Federal protections for fish

More fish habitat in Canada will be protected from harmful activities under broad changes to the Fisheries Act to be proposed today by the federal government.

Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc is in Vancouver to make the announcement to fulfil one of his mandate orders to modernize the Fisheries Act and restore previous protections afforded to fish habitat before the act was amended in 2012.

The bill will be followed later this week by another one that will overhaul the federal environmental assessment process and National Energy Board, as well as revise the Navigable Waters Protection Act.

Both bills seek to revise changes made by the former government in an omnibus budget bill in 2012 that critics blamed for watering down environmental protections.

Martin Olszynski, a University of Calgary law professor who worked as a lawyer for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans between 2007 and 2013, said at the very least, the new legislation will repeal the changes put in place six years ago.

Prior to 2012, the act prohibited activities that harmed fish habitat anywhere; following the changes, it only prohibited activities that affected fish in commercial, recreational or Indigenous fisheries.

Olszynski cited a number of problems with that, including a lack of good definitions to figure out which fish were covered — trying to "classify fish into those that matter and those that don't" proved quite problematic, he said.

"More substantively, it signalled to a lot of people in Canada that suddenly this prohibition didn't matter," Olszynski said. "So you had what was already a very under-regulated issue which impacts fish and fish habitat mostly as a result of resource development becoming that much less supervised."

He said after the act was introduced the number of projects referred to Fisheries and Oceans Canada for assessment was cut in half.

A clear definition of what constitutes fish habitat is expected with the legislation, as well as more certain guidelines about which projects must seek federal assessment and approval.

Other potential changes could include requiring Fisheries and Oceans Canada to create a registry of all projects that affect fish habitat to better inform future assessments. Better data collection on fish habitat and the health of those habitats is also a possibility.

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