “The only way we are going to get a response is to rally enough people to say this is a serious issue for Canadians.”
Coun. Cheryl Ashlie, also a committee rep, suggested council reach out to mayors. “That would be a way to ignite the conversation in other communities. KEEPS and ARMS can’t do it on their own.”
To protect our watersheds, council must assume the role of spokesperson and offer every local citizen a seat at discussion.
I attended the third ad hoc meeting after arguing this point.
Transparency in governance and democracy are issues.
We have been denied both by Harper, and must demonstrate the right process locally.
Last Monday, folks filled council chambers to protest a gravel pit operation in a residential area zoned agricultural with passion and conviction.
It was an impressive display of democracy in action, and the application has since been withdrawn.
In Maple Ridge, the next challenge is to tell Harper that Fisheries Act changes made unilaterally, behind closed doors, for the benefit of the few, are alien to Canadians, and unacceptable.
Jack Emberly is a retired teacher, local author and environmentalist.