Gutting the Fisheries Act

So long Minister, and thanks for all the dead fish.

GUS VAN HARTEN – Special to Sylvan Lake News

So long Minister, and thanks for all the dead fish.

How did the federal Budget come to this? Among the Harper government’s latest environmental reforms – packed like sardines into the Budget – Canada’s Fisheries Act will soon protect fish habitat only in designated waterways.

It used to be that fish habitat was protected in all the places where fish live. How innocently logical this was. The government has a new message for the fish: stay in your ponds or else.

A matter of fish discrimination

You might ask, aren’t all waterways vital for the fish which live there? Isn’t it hard for a fish to know if a pond is vital or merely a luxury?

Evidently not. Deep in the Act to Implement Certain Provisions of the Budget . . . and Other Measures (Bill C-38) lies a brave new approach to fish habitat protection. Instead of barring destruction of “fish habitat”, the Fisheries Act will now protect only those fish that are part of “a commercial, recreational or aboriginal fishery”. Thus, the government will identify vital lakes and rivers, where fish may live subject to environmental protection, and then tweet instructions to the fish.

This is a terrific vote of confidence in the government, especially in our Conservative leaders. I can see them now. Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield dressed as a grizzly to scare the salmon from their usual spawning grounds. The Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff blaring into a megaphone, “Get back in the lake, or fish heads will roll!” Any fish which disobeys will be bulldozed or poisoned. Vital fish, take heed.

Behold the economist’s logic of deficit cum fish habitat reduction. “Out of the pond Flipper.”

As Minister Ashfield explained: “It makes good, common sense that the government should be able to minimize or eliminate restrictions on commonplace activities that pose little to no threat and, at the same time, maintain appropriate, reasonable, and responsible protection for Canada’s fisheries.”

Thankfully this gibberish makes good sense to fish. If only Brian Tobin and other Liberals spoke fish, they could have told the cod to stay on Canada’s vital side of the line in the ocean, safe from Spanish trawlers.

Note to the Harper government: fish are smart, but not that smart. Like Ministers, they have instincts that are hard to control. Unlike Ministers, fish have a weird, not to say miraculous, ability to return to their natural spawning grounds after years of mysterious but glorious migrations.

Even if the fish could hear you, Minister, they are stubborn. They are set in their waterways and not inclined to take orders from politicians. Give them freedom or give them death.

Also in the Budget, besides amending the Fisheries Act in this way, the government guts the Environmental Assessment Act, revises the Species at Risk Act, repeals the Kyoto Implementation Act, and dumps the National Round Table on Environment and Economy. A film critic would say: too many plots.

The Budget is, in fact, a disguised and brutal assault on Canadian environmental law. It is the mark of a regime that thinks it can make the fish swim on time, and the birds and the bees and all the other animals. It is a Budget in which Nature is subjected to a Finance Minister’s eye for efficiency. Cut non-vital lakes, trim rivers, re-direct fish, let the provinces do the rest (or not; whatever). Next year the government might want to pack all its legislation into the Budget and shutter Parliament for the summer, fall, and winter. To cut costs, a single Minister (of Finance) could run the country.

If Minister Ashfield really has learned fishspeak, perhaps he could try having a word with those pesky F-35s? Otherwise, he should stay in the piranha pool and leave the fish to their lakes and rivers. The rest of us appreciate fish habitat too.

Gus Van Harten is a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School. He studied Canadian environmental law in the days when it meant something. —Troy Media www.troymedia.com.