Fish habitat is essential for healthy fish populations, and by extension, for healthy fisheries.

Canada is bordered by three oceans, has an abundance of freshwater and supports some of the richest aquatic biodiversity on the planet. It’s clear to see that the responsibility to protect Canada’s waterways and oceans from the pressures of development, over-fishing, pollution and climate change is extremely important. That’s where the Fisheries Act comes in.

Enacted in 1868, the Fisheries Act is Canada’s oldest environmental law, and the principal federal statute that manages Canadian fisheries resources. Originally meant to empower the government to protect oceans, clean water and the habitat fish need to reproduce, grow and survive, much of this changed in 2012 when the federal government of the day enacted a bill that saw significant rollbacks to environmental safeguards.

The rollbacks virtually eliminated fish habitat protection, which is the single most important factor responsible for the decline and loss of fish including our commercial fish stocks. The previous prohibition against the “harmful alteration disruption or destruction of fish habitat” was replaced with a prohibition against serious harm to fish.  We need to look no further than the devastating loss of wild salmon on the Atlantic coast to find an example of what happens when fish habitat is not protected

This is why we’ve spent the last year and half working towards strengthening and modernizing the Fisheries Act.

In February the government tabled two environmental reform bills. Bill C-69 introduced the new Impact Assessment Act and the Canadian Energy Regulator Act, and proposed amendments to the Navigation Protection Act. Bill C-68 proposed amendments to the Fisheries Act.

While overall, we are pleased to see that a number of promising changes were made to help restore lost protections to the Fisheries Act , there remain areas where this bill falls short of creating modern safeguards that will protect fish and their habitats.

That’s why Ecojustice submitted written recommendations to improve Bill C-68. And last week, I went before the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans to present our recommendations and explain what still needs to be done to ensure we have flexible tools to properly protect the health of aquatic ecosystems upon which the fisheries depends.

Here’s what I spoke to the committee about.

Great start but more needed to protect fish

I’ve spent much of my career advising and representing clients on marine species, fisheries, and aquaculture issues and have been counsel on a number of legal cases interpreting and seeking to enforce the Fisheries Act, including the habitat provisions. It’s this experience that gives me the confidence to say that while the amendments proposed are a great first step, there needs to be more significant changes made if we want a truly modern Act that will safeguard fish and their habitat for generations to come.

There are five main areas where we think Bill C-68 can be improved to ensure a legacy of better protected fish habitat and, by extension, better protected fisheries:

1. Adding a conservation purpose in the Fisheries Act

The purpose statement should be changed so that it clearly states that the purpose of the Act is to provide for the sustainable use of fisheries and the protection of fish and fish habitat to better reflect Canada’s commitment to the long-term survival of coastal fishing communities and to the international community.

2. Ensuring that the cumulative effects of individual harmful alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat (HADD) authorization are comprehensively and effectively assessed and addressed

Under the old Act, there was no requirement to consider the cumulative impacts of individual project authorizations. This made it virtually impossible for regulators to meaningfully understand and manage the cumulative effects of harm to fish habitat and the impacts it would have on the health and function of ecosystems. This led to the gradual degradation and loss of fish habitat in many places in Canada.

That’s why we’re urging for the inclusion of a mechanism to assess and manage cumulative impacts to fish and fish habitat.

3. Ensuring that environmental flows and fish passage are protected as aspects of fish habitat

The importance of balancing the flows needed to sustain the health of fisheries, habitats and aquatic ecosystems with the needs of water users is a globally recognized concept. With that in mind, we think it’s of the utmost importance that the new Fisheries Act provide a clear and strong framework to ensure the protection of flows necessary to protect fish and their habitat.

4. Strengthening measures to rebuild depleted fish stocks

Canada’s marine fish populations have declined by 55 per cent since 1970. The need to rebuild fisheries has never been greater. That’s why we were pleased to see that for the first time since it was enacted, there were provisions included that focused on rebuilding fish stocks. But it doesn’t go quite far enough. We’re urging lawmakers to include a requirement to set targets for healthy fish stocks and a time frame in which rebuilding stocks could be expected.

5. Adding climate change as an express consideration in all decision-making under the Fisheries Act

Climate change is well-recognized as one of the greatest threats to biodiversity — this includes the diversity of fish species, like Sockeye salmon.

Impacts on the marine environment related to climate change include changes in water temperature, oxygenation, ocean acidity and currents, which can result in changes in levels of abundance of fish populations, species distribution, biodiversity loss, as well as habitat loss and degradation.

Government needs to make sure that climate change and its effects on fish be factored into decision-making.

What’s next

The committee review process is an important stage in the lengthy process of lawmaking. It’s when government gets the opportunity to hear from experts, communities and industry on their perspectives of what is working with the bill and what isn’t.

While we wait for the committee process to end and the clause-by-clause review to begin, we remain committed to continuing to meet with parliamentarians to make sure they fully understand the importance of a strong Fisheries Act.